Microsanctuaries: A Micro-Manifesto

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By Justin Van Kleeck

As ethical vegans who are also interested in helping animals living in this world right now because of humans, my partner, Rosemary, and I began to rescue farmed animals in order to get them out of the agricultural system—not to give them “better” living spaces in which they were still exploited, but to get them out once and for all.

We started the Triangle Chance for All microsanctuary, and from that The Microsanctuary Movement, around two hens: Clementine and Amandine. All of our rescue efforts on typical “pet” species took on a new quality when we transitioned to farmed animals. Once we rescued these hens from a shelter and began to interact with them as individuals, not as abstract concepts, the notion of being “vegan for the animals” took on a profound new importance.

Living amongst such wondrous beings, we began to reconsider – and to deconstruct – the ideal of an animal sanctuary. In late 2013, we had moved to a three-acre property outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where our view consists of a wall of trees rather than rolling pastures. But, in the course of applying vegan ethical considerations to the two hens suddenly residing in our house, we decided that we could scale the model down and get creative with what we have, not what we think we “should have,” in order to provide permanent shelter and care to our rescues. We began to see ourselves as building a “microsanctuary.”

Much has happened in the intervening two years since the lovely Clem and Am came into our lives. Fortunately, they are still living here with us, along with many other old and new residents of the microsanctuary. In every moment, though, they and the other roosters and hens who live here with us remind us of the value and importance of every life—even the lives that a speciesist, commodifying, cravenly capitalist society tells us are worthless. Baby chickens cost a couple of bucks at most, and roosters are “worth” even less; in a throwaway culture that concocts all sorts of selfish notions about what is “good,” these beings are the lowest of the low.

But to us they are everything.

Let us be clear about this: A microsanctuary is as much about ethos as it is about property sizes and resident numbers. A microsanctuary is grounded on the idea that sanctuary is a state of mind, and building one’s (human) life around the well-being of (non-human) animals is not only important but central to the ethos and ethic of veganism.

A microsanctuary can be any space run by a vegan (or multiple vegans) that is home to rescued animals and emphasizes their health and happiness above all else. So someone with a rescued house rooster is just as much a sanctuary (by virtue of being a microsanctuary) as a million-dollar non-profit with hundreds of acres and hundreds of animals.

This is important: We have to question the conceptual cultural categories we vegans inherit—such as “food” animal and “pet”—and we have to stop accepting the agricultural model as the ideal for these beings we suppose to respect. This is what microsanctuaries are doing.

By throwing out the ideal of what a farmed animal sanctuary “should” look like, Rosemary and I were able to really think about what sanctuary means for the residents and the caregivers in situations like ours. It is a revolutionary relationship and way of living, for modern vegans; it involves completely rethinking our perspective on the world and redefining ourselves in the (radical) role of caregivers.

This sense of dedication to the direct service of rescued farmed animals, as a way to end their exploitation, is what lies at the heart of sanctuary—and on an individual level truly defines a microsanctuary. To understand ourselves as vegans in light of the relationships we have with these beings is not only what defines our existence as co-habitants of a microsanctuary, but also shapes our notion of why we do what we do and where our moral obligations as vegans truly lie: to the animals.

Seen in this light, veganism is no longer so much a negative orientation, in the sense that we are trying to not cause harm or not be part of exploitation. It feels so much more positive to have a direct role in the care of the very individuals for whom most of us went vegan. Rosemary and I are and always have been vegan for the animals; saving and sustaining the lives of as many of them as we can has given our veganism so much more depth, meaning, and relevance.

Make no mistakes here: Microsanctuaries are meant to be radical spaces, just as microsanctuary vegans need to be a radical force.

What we seek is a world in which no individual being is used as a means to an end, and no individual being is made to feel (or be treated as) lesser than for any reason. That will only be possible with a staggeringly comprehensive overhaul of everything that we know in our modern life. It cannot happen if we keep bringing humans into the world as we do, and keep consuming in the ways and amounts that we do, and keep pretending that the human species has some special significance in the universe that makes it more valuable than any other, and keep rationalizing why it is okay for us to benefit from the suffering and exploitation of other beings so that our way of life can keep humming right along.

