Creating Sanctuary: Interview with Ren Hurst-Setzer of Sanctuary13

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It is rather fun to watch an idea spread. One of my recent personal story-interviews was with Amy Dye, whose decision to rescue and care for two sheep at her home offered a perfect example of a “microsanctuary,” a concept that Rosemary and I have been developing as part of our rescue, sanctuary, and education work with Triangle Chance for All. While we are turning our three-acre property into a microsanctuary for chickens and one day goats and pigs (and perhaps other species), we are also seeking to help other vegans see themselves as caregivers on their own microsanctuaries.

Amy’s story inspired an article on Care2.com by Abigail Geer, which helped to spread the idea of microsanctuaries to a much wider audience … including Ren Hurst-Setzer, who co-founded with her partner Brandy Sanctuary13 in northern California.

Ren’s path to veganism has been intimately connected to her work with other animals, in particular horses. Her story of taking a step beyond non-harming to creating a space of wellness and safety, for non-human as well as human animals, is fascinating to read–and to witness, as Sanctuary13 grows from a vision to a sacred space…

travisIt sounds like your transition to veganism was tied closely to your decision to create a sanctuary for rescued animals. When did you go vegan, and what made you realize the need to stop exploiting animals?

It was actually tied to discoveries I made while trying to build authentic relationships with my horses. I had read in Michael Bevilacqua’s book Beyond the Dream Horse that horses could smell if we were meat eaters or not, and it just made sense that if I wanted to have a real relationship with my horse, it would probably be beneficial not to smell like a predator. As a bonus, my health would probably improve. I had always been open to becoming vegetarian, but that is what motivated me to do the work to make it happen. There is no short answer to this question, as my journey was long and intense to get me where I am today, but my horses have become my equals in every way in terms of our relationships. What they have shown me and taught me through my acknowledging their true nature has made it impossible to not realize the truth: exploiting animals is easily one of the most destructive acts on our planet.

That realization happened prior to changing my diet. I became a vegetarian about two years ago. The switch from vegetarian to vegan is still an ongoing process some days, but I am committed to the full transition. It’s simply taking time for me to change habits, break addictions, develop the skills, and work through the emotional baggage of the past. I have changed so much and so drastically in just the last five years. I really look forward to mastering this area of my life (diet), which has been one of the most difficult for me for as long as I can remember.

Please talk a little about Sanctuary13, your burgeoning microsanctuary in Northern California. How did the idea get planted, and how has the growing process played out so far? Where are you at now, and what are some of your most pressing needs to get started and be sustainable?

In 2012, I became a student of Nevzorov Haute Ecole, a highly advanced school of horsemanship out of Russia. Through my studies there and application of such with my horses, it became completely obvious that domestication in general is a product of ego and a serious setback for human evolution. This is my personal experience, not the actual teachings of the school. Through my past experience with and studies of horses, I already knew that there was nothing biologically different between wild horses and domestic horses. Why then is it so widely accepted to have them in our backyards and use them the way we do when if I tried to do the same thing with a rhino, or even a more closely related zebra, it would be considered a crime? There is no difference. It’s all a crime against nature. I decided that sanctuary was the only viable solution. Not rescue alone, which only treats the symptom, but sanctuary based on results and education, where people can learn and experience something different, something they feel is actually better than the current reality. Take care of what we have, and stop creating more of the problem. We genuinely heal horses here, not just remove them from abusive situations and fix their physical ailments. Our horses are free to express themselves in any way they wish without any fear of punishment, and because of that, they don’t act like your average horses. We don’t use any training equipment or methods. We simply relate to them from a place of authenticity and unconditional love. If enough people can see and experience what I’m talking about, I have hope that it can inspire change in huge ways.

