|MF: Mike Fry |
BN: Beth Nelson
KS: Kathy Stevens
MF: We’re being joined by a guest I can't wait to talk to.
BN: Kathy Stevens. She is a very talented author. She recently released a book called “Animal Camp: Reflections On a Decade of Love, Hope, and Veganism At Catskill Animal Sanctuary.” Not only is a she a very talented author with some very interesting stories to tell about her work there, she’s also the founder of the Catskill Animal Sanctuary. We really want to welcome you with open arms, Kathy, to Animal Wise Radio today.
KS: I’m so happy to be with you. Thanks for having me.
BN: I just want to open, Kathy, by congratulating you on really a beautiful book. We’re sent a number of books here at Animal Wise Radio, and it took me a while to pick this up and read it, and once I started getting into the pages of it, I started to ask myself the question, “How come such a talent writer is running a sanctuary?” I got over that really fast, because I saw that your heart is fully in your work. Then I went back and looked at some of the media documentation that came with the book and saw that you had been an English teacher for some years.
KS: That’s right.
BN: Maybe you can tell us a little bit about your early inspiration as a writer.
KS: These two things – my love and animals and my love of writing – have been with me forever. I think I loved animals when I came out of the womb, and I had the luxury of growing up on a farm and being around animals from the time I was a very young child.
We all find forms of expression that speak to us, whether it’s music or public speaking or knitting or what have you, and writing has always been something that came easily and readily. In fifth grade I had an extraordinary teacher, Mrs. Eggleston, who had us write frequently.
I remember writing a true story about my Dad and a horse who had been bitten by a snake and wound up dying. The story is the relationship watching my Dad and this beloved horse. It was such a powerful and poignant moment for me, and I wrote this story. I wound up reading it to the whole school. I came back into my little fifth grade classroom, and Mrs. Eggleston looked at me and said, “You’re going to be a writer someday.”
BN: And she was right.
KS: She was right.
MF: Love those teachers who can inspire us in our lives and help move us along. We’ve got a few minutes before we take a break, but before the break, I would like to start getting into the sanctuary. If you could explain where the sanctuary is located, and how you got started in that area of your work.
KS: Sure. The Sanctuary is two hours north of Manhattan. It’s in the Hudson Valley of New York State. As I said, I grew up on a horse farm, but we were always surrounded by many animals, and then I moved to Boston for graduate school and became a high school English teacher. After having done that for a decade, I was invited to become the principal of a new charter high school that was opening in Boston, which is where I was. It was a media and technology high school.
We all have our strengths and our weaknesses – to say that technology is not my thing is the understatement of the century. I am horrible at it. I realized as much as I’d envisioned myself leading a school and potentially a school district, that was the wrong kind of school. It was just a pivotal moment when I realized, as I turned the job down, that much to my surprise I was done with teaching, and it was time to take the next step.
After some soul searching and some long walks in the woods with my dog and conversations with friends, I realized what I really wanted was to combine these two passions I’ve had my entire life – my love for animals and the recognition that they are so much more than most people know with my love for teaching and learning. Catskill Animal Sanctuary became a true teaching sanctuary.
BN: We’re coming up on a break, Kathy, so we’ll have to take a pause. We’ll come back and get deeper into the story of lessons learned, ideas about animals and people, choices people make – there’s so much in this book that I hope we can touch on. Again, the book is called “Animal Camp: Reflections On a Decade of Love, Hope, and Veganism at Catskill Animal Sanctuary.” Our guest is Kathy Stevens.
MF: On the line we’ve got a special guest.
BN: Kathy Stevens is with us. She’s the author of “Animal Camp” and also the founder of Catskill Animal Sanctuary. We briefly connected with her in the last segment and learned a little bit about how she had a pivotal moment in her life where she had to think about what she really wanted to do. Somehow, she decided she was going to spend probably every penny she had on a dilapidated farm in upstate New York and decided to open a sanctuary, which most of us know is absolutely nuts, especially when you’re looking at farm animals. The idea of creating a safe haven that includes farm animals is a mind bender for so many of us.