We as a species, as a culture, as a society, need to learn humility, and we need to recognize the value of other lives as much as we need to understand the tragedy of forcing them, without consent and for our pleasure, into existence.

Cleaning up chicken poop daily is a wonderful way to make that learning happen.

Go do it.

Originally published in Barefoot Vegan magazine, July/August 2016. Download a PDF version of the article here.

Full Text of Justin’s Interview with Yoga International

I was recently interviewed by Kathryn Ashworth, a Producer at Yoga International, for a story she was doing on veganism and animal sanctuaries. Because of space limitations, only a portion of the interview made it into the final article, so Kathryn and I agreed to post the full text here for interested readers… ~ Justin

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1. What is The Microsanctuary Movement? How is a sanctuary a state of mind? 

The Microsanctuary Movement is an effort we started based on our work with Triangle Chance for All to help empower others to rescue farmed animals and self-identify as being part of a sanctuary, both through information and resources and through support networks. We are working on our website right now, but in the meantime we have been trying to share helpful tidbits through The Microsanctuary Movement’s Facebook page and our Facebook group, Vegans with Chickens. Through these and future means, we hope that the movement will inspire many vegans to rescue farmed animals, whether that be a rooster and some hens, or a few goats, or whatever species they can accommodate. To us, this is truly revolutionary because relying on large sanctuaries exclusively means limited ability to rescue farmed animals. Large sanctuaries can usually take in a few hundred animals at most, and so much of their income goes to administrative and other non-care costs. Comparatively, a few thousand vegans each rescuing a handful of animals would open up so much more space and (this is important) resources for care.

To answer the question about sanctuary being a state of mind, we have to first recognize that “sanctuary” is about how one cares for rescued animals and sees them as beings worthy of the utmost respect. Thus a microsanctuary centers on a space that is home to rescued animals and emphasizes their health and happiness. So someone with a rescued house rooster is just as much a sanctuary (by virtue of being a microsanctuary) as a million-dollar non-profit with hundreds of acres and hundreds of animals. I am frustrated by how self-limiting we all tend to be when it comes to our views of sanctuaries. I so often hear people say that they want to start their own sanctuary one day if they win the lottery, but without any clear idea of what “sanctuary” really means to them and how to get there. I was there once, and the notion of a typical sanctuary was so daunting that I did not even know where to start to make it happen. By throwing out the ideal, I was able to really think about what sanctuary means for the residents and the caregivers. It is a very powerful relationship and way of living, as well as a perspective on the world and our role as caregivers.

This sense of dedication to the service of rescued farmed animals, as a way to end (and help ameliorate in some way) their exploitation, is what lies at the heart of sanctuary—and on an individual level truly defines a microsanctuary. This is all about how we approach rescuing animals and accommodating them within our lives where we are now, not where we might be at some undetermined future time.

2. Can you give us an example of one animal you rescued and sheltered recently? How did you find them? What’s their story?

There are so, so many beautiful but poignant stories here at the TCA Microsanctuary, because each resident’s story reflects upon both their unique personality but also the exploitation by humans that they were rescued from. One of the dearest to our hearts is that of Bibi, a tiny little hen who came to us after her three flock-mates were killed by a raccoon who broke into the “chicken tractor” they all lived in in someone’s backyard. Bibi barely survived and was maimed in the attack: her top beak was partially bitten off, a hole was punched into her bottom beak, and she also lost part of a wattle. When she arrived, she was clearly suffering from PTSD; she spent several weeks just sitting in a bathroom like a lump. She started to come out of her shell when we put a mirror in with her, and then she really regained some of her spark when we brought in one of our other hens, Hypatia, to be a companion for her. Now she is a real fireball, with plenty of spunk and attitude. She has had to have several surgeries on her beak since then, and will likely always have trouble eating and require special attention, but she really rolls with the punches.

Bibi’s story highlights so many of the problems with backyard chicken-keeping (for example, she was part of a hatching project in which eight of the twelve chicks who were roosters and so were sent back to the farmer and most likely killed). We feel lucky to have gotten the opportunity to give her a better life.

