by Tod Westlake
As James Herriot reminds us in his wonderful book, All Creatures Great and Small, animals come in many different shapes and sizes. It is therefore fitting that animal rescue organizations exhibit a similar diversity. Rehabilitation and adoption techniques that may be right for one type of animal could be very problematic for another. And, of course, mixing together different species in the same facility is not without its difficulties.
This diversity of approaches is reflected by five animal rescue groups here in the Mid-Hudson Valley, each with its own area of specialization. Whether it's domesticated farm animals, the dogs and cats that become members of our families, or the many different birds of prey that call this area home—when an animal or its human caregiver falls on hard times, these groups provide a place of refuge.
Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary
For farm animals of the non-horse variety, Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary (WFAS) is an oasis of love and caring. WFAS focuses solely on those types of animals that are bred and raised for food. WFAS also feels strongly about people adopting a vegan lifestyle, and their tours encourage visitors to take a step back and consider the terribly inhumane ways in which farm animals are treated.
"When we talk about animal suffering in general, the majority of those animals are farm animals," says Jenny Brown, who, along with her husband Doug Abel, founded WFAS in 2004.
Brown says that if you look at a chart of all the animals killed in the US each year, just three percent are those that are killed via hunting, medical experimentation, or euthanasia at shelters. The other 97 percent, one way or another, end up on American dinner tables.
"That's why I chose to focus on the 97 percent, as a true animal lover," Brown says. "These animals receive so little attention."
The American public, Brown believes, "compartmentalizes" the way we actually look at animals: one group is the animals we love—horses, dogs, cats and the like—and the other group is those we eat. And when you witness the way animals are treated in industrial food production, this contrast becomes rather stark.
"The main part of what we do, during the summertime months of April through October when we're open to the public, is to talk to people," Brown says. “They go in with the animals, they meet the animals, they hear their names, they hear their stories. We make them see the animals as the individuals that they are.” Brown feels that factory farming engages in practices that, if they were performed on dogs or cats, would land these facilities in criminal court on animal cruelty charges.
"When they see the animals, we talk about how billions of other animals just like them are living and dying in industrialized animal agriculture," Brown says. Confined to crates, or small pens, many, if not most, industrial farm animals live a hellish existence that most people could barely imagine.
"Everything that makes life worth living for these animals, in industrial agriculture it is denied them," Brown says. “We see them and treat them as production units, rather than the sentient beings that they are."
Oddly, several of the animals at WFAS are what is known as "slaughterhouse escapees." Every so often, in an urban setting, an animal will manage to get away from its handlers. These "prison breaks" become cute news stories in which the general public tends to cheer for the animal and hope that it makes it to freedom—little realizing that the cheeseburger they're eating very likely originated in the same type of facility.
Brown is aware, however, that many people bristle at the mention of veganism. Her husband, Doug, jokingly refers to a group of vegans as a "buzz kill." So, WFAS is aware that they have a tough row to hoe. Still, the message is getting through more and more.
"Religion is a faith-based thing," Brown says, adding that many people openly accept religious tenets based upon their faith. But veganism doesn't rely on faith, she says. "Veganism is a chosen ethical lifestyle based upon facts."
Catskill Animal Sanctuary
Situated just off the Old Stage Road a few miles south of the Village of Saugerties, Catskill Animal Sanctuary (CAS) is a 110-acre oasis for farm animals. Founded by Kathy Stevens and Jesse Moore back in 2001, the farm was originally situated in the hamlet of Kerhonkson, before moving to its present location in 2003. In its 12-plus years of operation, the farm has rescued more than 2,000 animals.
"Kathy Stevens, who is our founder and director, grew up on a Virginia horse farm, " says Michelle Alvarez, communications director for CAS. "So, she was surrounded by animals as a child—horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs. And she developed a very deep love for these animals."
But Stevens also saw the "dark side" of animal domestication through her family's experience of dealing with the horse-racing industry.
"This is an industry that races horses too hard, and too young, and then essentially discards them when they are no longer profitable to their owners," Alvarez says.
After spending about ten years as an educator, Stevens decided she'd had enough of the classroom and returned to what she loves.
"She did some soul-searching and decided that she wanted to do something that would combine her love of animals with her love of teaching," Alvarez says. "So, Catskill Animal Sanctuary was born."
The sanctuary is currently a who's-who of familiar barnyard denizens that have come from all over the eastern half of the country. They have a thoroughbred gelding by the name of Noah who came from a local abandoned farm, a pair of very cute pigs named Nadine and Peggy Sue who hail from Vermont, a beautiful rooster named Poseidon who came all the way from Kansas City, Missouri, and several dozen others, each of whom have their own information page at the CAS website.
Each of these animals has its own distinctive personality, Alvarez says. Thus, part of the CAS mission is to show that farm animals have feelings too, and that they should be treated with kindness and dignity.
"These animals, who are often thought of as commodities, or as entertainment, are sentient beings, intelligent, feeling beings, just like our dogs and our cats," Alvarez says.
CAS is also a place of "transformation", as Alvarez puts it.
"And this is not just for the animals," she says. "But also for the people who come here."
But all of this starts with an initial rescue. Approximately 40 percent of the rescue situations CAS encounters are incidents of "hoarding". If you read the newspapers or watch television, it's likely that you're familiar with this phenomenon in which a person collects more animals than he or she can reasonably care for.