MF: Farm animals in a cold climate.
BN: I just want to put this out there one more time that this book, “Animal Camp,” is beautifully done. As I spoke to Kathy on break, it really isn’t just story after story about amazing animals or this amazing horse or that amazing goat. She really is trying to guide us through the heart of what this sanctuary is all about and open up our idea about how we as humans can relate to other animals, even those that we look at as farm animals – how we can open up that idea of relationship with these different animals. Well done, Kathy. Thanks again for joining us today.
KS: Thanks, Beth and Mike. I’m so happy for the opportunity, so thanks for finding us.
BN: This was a rewrite of a book you had written early on in the Sanctuary history. Tell us a little bit about why you felt so compelled to push the publisher when they asked you to re-release the book, why you pushed for a complete rewrite.
KS: A couple reasons. One is that I honestly loved my first book. My first book is called “Where the Blind Horse Sings,” and it took people through the journey of the first five years of the Sanctuary. My second book, “Animal Camp,” I didn’t love, to be honest. It was rushed. I had wanted to call it, “The Audacity of Love,” which is the name of a different chapter, and the essence of what the book is about, but I was overruled.
Thirdly, not only had a lot happened in the three years since the publication of the hardcover, but the world has changed dramatically – the world and its understanding of veganism, its awareness of factory farming and what it’s doing to the animals, to the environment, and to us, the interest in veganism – all these things have undergone a dramatic shift since 2010. To me, simply publishing the old book in hardcover would have made for a book that was pretty stale.
I asked them if I could do a major rewrite, and they said, “Yes.” I took out ten of the original chapters, substituted in ten new chapters, a new prologue, a new epilogue, a new jacket, and new subtitle.
MF: Other than that, it’s just a retread!
KS: I didn’t win “The Audacity of Love.” It should have been called, “The Audacity of Love,” but I did not win that.
BN: That can be our little secret on Animal Wise Radio. Tell us a little bit about how you organized it. I think that tells something about your work.
KS: Yes, it does. The first book was organized quite differently, and when I looked at it I thought about how people say to those who work at sanctuaries all the time, “I do not understand how you do this work. There’s so much pain. There’s so much suffering.”
BN: “It’s too big of a job. It’s impossible.”
KS: But there is so much joy. There is so much joy. Animals, as you two know – Mike, you run a shelter and you know – animals have a remarkable capacity to forgive and to start anew. It does not matter whether the animal is a dog or a cat or a cow. That was one big piece. I wanted to communicate the joy of the work, because that’s not something that people coming from the outside understand.
I also wanted to help people understand that this is not simply about rescuing the individual animal. You cannot rescue your way out of this problem until our species comes to a point where we see all life is valuable, where we understand that no matter what one looks like on the outside, we are the same in the way that matters. We are the same in terms of moving towards joy and away from suffering, in forming friendships, and the fact that pain and suffering feel the same whether you’re a human, a cat, or a pig.
Until we understand that and understand that the true way to help animals is by shifting our attitudes and our behaviors so that we are no longer exploiting them simply by virtue of being able to, then we will never be a species that shows true compassion.
I wanted in another section of the book to help people look at the hard stuff. Here are the lives. Here is a little glimpse at the life that a pig endures. Here’s a little glimpse. That was another section. Then there’s a section – this is a crazy life.
MF: And it is! It is a crazy life!
KS: This is a crazy life. There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ day. You do not know what’s going to happen when the phone rings. A phone call can be a game-changer. There’s a section – I don’t remember what it’s called and I don’t have a book in front of me – but it says, “Okay – you want to know about this life? I’ll tell you about this life. Here’s a day, and here’s another day, and here’s another day.”
I would say the book is organized to give people a holistic view of this work from looking into the eyes of a broken being and letting that being know that it is going to be okay, and how transformational that is for me to the challenge of trying to help encourage people to understand the only real way to help animals is to get to a place where we believe that they have every bit as much of a right to live and walk on the earth as we do.