Another story is that of Plutarch the piglet. Plutarch fell off a transport truck in transit and was taken to a rural animal shelter while still a tiny little guy. When one of our board members, Linda James, discovered him at the shelter, we started scrambling to find placement for him (because we knew we could not accommodate an 800-pound farm pig at our microsanctuary). Richard Hoyle at The Pig Preserve, an amazing sanctuary in Tennessee, stepped up and agreed to take Plutarch. TCA board members Linda and Alan Nelson fostered Plutarch for nearly a month, allowing him to grow bigger and stronger in a loving space, and then several board members transported Plutarch to The Pig Preserve in late December—where he is now the most rambunctious, joyful pig you will ever meet.

His story is sad for so many reasons—not just recognizing that he would have been killed in a matter of months for his flesh, but also realizing that he was stolen from his mother at such a young age and never got to know that nurturing parental love as he grew. Animal agriculture is a story of broken families as well as torture and death, and Plutarch’s experience makes that abundantly clear.

3. What do you mean when you say, “veganism is the only satisfactory response to the suffering of non-human animals”? What about humanely raised animals?

There is no “humane” way to eat or use a living being or the things that come from her body. There is a persistent effort in our society to assuage our discomfort with harming other animals by coming up with slightly less bad ways to do the things that make us uneasy. There is no longer any doubt that, as a species, humans can thrive on a plant-based diet and have no need to exploit other beings for our benefit. That recognition of our ability to live without directly harming other animals has to frame this entire discussion about whether or not it is possible to exploit those beings “nicely.”

It takes little time researching the practices of every agricultural industry to see that animals are commodities, not individuals. You cannot justify killing a living being who is not in pain many, many years before he or she would naturally die. But that very thing happens with cows, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits…any animal used for food, really. There is a vast difference between when an animal is at “market weight” (i.e., when they are old/large enough to slaughter for prime profits) and when an animal is at the end of their natural lifespan. Chickens can live up to 13 or 14 years, for example, yet “broiler” chickens raised for meat are slaughtered after six weeks. Even dairy cows, who are supposedly given a better life because they are not raised for meat, still end up as hamburger after their milk production declines after a few years. It makes no sense for a farmer or corporation to keep feeding, vetting, and otherwise dealing with an animal who is not at peak production. If you want proof of this, research what happens to “spent” laying hens, whether they are in battery cages or so-called “free-range” farms, once their egg production declines after a couple of years—if they even make it that far.

As for chickens naturally producing eggs, which is a common misconception, it is helpful to understand the biology of a modern domesticated hen. The wild ancestors of domesticated chickens, which are wild jungle fowl from South Asia, lay at most ten to fifteen eggs per year strictly for reproduction. In contrast, domesticated hens have been selectively bred and genetically altered by humans to produce 250-300 eggs per year. This genetic manipulation has turned hens into victims of their own biology, leaving them trapped in their  own bodies, and it is directly responsible for the fact that most hens die before age five because of reproductive system complications (especially cancer). So to say a hen “naturally” produces the eggs humans eat is to utterly twist what “natural” actually means. There is nothing natural about a domesticated hens’ eggs, just as there is nothing ethical about eating them. Whenever a human eats a hens’ egg, whether it came from a battery cage or a backyard flock, they are perpetuating this inescapable suffering that hens endure.

Veganism is the only answer to this situation because there is no good way, no ethically defensible method or process, to exploit other beings for our benefit. Period. Once you accept the fact that animals exist for their own reasons, and have as much right to live as individuals with their own autonomy, then the question of how they are exploited is a moot one. One cannot exploit another being and pretend that one is being nice about it. One cannot justify using other animals when the only reason for doing so is personal tastes and habits and a refusal to look past the traditions and corporatized narratives telling us we need animal products to be healthy. To do otherwise is to turn individuals into objects, and that can never be justified.