We are just barely getting started and are in way over our heads at the moment. I was a professional horse trainer prior to making a major shift in my awareness through my school horse, Shai. We had 13 horses in our care who were mostly intended to be rehabilitated, re-trained, and then sold. Well, obviously, that was no longer an option with our shift. So we promised them to honor what they had taught us, and we built this idea around them. We were offered an opportunity to work with like-minded horse people in this area, so I walked away from a successful career as a trainer and natural hoof care practitioner, we sold off most of our belongings, and we spent our entire savings moving ourselves and our herd of 13 from Texas to a very remote and off-grid location in Northern California. Nothing has been what we expected, and it’s all been a very beautiful, albeit incredibly difficult, experience. We did not end up working with the other people, and instead found space in our lives to create what we were meant to, which is what will become Sanctuary13. Our name honors the 13 equines that brought us here, but we also happened to land in section 13 of our rural subdivision, as well as on lot number 13 of this section. Coincidence? Doubtful. The numerology surrounding the numbers is pretty spot on as well.

Currently we are living out of a 19-foot travel trailer, solar powered by my very novice skills at setting up such a system. We are working very hard to split our time between making sure the animals’ needs are met, working through these massive changes in our personal lives, and developing this dream of sanctuary. It’s messy and unorganized at the moment, but each day brings more clarity and results. You don’t get 25 animals BEFORE deciding to create a sanctuary without having a massive amount of baggage to unload. Our list of pressing needs is pretty long at the moment. Extra hands and more people involved is a must in the near future, as most of the time it is me against the elements and 25 animals to care for entirely on my own (my partner is a flight attendant and only here about half the time). We just formed a board of directors that will be coming together next week to sign paperwork, and then the real sanctuary work begins.

For sustainability, we’re going to be relying on the programs we develop, which are beyond discussion at this point. This is our life and these animals are our family, so we are committed to doing whatever necessary to care for them regardless of outside funding in the future. This is not about earning a living. The model we are creating is not one that I know to be operating currently in the sanctuary/rescue world, and that’s entirely because of our unique background with the horses. It will be interesting to see where we fit in amongst our new peers.

10153915_1491840011039650_1595996672567491344_nWhere do you see Sanctuary13 five or ten years down the road? What is your vision for the sanctuary after its maturation?

We believe in simple living, and we believe simplicity is the earmark of truth (words by the great Dr. David R Hawkins). In 5-10 years, I see us having a turnkey operation in terms of the animals here having all of their needs met, and our place being a well-organized and well-run facility that operates effortlessly. Our animals are permanent residents, but within five years I would like to implement a foster program to aid other organizations, especially our county animal services, to help place outside animals while using our skill set to rehabilitate those animals and teach other organizations better care practices through the results. I want to keep the organization small because I want this to be a model for what is possible and just how easy it can be to care for animals WELL in smaller spaces than people are used to thinking about. We want to incorporate all areas of sustainability into what we’re doing out here, from our own housing to a very large focus on organic gardening and permaculture. We want people, animals, and the planet to receive equal attention in our efforts.

Though animals brought us to this idea, our sanctuary will actually be more focused on healing people, especially since our resident herd of animals will be in a mostly healed state at that point. We believe that healed people and raised consciousness is the real answer to taking care of the animals, and the problems in our world. Once the animals here have everything they need, we will put a lot of energy into developing programs in experiential education and personal transformation for people. Think of equine-facilitated therapy, but unlike anything I know to be out there just yet. The current model of equine therapy does not fully honor the horse, or even recognize where that horse may not be healed themselves before asking them to be a mirror to a person needing help. There will be no placing a horse in a roundpen so that some strange human can use them as a mirror, a very skewed mirror, to draw out that person’s inner issues. We’re about rising above all that. We want people to find inner peace, to create sanctuary in their own lives—in whatever form they want or need. Unconditional love is the only avenue to peace, and we’d like to teach people how to find the courage to get there through our model with horses.

After maturation, I’d like our team to travel the globe and help other organizations and people implement similar models at their own facilities. We are very much still walking the path ourselves, so this is all very much a developing projection of our current feelings.

You have begun talking about Sanctuary13 as a “microsanctuary.” What does the term mean to you as you are building Sanctuary13? And what role do you see microsanctuaries playing in the future of the vegan and animal rights movement(s)?

