Every year, we go with our friends from the Chicago Vegan Family Network on a road trip to Michigan to visit the beautiful SASHA Farm Animal Sanctuary outside of Ann Arbor. We’ve taken this trip since our son was about four or five and now, at 12, he is still full of unbridled – in other words, distinctly un-tween-y - excitement every year when it’s time to visit again. Having visited so many times, taking the quaint, tree-canopied roads and turning the corner at the sign that announces to the world that we are entering a safe haven, going to SASHA now feels something like coming home.
Over the years, I’ve heard some animal advocates speak belittlingly about sanctuaries, implying that they are simply vehicles for money-making and attention-seeking, which I reject as cynical and bitter, as well as those who question the good sense of maintaining an expensive endeavor that can only give refuge to a very, very small number of animals when billions are killed for food each year. Wouldn’t our time and resources be better spent on something that offers the possibility of more relief to more beings? I agree with this enough that my time is centered on trying to educate the public about animal agribusiness and how to transition to veganism. At the same time, though, it is my view that sanctuaries have an essential role in the animal rights movement and it is a role that extends far beyond the coordinated rescue efforts and the small population of animals who are given refuge within their borders.
The most obvious purpose beyond providing lifelong sanctuary to those in need of it is to give these individual ambassadors and survivors a chance to create change in the lives of those who meet them. Far away from the forces that anonymized, exploited and commodified them, at sanctuaries the animals can blossom, shine and be themselves. These individuals and their truly inspiring ability to shake off the hellish shackles of oppression they once knew and embrace their new lives are a bittersweet reminder of our own lack of ability to move on from hardships. On some of the animals, we can still observe the imprint of their former lives: holes punched in ears, horns removed, beaks disfigured – these are reminders of the everyday violence they endured as objects-in-the-making. Despite this, though, they have moved on.
At a sanctuary, you can find hens and roosters taking dust baths, goats jumping, climbing and playing, cows relaxing under the shade trees as if they’d only always known such peace. To see the animals unfold into themselves in such a setting underscores why we do the work we do. Seeing these animals, when so much of what we do feels like an uphill, relentless battle for which we are ill-equipped and far outnumbered in, deepens our commitment. For non-vegans, it can be even more powerfully moving. They can recognize these animals as individuals. They can see their personalities, how they move and communicate, how they are distinct from one another within their own species. Meeting the animals, an omnivore can make connections and, we hope, have the kind of personal growth that can lead to a deep transformation.
On a more subtle but equally meaningful level, though, what sanctuaries are doing is modeling a way of life and a high-minded philosophy brought down to earth and put into practice. Sanctuaries are an oasis on earth, showing what a life without using others might look like and how an ethic of non-violence and non-exploitation might manifest. Many people are so immersed in our culture’s prevailing template of domination that they cannot imagine a world beyond that imprint of exploitation. At a sanctuary, people can observe what this looks like to co-exist without taking what isn’t ours. It’s such a simple idea that it’s actually revolutionary.