4. What about people who say that they can’t afford to not eat meat due to health issues? 

In almost all cases, health arguments for eating meat or other arguments are based on ignorance of actual human nutrition, an attempt to excuse away a desire to eat animal products, or a combination of similar factors. I recognize that some humans may have such severe health issues that eating a plant-based diet is extremely difficult, just as I recognize that many humans live in food deserts and have a huge challenge just finding adequate food to feed themselves and their families. But the majority of us have the capabilities, both in our physical needs and our resources, to stop eating animal products. This is even true for athletes who put their bodies in much more rigorous and demanding physical conditions. There are vegan ultra-marathoners, bodybuilders, mixed martial arts fighters, NFL football players… It is abundantly clear, looking at living breathing humans, that being athletic does not prohibit being vegan.

5. How do animals, particularly the ones we classify (culturally) as less important (pigs, chickens, cows… etc.) give your life meaning? Why do you connect with them as individuals when so many see them as food?

Being vegan for us is centered on the idea that other animals deserve as much respect and consideration as our fellow humans.  Living with and rescuing animals (in particular farmed animals), however, reflects the fruition of our ethical principles put into practice. This is especially true for farmed animals because all of us, even vegans, have accepted the idea that they are somehow different than dogs, cats, and the other species we classify as “companions.” They live on farms somewhere out in the country and are owned by farmers … unless they are lucky and go to a big farm sanctuary that is also out in the country and run by a different sort of farmers.

It would be hard for us to pinpoint a reason why we connect with farmed animals as individuals, except to say that it is an entirely impossible task for us to do otherwise. Humans have desensitized themselves to violence and exploitation, in particular by compartmentalizing them so as to ignore or forget them. We, and other ethical vegans, are not able to do that any longer. Taking that to the next level, we are committed to helping as many animals as we can get the respect that they deserve by getting them out of the exploitative systems they are trapped in. Getting involved with farmed animal rescue and care has led to a profound shift in how we see ourselves as vegans. It is no longer so much a negative orientation, in the sense that we are trying to not cause harm or not be part of exploitation. It feels so much more positive to have a direct role in and responsibility for the care of the very individuals for whom we went vegan. All of us at Triangle Chance for All are and always have been vegan for the animals; saving and sustaining the lives of as many of them as we can has given our veganism so much more depth, meaning, and relevance.

6. What do you think it will take to finally convince people that this is a social crisis? Is the solution simply a matter of leading by example?

We have to do the work and reach the humans we can but not wait on others to make change happen. This means focusing on helping the victims of human greed as much as possible while also advocating on their behalf. It often seems that no one ever listens, and that we are losing the battle to make a society that is kind to all beings. But whether or not we achieve our goals, we have to do the work and strive as hard as we can.  Otherwise we can be sure we will lose.

I do not think leading by example is enough, though it is important. We have to feel within ourselves the urgency of non-human animal liberation because it is far too easy to deprioritize or forget their suffering. Empathy is important, but it is not the same as experiencing what they do, and I think this is a large part of why so little has actually changed with how humans treat other animals. So I think “what it will take” is some sort of crisis that makes consuming animals immediately harmful or impossible. Even with as many vegan products and resources as we have available now, vegans are still a tiny minority (about 2.5% or so) of the American population, and this is true globally as well. It is not a matter of practicalities.

I try hard not to be a pessimist with this whole issue. Humans have a hard time acknowledging crises until they significantly affect the humans (especially the humans with the most power and privilege) themselves. That is why it is so crucial for those of us who do get it to both advocate to other humans and act to make change happen for the individuals who suffer—whether that means helping others go vegan or rescuing animals from exploitation. Advocacy and leading by example are not enough; activism, whatever that means for you (be it protests, disruptions, leafleting, rescuing animals…), has to be a key part of how we live in the world as vegans.

7. Do you practice yoga? If so, how does your practice influence your activism?

That depends on how you define yoga, I suppose. If you mean mat work, Rosemary and I, as well as board member Linda Nelson, practiced yoga for years before starting TCA. We all saw yoga as a practice while also taking seriously the principles behind it. For example, ahimsa is a principle of not harming that (we feel) provides an imperative for being vegan. This is why Jivamukti Yoga, for example, includes veganism as a component of the practice. It is a shame that more modern yoga traditions and practitioners do not recognize this.