"Many of the animals we rescue have nowhere else to turn," Alvarez says. "And, if you can imagine a horrible animal situation, we have probably seen it. We have seen just a huge spectrum of cruelty and neglect."
Educating the public, then, is an important aspect of the work CAS does. With this in mind, folks can take tours of the farm to meet the animals, and participate in vegan cooking classes. CAS also has a day camp for kids during the summer months, and they have a guest house for those who would like to spend an overnight at the farm, which comes complete with a vegan continental breakfast prepared by the CAS chef.
“The goal is to bring the animals here, to a place of safety, to a place of love. To heal their broken bodies and spirits, and to find them permanent, loving, forever homes,” Alvarez says.
Mid-Hudson Animal Aid
Another group doing yeoman's work in this area is Mid-Hudson Animal Aid (MHAA) in Beacon. In this case, however, it's creatures of the domestic feline variety who benefit from the work.
"We're a free-range, no-kill home to cats and kittens pending adoption," says Mary Ann Bopp, who is a member of the MHAA board. "'Free-range' means that the majority of the cats and kittens have free run of the building."
The main room at MHAA looks a bit like a daycare center, according to Bopp. The room is loaded with cat toys, high walkways, and larger children's toys on which the cats can enjoy some lounge time.
"When you come into the place, it almost looks like a nursery," Bopp says. "It's kind of our cat nursery."
Bopp says that the free-range approach is really much more humane for cats. Those of us who have cats as pets know full well their independent nature—and the fact that they hate being confined.
"We want to give them an environment that is more home-like, and allows people to come into the facility and socialize with the animals, and to see them in a place that replicates how their house might be," Bopp says.
MHAA's no-kill policy means that once they take in a cat, that cat will remain at the facility until it's adopted. Some cats, in fact, are there for quite a few years before finding forever homes.
"We've had several that were here for five years, and another that was here for nine years, before they were adopted out," Bopp says.
They also take in special needs cats, those with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, for example.
"We do have people who come in who want a special-needs cat," Bopp says. "It's kind of like we have a cat for all people."
And all of MHAA's cats are on Petfinder.com. So, if you are looking for feline companionship, be sure to surf over and take a look at what they have to offer.
Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption
Accord-based Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption (RVAA) is in many ways similar to MHAA, only they tend to specialize in animals of the canine variety.
“We are the only open-admission shelter in Ulster County," says manager Jane Kopelman. "This means we will take any dog that needs to be surrendered.”
RVAA's practices differ from other shelters, Kopelman says, in that they will accept a dog without undertaking the usual battery of behavioral tests that are done by other types of shelters.
"If a person needs to surrender the dog, we will take the dog," Kopelman says.
Kopelman says that RVAA accepts somewhere in the range of about 250 dogs annually, but that the community outreach the organization does is part of an overall effort to limit the number of dogs people in the area have to surrender. In some instances, Kopelman says, a person or family may have fallen on hard times and can no longer afford to feed and care for their dog.
"They may not have money for the vet, or they may not be able to pay for food," Kopelman says. "So, we help people with that; we help people with training advice if someone is having problems housebreaking a dog. That kind of thing."
While their shelter services are limited to dogs, RVAA does offer advice and vet services for cats as well. Spaying and neutering feral cats, for example, is one of the things RVAA does to help reduce these populations.
If you are in need of advice, spaying and neutering for your pet, or if you would like to adopt a dog, RVAA is a place you can turn. They will also house a dog temporarily if someone is forced into a living situation in which he or she cannot keep a pet. And, of course, you can see the dogs that are currently available for adoption on Petfinder.com.
Ravensbeard Wildlife Sanctuary
Last, but in no way least, on the list is Ravensbeard Wildlife Sanctuary in Saugerties. In this case, as the organization's name suggests, the focus is on creatures of the wild, avian variety.
"We get about 100 to 150 animals each year," says Ellen Kalish, director of Ravensbeard. "Most of the birds we take in are red tails [hawks] and barn owls. Approximately 50 percent of the animals we get are a result of car strikes."
Thus, the rescue process usually begins when a concerned citizen sees an injured bird on the side of the road and brings it to Ravensbeard. One person, according to Kalish, actually had a hawk become wedged in the grill of her car. Fortunately, the bird was able to free itself. But it was also clearly injured, so the woman called Kalish.
And, even though Ravensbeard's focus is now birds exclusively (they used to rehab wild mammals as well), Kalish encourages people to call if they see an injured mammal. Ravensbeard will help point the person in the right direction.
"We have an entire network of rehabbers for all of New York state," Kalish says. "There are some rehabbers that do only squirrels, some that do only mice, some that do only bobcats."
Once a bird at Ravensbeard reaches the stage where it's healthy, the goal is always to release it back into the wild. But if a bird can no longer fly, or has some other permanent injury, then it becomes a full time resident. The group often takes these birds to area schools in an effort to help educate children about the importance of saving these magnificent creatures.
These five organizations are just a small fraction of animal rescue groups here in New York. The Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, for example, does work very similar to CAS. And this writer contributes to Big Cat Rescue down in Florida; they specialize in lions, tigers, cougars, and the like. All the groups mentioned here, we should remember, are nonprofits. So, even if you can't take in a rescued dog or cat, there is no reason why you shouldn't spend some of your disposable income on a tax-deductible donation. Most of these types of groups receive no help from government, so it's up to us to ensure they can continue their good work.