I’m sure the size requirements to be considered “micro” will be determined at some point in this movement’s evolution, but for right now I just think of “microsanctuary” as an animal sanctuary that operates on far less land than is considered normal in that industry. And it operates successfully on less resources. Whether by housing fewer animals or by using advanced methods of caring for and understanding them, it doesn’t take nearly as much space as often thought to keep animals healthy and happy—that means a LOT more people can do it, which means a LOT more animals get saved. I think the role these places play will have a massive impact on people. Imagine: If there was a rescued pig in every neighborhood, who was loved and well cared for, and people interacted with that pig … how easy would it really be to go home and open that pack of bacon? There is a huge disconnect for people between the animals they eat and the animals they welcome into their homes, and it simply comes from not understanding their value as sentient beings. If more and more opportunities like that become available, more and more people will see that there is no difference between the cow on their plate and the dog in their backyard.

Vegans who also provide a home (i.e., sanctuary) to farmed animals are not many in number. Why do you think so many vegans avoid adopting farmed animals? Is it mostly a practical issue in your experience (for example, all vegans live in urban apartments and would violate their lease if they got a chicken), or is it also a mentality problem?

10256085_1491246271099024_1422908420512177955_nI have a lot of respect for people who understand just how much of a commitment bringing another being into their lives is supposed to be. It is no simple undertaking to care for animals—they require far more than food, water, and shelter to be fulfilled, happy, and healthy unless they are able to live completely natural lives amongst their own kind, without human intervention (which isn’t likely possible in a micro-environment). The amount of time it takes to really learn about an individual species and provide for its needs is a lot of work, and you have to be passionate about it for it to work out for everyone. I think most vegans who don’t desire to care for animals have no need to change that, and I think that’s a sane decision. They are actually doing a great deal for the planet by simply setting the example in not creating the problem to begin with. Providing a home and providing safety are not the same thing. In the horse world, I see it every day—horses in rescues and sanctuaries who are in pain and probably worse off from their suffering than if their lives had just ended. It’s very common, and I’d prefer to see the rescuing being done by people who are capable and who are not in need of rescue themselves. I’m sure our own horses suffered through the massive transition we’ve gone through in the past year, and that’s nothing compared to traditionally kept horses. I also see a LOT of vegans training and riding horses because they have no idea of the harm that is caused to the animals. Riding horses is no more vegan than eating a cow—it’s exploitation at best and does nothing for the animal’s well-being.

You have said that a primary purpose in starting Sanctuary13 is education. What unique educational opportunities do you see your microsanctuary being able to provide to the public? What are some of your educational goals, and what steps are you putting in place (now and in the future) to accomplish them?

Our knowledge of horses is in no way limited by what we wish to do with them. What I mean by that is most people cut off their learning about these animals the second that it threatens their current reality—especially professionals who0 risk losing their income if what they know becomes irrelevant. We already walked away from the professional horse scene and have nothing to fear. We know what works, and we know what keeps horses healthy and thriving. We have zero vet bills to speak of outside of freak accidents, which are rare at best. We can teach people how to care for horses on a minimal budget and reap giant rewards through these relationships, by loving and honoring these creatures in the most unconditional way. In this way, we help horses in need find non-traditional homes with a new market of horses lovers not attached to the idea of riding, and we raise consciousness through their model of care. This goes for the farmed animals as well—there is no difference, and the more we experiment in relating to pigs and others the way we have learned to with the horses, the more that becomes true. We can teach people what unconditional looks like so that they can take it back home and use it where it’s needed most.

Other educational goals would surround vegan meal preparing, cooking, gardening, and anything learning based that we can tie back to our sustainable agenda.

Thanks for talking with me about Sanctuary13 and your transition to a place of true respect for non-human animals!

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Justin Van Kleeck

I am a vegan (since 1999), a curious skeptic, a bookworm, a nature lover, and your garden-variety neurotic. My wrestling with chaos manifests as writing and, with my wife, tending our friends the plants and spending quality time with our rescued furry kids. I am fun at parties (because I am never there) and so unique that I am easy to forget. So take that, modernity.

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