You could also see what we do as a form of karma yoga, of course. As someone who studied and practiced Buddhist meditation for many years, as well as yoga, I feel very strongly that our “practice” is most important when it is actualized through our ways of living in the world. What we do in private on our mats or our cushions should be a foundation for how we live in and influence the world around us.  We should also do more to acknowledge how intentional acts of service, compassion, and justice are essential components of a practice of ahimsa.

The Boys

Autumn and Salem of Triangle Chance for All. Photo by Rosemary Van Kleeck.
Autumn and Salem of Triangle Chance for All. Photo by Rosemary Van Kleeck.

Autumn (foreground) and Salem of Triangle Chance for All came into the Microsanctuary at different times, from different places, but when both were adolescents. After a few weeks of socialization, they became best friends. Now they are almost never apart.

Every evening when we bring people inside for bed, we typically take Autumn in first. Inevitably Autumn makes a fuss until we bring his buddy inside, and Salem runs up to us when we go to get him, expectantly waiting to be picked up and carried back in to see his friend.

The bond between these roosters is absolutely charming, just as the larger rooster flock they are a part of is delightful to behold. Our cultural assumptions and notions about roosters are sadly shallow reflections of their true personalities. Living with them as we do, as vegans, we cannot but appreciate their beauty … and feel dismay over the fact that so many see them as merely unwanted “byproducts” of the eggs they eat.

Autumn and Salem are individuals, and they are a pair. They are not, and never were, mere byproducts.

Michigan Microsanctuary: Interview with Rachel Waite of Vegan Michigan

It has been an eventful few weeks for us with our farmed animal rescue, Triangle Chance for All. We just took in four more chickens, including two young roosters who will be the start of our first rooster flock. We have also been receiving much more attention for our “microsanctuary” concept, including an article at Our Hen House and an exciting grant award that has helped us to launch The Microsanctuary Movement.

We feel that microsanctuaries can be a powerful source of inspiration and support for people who are thinking about rescuing farmed animals, or who are already doing it. Rachel Waite is one such person. She shared her excitement with us after finding a movement, an identity even, that made it clear she was part of something bigger … that she was not alone in turning her home-space into a sanctuary for ducks, chickens, and goats.

Rachel also founded Vegan Michigan as a way to educate her community about veganism and provide support networks for those making the transition, as well as those who already had. I was very interested to hear more about her experience with these two–in my mind closely interconnected–activities on behalf of the animals…

microsanctuary10Please share your story of going vegan. When did you make the transition, and what motivated you to stop using animals for your own benefit?

I grew up in a typical meat-eating family, but after an influential summer camp trip at age 10, I met a camp counselor who was vegetarian and told me about factory farming. When I returned from camp, I announced to my family that I was starting a vegetarian life. I spent my early tween years organizing an online group called “Veggie Club,” which I used to distribute vegetarian related e-newsletters to fellow vegetarians I met online, and we even had a website back when domains were free. Back then even vegetarianism was quite rare, and especially veganism. I used PETA’s web resources a lot because they were one of the only groups back then with a strong online presence. I’ve been veg now for 18 years, but it wasn’t until 2013 that I finally took the leap towards full veganism. With my decision to go vegan I feel like my ethical convictions are now totally aligned with my values, and that is very good feeling. I knew when I went vegetarian that I didn’t want to support animal exploitation, but without taking the full leap to being vegan it is impossible to avoid exploitation.

What has your experience been like as a vegan in Michigan? Is it particularly hard, or do you have a lot of resources and a strong vegan community around you?

There were a couple times previously in my teens I thought about veganism but I experienced major push back from my family and dropped the idea. I didn’t have any vegetarian family or friends for years and definitely didn’t know any vegans. My biggest regret is not going vegan sooner, but I realize now how important having the social support of other vegans can be in making this kind of life-changing, ethical decision. This was one of my major motivations for starting the Michigan-based nonprofit organization Vegan Michigan. Michigan has a decent-sized vegan community in the bigger cities, and the vegan restaurants and businesses have been increasing significantly in recent years. There are not a lot of restaurants that are 100% vegan, but a lot of places are at least offering significant vegan selections due to increased demand. A lot of groups and individuals are working hard to do “restaurant outreach” in our area and educate businesses about why they should carry more vegan options.