MF: When it comes to topics, some of the more difficult topics – for example, animal hoarding comes up in your book – you’ve got an interesting approach to processing the challenges and difficulties of those situations. Can you talk just a little about that?
KS: I’m not I know what you mean by an ‘approach.’
BN: Let me try to parse that a little bit more. As you were describing some of your experiences with hoarding, a lot of times I think media tends to just focus on the surface of it, which is, “Isn’t it awful? Look at that! Look at that crazy person!”
MF: “Let’s punish them.”
BN: You straight up call it a mental illness. You straight up talk about how we’ve got a long way to go in this aspect of our work, because this is an unending supply chain for you, sadly.
KS: People think – and I’m sure you deal with tons of them, Mike – people think of animal hoarders as ‘crazy cat ladies.’ Animal hoarders hoard all kinds of animals, and if they’re hoarding farm animals, they simply close the barn doors and don’t let anybody look in.
Hoarders, for people who might not know, are people who … it is a mental illness; it has recently just this past year been entered into “the big book” that lists all mental illnesses. Hoarding has been placed in “the big book” which is good, because now treatment can be sought for it.
These people have a compulsive urge to collect animals, despite their inability to care for them. They are typically very psychologically broken people. There’s a level of filth that one can't imagine anybody being able to tolerate. There are often many, many, many dead and dying and injured animals with skin conditions, hoof conditions, malnutrition, and internal and external parasites. It’s a horrible problem.
MF: The point that I would like to get to, and I think it came through in your book, I believe, is that the traditional approach is to look at an animal hoarder and say, “You’re bad. You’re awful. You’re wrong. We need to punish you.” This of course does nothing whatsoever to solve the underlying issue. It does very little to help the animals in those situations. I think you come off as having a more compassionate, more realistic attitude about it, which I think is really an important thing if we’re going to look to solving the problem in a more systemic way.
KS: I agree. Right now, the laws, at least in New York State and in Massachusetts where I used to live, don’t address the problem anyway. In the best case scenario, from the animals’ perspective, a hoarder gets put on probation for a few years and then compulsively starts collecting again, often during probation.
To me, you’ve got to get at the root of the problem by recognizing that it’s a mental illness. Having compassion for the person, treating the mental illness, and then saying this person for his or her wellbeing – not only for the wellbeing of the animals, but for his or her own wellbeing – cannot have animals. I interviewed the authority on hoarding, a vet named Dr. Gary Petronek out of Boston who helped me see that even within hoarding there are …
BN: There are three different categories.
KS: … treatable and less treatable levels of the sickness. It’s not something to be oversimplified. The media does us all a great disservice, the animals included, when it presents the sensational.
BN: This problem has brought more than a few inmates to Animal Camp. You have some remarkable stories about transformation from just the worst to amazing. When we come back from a quick break, I’d like to take a look at your experience in bringing several different animals together at what you did call “Animal Camp” and what some of that taught you and can teach all of us about animals. It’s a great story. We’ll be back in just a moment.
MF: We’re in the middle of a fascinating conversation. Kathy Stevens is articulate, passionate, and a great author.
BN: She’s written a book called, “Animal Camp: Reflections On a Decade of Love, Hope, and Veganism at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary.” If you have read any books about animal stories and have maybe not been sucked in the way you would want to be, I recommend you get a copy of this book, because this one has pulled me in big time. It’s beautifully written. She weaves ideas together in a very, very beautiful way.
MF: It’s not just an emotional book. It seems to really touch at the spiritual nature of who we are as people and how we connect at that level with animals.
BN: Exactly. I wanted to get a little bit more to that piece of this book, Kathy. The section I specifically think of that really jumped out at me was the part about developing the Animal Camp, what that was about, why you even tried to do it, and what kind of things you learned from putting on the Animal Camp. I’m going to hand it back to you, Kathy.
KS: Okay. Thank you for those lovely words. I was tearing up a little bit.
BN: Mike was in the booth last segment. I have to tell you, he was tearing up in there.
