Stevens left her teaching career and, along with Jesse Moore, founded Catskill Animal Sanctuary in 2001. It has been at its current location since 2003. Dino, the sanctuary’s first resident, survived a Brooklyn fire that killed 23 other horses. In the nine years since CAS opened, nearly 2,000 animals in need of a place to heal from abuse, neglect, or abandonment have come to CAS. Most have been rehabilitated and adopted. Each animal’s individualized care at CAS includes generous room to roam, a special diet, medical care, and the loving attention of staff, volunteers, and visitors. In addition to caring for the animals, CAS provides educational programs for the community, including vegan cooking classes and tours on Saturdays and Sundays from April through October.
Stevens has penned two books: Where the Blind Horse Sings (Skyhorse Publishing, 2007) and her most recent work, Animal Camp: Lessons in Love and Hope from Rescued Farm Animals (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010). Both works tell the ongoing story of the sanctuary and the animals who live there. I spoke with Stevens on the grounds of CAS in August. For more information: www.casanctuary.org.
What’s your typical day at work like?
If there’s one truth about animal rescue, it’s that no two days are ever the same. The typical day has something atypical in it everyday. This is essentially a farm, it’s just composed of rescued animals, and the day begins very early and ends quite late. My typical day is to come down and do the morning check-ins to make sure there are no issues from the previous day, to make sure nothing’s happened in terms of health care or a weird animal drop-off in the middle of the night. I suppose I’m the “big-picture” girl—the one with the vision and voice, whose primary roles are to nurture and support my lovely staff in their roles—farm manager, animal care, buildings and grounds, outreach, education—and to keep everyone’s eye on the prize: more compassion, less suffering. Other than that though there’s a lot of unpredictable stuff. The best-laid plans change regularly—somebody dumps 16 fighting, bleeding roosters at the top of the driveway, or somebody drives down with two boa constrictors in plastic bags.
How did your love of animals evolve into the founding of CAS?
I grew up on a horse farm, so I was lucky to be around animals as a child. I’ve always had a deep connection with animals and love for animals. I was a teacher, and after I completed my 10th year I was offered a job as a principal of a new high school. It was a very pivotal moment, at which I could have stayed in education, which is what I always envisioned. When I found myself turning down a role that I thought I wanted, it was a time to say, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” What came to me, after a few months of taking lots of long walks with my dogs, is that I wanted to combine my deep love for animals and a recognition that they’re so much more than most people have a chance to realize, with my belief in education. So I started looking at ways of combining those two passions in one entity, and CAS was born.
What do you view as CAS’s responsibility to the community?
We’re a large animal rescue—large in terms of our capacity to take animals and care well for them. It’s our job to do everything in our power to say yes as often as we can. We have a nine-page waiting list, so to always be expanding our capacity without ever losing that individualized care, that’s our signature—knowing every name, knowing their histories, knowing what makes them unique from the others.
The second piece is ultimately more important, and that is to be the voice that says to people that kindness is a universal value, and it’s generally a value that we hold so close and we don’t make exceptions to it. As human beings it’s important to most of us to consider ourselves kind people, and to act in ways that are kind. Where we stop is with our diet. We participate in the consumption of food in a way that causes suffering you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. Why on Earth would we want to subject 100 living things that feel pain and suffering the same way we do to a life of torture from birth to death? As an educator, I can’t say it like that to people. That’s too confrontational, too threatening. I think you have to be a voice of compassion and a voice of encouragement.
How do you go about engaging people in a dialogue about rethinking their diets without being confrontational?
The way we try to do it is by providing a place for people to come where they can be thrown off guard, because they don’t expect a sheep to walk up to them and demand a massage and they don’t expect a turkey to want to sit in their lap. You have to meet each person head on. I call it meeting each person at his or her own state of readiness. If a defensive person comes down, that first meeting is probably not the time to engage in dialogue. What I want to do is make sure that that person has a deeply personal experience with a pig or with one of the food animals. I get them here on this ground with me and watch this pig be so delighted to see them. I never want people to feel judged or threatened. I want people’s hearts to open. If every single person who drives up that driveway has at least been touched enough to let their guard down and acknowledge their participation in enormous suffering, then that feels like a huge accomplishment.
How do you handle witnessing cruelty in everyday life when you can’t always intervene?
Rage doesn’t work for me. There are plenty of people who do what I do who do walk around in a constant state of rage. I feel my feelings very deeply, and if I feel anger or sadness I feel it very intensely; it moves through me very quickly and then I get right back to my natural state which is a state of joy. That’s the only way I can function. I think it’s the only healthy state. It’s the only way you can last in this work. I don’t want to take anger and rage into that barn. Joy is the only emotion that serves me and serves these animals.
In the first part of Animal Camp you take three animals of different species away from CAS for the summer to live together. What was gained from that experience?
What we learned was fascinating! Generally, on a farm one groups animals by species, and in the case of Tucker [cow], Hope [horse], and Franklin [pig], they were such outcasts in their herds. We learned that sometimes needs transcend species. All three of them gained a lot of confidence and Franklin shed his knee-jerk timidity and belief that any other animal was after him. The summer away at camp gave them all confidence and a new standing to come back and ultimately be a part of a group of animals of their own species.