You founded the group Vegan Michigan to promote animal rights and cruelty-free lifestyles. What motivated you to organize your outreach efforts in this way? How has the response been so far?

The social and community aspect of veganism is really important because it aids people in being able to take that next step. This was a major motivation in organizing Vegan Michigan as a collective. There are many people who are already vegetarian or leaning in this direction but they feel alone in their convictions and are not able to take “the next step” towards adopting the vegan lifestyle. I want to educate individuals, advocate for animals, and build community among vegans. The community aspect cannot be over emphasized, as I believe this is key to creating lasting change and supporting each other in our common goal of ending animal exploitation and promoting veganism as the path towards achieving this goal.

We’ve had an extremely positive response to our efforts thus far. Many people have contacted me about volunteering, guest blog writing, working events, or helping us with our efforts in other ways. The vision for Vegan Michigan is to be a collective, not a top-down organization. We hope to continue to increase our stakeholders and contributors and want everyone to feel like they have an equal stake in the organization. Veganism isn’t about me or you or any one person playing the big shot. It’s about doing what’s best for the movement and for the animals.

What sort of goals do you have in the near future for Vegan Michigan and for yourself as a vegan advocate?

We plan to increase our presence at local community events in terms of educating the public about a vegan diet and lifestyle. We have a large-scale event planned for June 2015 called the All for One Festival, which focuses on yoga and healthy living. The event will highlight vegan cooking and food, animal-related nonprofit groups, vegan-friendly businesses, free yoga, and veg movie screenings. One problem I’ve noticed with many vegan events is that they are organized by vegans and only vegans show up. That is not an effective way to do outreach if the general public is not attending the events. In terms of building up the already vegan community that may be a good strategy, but Vegan Michigan is interested in reaching out to the general public and convincing more people to adopt a vegan diet and lifestyle. We are structuring our events to appeal to the general public so that non-vegans attend and are able to learn more about veganism.

As far as goals for myself as an activist, I attended the 2014 Animal Rights National conference this July and learned a lot and met some awesome activists in our movement. I’m planning to also attend the World Vegan Expo in March and continue to expand my activist strategies and skills to bring back and use in our efforts with Vegan Michigan.

I also know that you have your own microsanctuary for farmed animals, including chickens and ducks. How did you get into rescuing farmed animals as a vegan?

About a year ago I started dating my boyfriend, Ryan, who is also vegan. Ryan is heavily involved with animal rehab and rescue at the Lowell Farm and Wildlife Center. As a vegan, working directly with animals is something we are all drawn to do, and almost every vegan I know dreams of “someday” opening their own animal sanctuary. The microsanctuary concept empowers vegans to make “someday” into now. We don’t have to own a million acres of land or have a million dollars to offer sanctuary to rescued farm animals. We can do this on a small scale now with the resources we do have.microsanctuary2

We started off building our microsanctuary with a few Pekin ducks who were rescued from wandering on the highway in the winter. These are the kind of ducks people raise for meat or eggs; they were surely not being fed well and wandered off. We freerange the ducks during the day, and they have never left the property. We have a large shed in our yard that we turned into an animal barn for the ducks. We later continued to add more rescued animals whom we found out about because of our connections with the wildlife center. We added six chickens and three goats. The goats share the barn with the ducks and the chickens have their own custom-made coop and run. We built the goat enclosure ourselves with supplies we bought from Lowe’s. I’m not a country girl—I was born and raised in the city—but I’ve educated myself on farm animal care with the help of my supportive boyfriend, and together we are caring for the animals we have here.

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How does your own microsanctuary inform your work as an advocate? Do you see the two as being interrelated in any way?

I definitely feel closer to my passion for ending animal exploitation because of the microsanctuary. Every day I am reminded by these amazing animals what I am fighting for. My work as an animal advocate and having a microsanctuary are two things that definitely can and should go hand in hand.

Have you seen other people undertaking similar efforts where you live by seeking to provide permanent homes to rescued farmed animals while committing to not using them? Are you noticing any sort of increase in the number of people doing what you do on a larger (national or international) scale?

