Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Why Sanctuaries Matter...

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.

Each year as we return, it is clear that we are entering a world far removed from our busy urban lives and not just because of the roosters crowing in the background. It is also in the way we can breathe a little deeper and relax whatever muscles we subconsciously tighten just co-existing in a world that is so profoundly in conflict with our values. At these visits over the years, many people have commented to me how peaceful and at ease they feel at SASHA, and partially that’s because it’s a very tranquil, beautiful place, but I think that the peace comes from us finally being able to let down our guard and breathe in a welcoming space where we don’t need to defend ourselves against the routine violence that is so very entrenched in the world outside its gates. At a sanctuary, it takes a moment to notice that we are feeling something different from our ordinary experience and that is when we notice in comparison how ill-at-ease we are as vegans when we are not in such an exceptional environment. There is no assault, nothing we need to move on from, nothing we need to avert our eyes from seeing. All individuals here have found a safe place to land. Our eyes can rest everywhere without a painful reminder of the violence that is so normalized elsewhere.

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.

This is what peace looks like. This is what love feels like. This is why sanctuaries matter.


  1. [ Smiles ] Those animals look happier at the sanctuary.

  2. I have been trying to visit Sasha with my husband now for over two years, and I've been turned down every time, with them saying there has to be an event planned on the calendar in order for people to visit.

    So how do you do it???

  3. Sandy, I'm sorry to hear that. I know that they discourage people from visiting when it is not a planned day. We have been kind of grandfathered in because we've been visiting for so many years now. Do you live close enough to become a volunteer? I'm sure you would have already thought of that but it would be a good way to visit if you did.

  4. I live in Chicago, and when we visit to MI we are many hours away from Sasha, so volunteering isn't an option either.

    Oh well. Maybe one of our visiting weekends will coincide with a scheduled day at the sanctuary. It just sucks because there are none in Illinois that I know of, and while I understand that these animals need their peace and quiet, it's tough to get a handle on how awesome the sanctuaries are if there are very few options to visit one.

    Maybe next year I will meet up with a friend from Ontario Province and spend a weekend in Woodstock. But that's very iffy too. :(


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