KS: As you guys understand, our job in this work that we have chosen is to not only provide for animal’s physical wellbeing, but to provide for that animal’s emotional wellbeing. I describe our work as being much like that of parents. You want the best for those for whom you’re responsible. We love them. And, it’s our job.
In a place where you’ve got a few hundred animals, you cannot say, “One size fits all.” You cannot say, “We’re going to treat the pig this way, and we’re going to treat the chicken this way, and we’re going to put all the goats in this field,” because you know what? You’ve got an old, lonely goat, or you’ve got a pig who is the runt of the litter and is going to be picked on.
To the extent that it’s possible, it’s your job to help animals thrive. That is our job, for the animals in our charge to be as happy as possible, both for themselves and because those are the kinds of animals who become game-changers. They become the animal ambassadors who are such powerful teachers to the thousands of people who come to visit Catskill Animal Sanctuary every season.
We had, and we still have, a pig named Franklin, a cow named Tucker, and a horse – Hope is the only one who is not with us as she has been adopted – but a horse named Hope, and those three were not thriving in their respective herds.
Franklin had been the runt, and as people are familiar with the personality sometimes of the runt of the litter with kittens or puppies, they don’t always thrive. Franklin never developed the confidence to stand up for himself. Little Franklin the pig was always getting picked on and had no friends.
BN: Poor Franklin.
KS: Pigs have the intelligence of young children, so imagine a little kindergartener who is the complete outcast – that was Franklin.
Tucker would have been turned into veal, but instead was bought at auction and went to a petting zoo. He never had the opportunity to experience life in a herd of cows. So for Tucker, it was the same thing. Tucker was picked on. Tucker was an outcast. Tucker was not allowed to eat as much as the others were. He was lonely. I live right on the grounds of the Sanctuary, and Tucker was out in a field right by my house, and he would stare in my window and he would moo his head off, like, “Come play with me!”
BN: What was Hope’s issue?
KS: Hope the horse had been removed from an animal hoarder with a bunch of other horses, and the same thing. She was the youngest in group. She was the leanest, the smallest, and everybody bossed her around, nipped at her, isolated her, and drove her down to the far end of the field.
BN: I’m going to have to insert myself for a moment and say we’ve got two-and-a-half minutes.
KS: I’ll get to the heart of this. My question was, “I wonder if you take these three misfits and you take them away to a different place where nobody is competing for food and you let them live as a unit, will they calm down, develop confidence, and form a bond?”
I just had this big question. Even though horses don’t typically like pigs – horses and cows I knew would be fine, but typically, horses and pigs are not fast friends. Given the circumstances, I thought, “I wonder if personality and history will trump species?”
It did. They became unbelievable friends who ate together, grazed together, slept together. We have such incredible photos, but they were too low resolution to put in the book, unfortunately. Franklin the pig sleeping between Hope the horse’s four legs. We have a video of them where I say, “Come on animals, it’s breakfast time!” where all the animals are charging together out of the woods. They became real buddies. Tucker the cow would groom Franklin for hours. They got so much individual attention from me in addition.
Three months later at the end of this summertime experiment, they went back as remarkably different animals. We weren’t able to keep them together as a unit permanently, so over time we separated them, and they all managed fine within a herd of their own species. It was as if there had never been a problem. It was a very important lesson that we learned at Animal Camp.
MF: We’ve experienced that with doggie play groups at Animal Ark. We see that all the time. These animals who maybe haven’t learned the social skills to be around other dogs or even people, you put them in the play groups, they learn those social skills in that context, and then all of a sudden they’re like whole new animals. They blossom, and then we can get them out of the playgroup and into a home in various situations, and those social skills clearly translate.
BN: We’re going to have to say goodbye, sadly, to Kathy Stevens right now, but you can find out more about Catskill Animal Sanctuary by going to www.casanctuary.org, reading her book, “Animal Camp,” or listening again to this podcast. We thank you for the terrific work that you’re doing, Kathy, by shining a light on these animals and the great spirits that their bodies contain.