The microsanctuary concept really has not taken off around my area. There is still a lot of confusion around when it is okay to use animal products and when is it not okay. For example, a lot of people house chickens in order to use their eggs rather than just for the pure joy of housing the chickens. While the ethics of using a backyard chicken egg is better in comparison to using a factory farmed egg, either way the animal is only being appreciated for what he or she can give us and not for what he or she is. Animals are not ours to use and should be respected as sentient beings.

As a vegan advocate working hard in the community, I am sure you know that there a plethora of approaches to getting non-vegans to make the transition. What sorts of strategies have worked best for you? Where would you like to see the vegan/animal rights movement head in the future?

I am acutely aware of the differences of opinion between vegan activists and the different approaches being used. For Vegan Michigan, it was intentional that we used the word “Vegan” in our name rather than the more common “Veg” because we felt that “Veg” gives the impression that either vegetarian or veganism is the goal rather than veganism. However, we also recognize people make their own choice in terms of how to get to this goal and whether to take steps or go “cold turkey.” We support all steps towards veganism, but we make veganism the clear goal in our efforts to educate individuals. We also don’t shy away from talking about the health or environmental benefits of a plant-based diet. I’ve known people who adopt a plant-based diet for reasons other than ethical ones and later come around to what I like to call “the truth.” I’d love it if every single person responded to the abolitionist model, but I don’t think everyone responds well to that approach even though to me personally it makes the most sense.

microsanctuary7While I consider myself an abolitionist at heart, it is hard to stomach the idea of making zero welfare reforms in the meantime while we continue to fight for a vegan world. We have to think about what we can do to help animals now while at the same time promoting a consistently vegan message. I really believe that veganism is the ultimate promotion of compassion and nonviolence, but some key activists are very critical of each other in a way that doesn’t promote these ideals. In the future, I would like to see the welfare reformers and abolitionist vegans working together more and less criticism and division within the movement. I really believe we all want the same thing and that is to end animal exploitation.

What are some of the biggest challenges and/or issues that vegan advocates need to be addressing?

There are SO many things that need to be done. We are at the very beginning of a major social movement: the animal rights movement! We have the animal sanctuaries, we have the lawyers, we have the grassroots nonprofits and vegan meetup groups, we have the bloggers, we have the career activists, and many many others fighting for this cause every day. I think every person in this movement plays a critical role since we are a growing movement! I think bringing more attention to the exploitation and putting that information in front of people is the key way we will increase support for our movement. These types of outreach efforts, I believe, are critical in reaching non-vegans. I also think continuing to build community for those who have already made the decision to be vegan is important as well. One of the worst things to hear is that someone “was vegan” or “tried to be” but didn’t have enough social support.

How might we best inspire other vegans to take part in rescuing farmed animals from the agricultural system and becoming caregivers? Do you see this as having a key or marginal role in the larger effort to end exploitation?

I post a lot on social media about the animals we have here at our microsanctuary. I hope to inspire other vegans to house rescued farm animals rather than continuing to view farmed animals as the “others.” We happily adopt and foster dogs and cats but somehow view farmed animals in a totally different light. Even as vegans we can be guilty of viewing farmed animals this way. When people see pictures and videos of these amazing animals living happy lives this helps improve even non-vegans’ appreciation and compassion for farmed animals and hopefully brings them closer to making that connection.

For me personally, starting the microsanctuary has played a key role in strengthening my conviction as an activist. The animals inspire me every day to keep on fighting the good fight and to be the best version of myself. They make me want to work harder as an activist and motivate me to do what I need to do for the movement. In the larger effort to end exploitation, if the microsanctuary concept really took off, it could have a profound impact. I will certainly be doing my part to promote the microsanctuary movement to my fellow vegans as I know firsthand what a rewarding experience this can be.

Thanks for speaking with me about your microsanctuary and your work with Vegan Michigan!

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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!

The Recluse and the Rescuer

Originally published on the Vegan Carolina blog.

017It is 6:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, and I am carrying a screaming (not squealing) potbellied pig named Lola to the car. I will spend over thirteen hours that day taking her to her permanent home at PIGS Animal Sanctuary in West Virginia, after having rescued her from sad conditions and having cared for her for two weeks prior …

Three years ago, this scenario would have seemed entirely foreign and utterly intimidating to me. I have been an ethical vegan since March 1999, but most of that time was spent in isolation—as the only vegan I knew wherever I lived, and as the only member of a one-person household. My dedication to avoiding a part in the exploitation of non-human animals was (and always has been) central to who I am … but the notion of bringing others into my life was another story.

I mention all of this in a past-is-prologue sort of way simply to throw into relief that image of me with a screaming pig in the wan, pre-dawn light. Thankfully, Lola was not screaming because my novice hands had an improper hold (I managed to master pretty quickly the art of picking up an unwilling pig), but because pigs simply do not like to be picked up.

I know this now, both from research and from experience, much as I know that roosters make a particular sound when they find food for their hens, baby goats suck down a bottle at light speed, and rescuing animals in need is perhaps the most satisfying activity one can do as a vegan.

* * * * *

My wife, Rosemary, and I each had dreams of starting an animal sanctuary before we met in cyberspace, and eventually in person. She was the one who actually set my feet walking on the path of rescue, though: a little over a month after we started dating I rescued a deaf former bait dog whom I named Iris, and it was all a fairly quick transition from isolated hermit to animal caregiver.

Once we moved to Chapel Hill (a return for both of us, but in different ways), we quickly realized that there was an urgent need for rescuing farmed animals in the Triangle. After helping secure a good future for a white goat named Lily and then for Bubba the famous ram in Durham, we started thinking seriously about putting more—and better organized—energy into getting farmed animals off the agricultural assembly line.

Thus was born Triangle Chance for All. There was and has been an astounding response to our efforts to rescue and provide or secure permanent sanctuary to farmed animals, and to couple that with outreach and education to promote a vegan lifestyle. For us, the two are intimately connected: rescuing farmed animals helps individuals but does nothing to stop a system of exploitation, and focusing only on advocacy leaves many individual animals with no chance for a better life.

1014944_585913268181570_2850846520415736500_oFor me, vegan advocacy is filled out, completed, and made fully consistent by this life of animal rescue and care. Although it is a very new way of living, I find it very natural to live in a home that is also our microsanctuary for rescued farmed animals (along with our own rescued cats, dogs, and rabbits). It also makes sense to be building a community around this twofold idea that veganism is the only satisfactory response to the suffering of non-human animals and rescuing individual victims of that system is a worthy endeavor to pursue as a vegan.

I could not have imagined myself saying any of that three years ago. And I am sure that many people reading this feel the same as I once did. After all, many of us might see cats or dogs as a little intimidating but still a normal part of your average household. Farmed animals, however, are often viewed as “other,” even by vegans: they live on farms somewhere out in the country and are owned by farmers … unless they are lucky and go to a big farm sanctuary that is also out in the country and run by a different sort of farmers.

But what if every vegan extended their circles of compassion and companionship to include, actively and directly, the millions of farmed animals who somehow get a chance to get out of the exploitative farming system? What if more vegans considered a flock of chickens in the backyard or a couple of sheep out by the garden normal … not “other”? What if more vegans began to see themselves as caretakers of their own microsanctuary, be it on half an acre or a dozen acres?

How much good could we, the ones who already care about the well-being of farmed animals, do for individuals who have been bred only to suffer and die for human ends?

* * * * *

The day after my trip with Lola to West Virginia, I spent another twelve hours in the car transporting an injured rooster from Georgia to Carolina Waterfowl Rescue. While I was driving on Monday, TCA rescued two more (very young) chickens from a local shelter, and we were all preparing for a bake sale through which we could spread the word of veganism over a vegan cupcake or cookie … And while all of this seems normal now that I have committed myself to the life of an animal rescuer and advocate, I still occasionally reflect back on where my life was just a short time ago and remark on how quickly things have changed.

The deep contentment and peace I feel now, beneath the frenzy of rescuing animals and helping to run an organization, to me reflects the fruition of my principles put into practice. It makes me feel, finally, that I have an answer to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “most persistent and urgent question”: “What are you doing for others?”

And I am grateful for that.