Rewilding our Understanding of Animal Rights

Nía Ní Gréine of Heartstone Veganic Sanctuary talks about her new funding appeal and the importance of providing the best quality of life possible for rescued animals

Rewilding will be a term familiar to most of you, not least since controversial writer and environmental campaigner George Monbiot made it the focus of his work, and our very own environmentalist and vegan visionary Randal Plunkett handed a whopping 750 acres back to nature and made them Dunsany Nature Reserve, facilitating the restoration of natural ecosystems, nurturing biodiversity, sequestering huge amounts of carbon, and allowing native wildlife populations to rebound, while actively – and with a lot of effort – protecting them from hunters.

Marc Bekoff, another name most of you will have heard of, a well-known biologist, ecologist, animal expert and activist, extended the concept of rewilding in his book “Rewilding Our Hearts” to include human emotional life and interactions with nature, ourselves, and each other, proposing the idea of “becoming re-enchanted with the world, acting from the inside out, and dissolving false boundaries” in order to truly connect with both nature and ourselves.

Continuing this line of thought, I would like to suggest extending and applying the term to an area held most dear by most of us – namely, Animal Rights – especially in the context of sanctuaries.

It occurs to me that many sanctuaries – even vegan-run ones and those calling themselves vegan – operate along principles that (in my humble opinion) would qualify as animal welfare, rather than animal rights. There can be an assumption that it is sufficient for rescued animals to be alive, safe, fed, and cared for, with perhaps some enrichment, exercise and (ideally) company.  A life between a warm stable at night and usually rectangular, uniform fields for grazing, or paddocks where no grazing is available, during the day.  While this situation probably seems fine at first glance, to my way of thinking it is not in accordance with the concept of animal rights.  If we acknowledge and respect animals’ individual rights, we need, I feel, to provide them with as much physical freedom, freedom of choice, and freedom to entertain and express themselves as possible – as well as safety.

Of course, we cannot just set them free.  I wish we could!  They could potentially become a danger to themselves or others, especially since many so-called ‘farm’ animals have been selectively bred for human profit to the extent they are not only suffering by their physical nature, but have also become incapable of surviving without human assistance. But, in my understanding, we need to make sure they are able to exercise their natural behaviours like roaming, choosing their friends as freely as possible, deciding for themselves how to spend their days, where and with whom; and entertain themselves in a way that is appropriate to their species and individual preferences.  In short, to ensure a life to their personal liking, a life truly worth living – whatever that means to them personally.

This idea, of course, first of all requires companions of the same species.  In the case of herd animals, this would ideally be a large number of individuals.  Cows are decidedly unhappy in groups smaller than three, at the very least, so they can choose their friends and keep their distance from those they don’t resonate with.

It also requires an extensive amount of land – diverse and ideally biodiverse land – in order to increase variety in the animals’ diet, the intake of phytonutrients, and to allow for self-medication. If at all possible, the land should also offer different kinds of habitat like forests and meadows, hedgerows, water bodies, and elevations and depressions, to allow for the patterns that form so easily whenever a herd of horses or cows, or a flock of sheep or goats, are allowed to choose their whereabouts freely.  Large areas of land – and I am talking hundreds, if not thousands of acres – would offer individuals of the respective species the opportunity to form herds and flocks to their liking, and to build those precious relationships that flourish only when individuals can choose for themselves whom they spend their time with.

In comparison with this understanding, the situation in many sanctuaries is like a golden cage, or, to take a slightly more elaborate comparison, a human prison.  The inmates are alive, safe, fed and provided with medical care.  They can exercise in a usually rectangular yard.  They share their lives and even their bedroom with a person they are not able to choose, and more.  The analogy of course does not apply in all respects, and some prisons don’t provide all of the above either, but you get the idea.

What we need, is, in my opinion, to rewild our understanding of what animal rights means, and to apply this new, widened understanding to the practical care of rescued animals, metaphorically, and to some extent literally, rewilding the situation these animals find themselves in after they have been saved from abuse, suffering or death. We need to rewild our own concept of what they need and want to live a fulfilled life – even having found themselves in captivity at a sanctuary, rescue, or private home.

Of course, the purpose of this article is not to blame or even shame those who are doing their very best for rescued animals, and who naturally have to work with whatever land and finances are available to them.  Many of you will be aware that even my own little vegan (and organic) sanctuary, Heartstone, is far from offering what I am asking for.  Heartstone, too, needs much more land, not only to be able to offer a lifeline to more animals, especially large ones like cows, but just as importantly, to improve the quality of life of the current residents.

Instead, the purpose of this article is to encourage you all – and especially those rescuing and caring for rescued animals – to check in with ourselves, whether we really, truly, put all possible effort into offering current and future survivors of human use and abuse the best possible life.  It is too easy to fall into the trap of assuming the above-mentioned situation is enough, ie. ‘alive, safe, well-fed and cared-for’.  In my opinion, it is not.  If you agree with me, and we acknowledge that fact, we might be able to find new ways of drastically improving the animals’ situation, to maybe fundraise for more land, to maybe focus on fewer species but allow those to form friendships the way they want to; not us.

Without being able to put a name on it, this concept has always been my vision and guidepost for animals rescued and those in my own care, even before I became a vegan and animal rights activist 23 years ago.  Today, it is still my intention to be able to provide as many rescued animals as possible, with an emphasis on farmed animals, with a life they would choose over any other if they had the choice.

And here we come full circle to the environmentally and climatic essential concept of re-wilding, which we need to embrace with a full heart and all our capacities since it is – along with the end of animal agriculture and fossil fuels – the most effective and safe way to reduce the horrendous effects of climate breakdown to a level humanity will, hopefully, be able to survive.  With enough land at our disposal to fulfill the promise the philosophy of Animal Rights makes, the rescued animals will not be resource-intensive and detrimental to biodiversity and environmental goals, but beneficial instead, playing an active part in the restoration of ecosystems, in the same way wild ponies help to restore the New Forest in England.

But, in order for this to come to fruition we will need vast stretches of land.  Otherwise, we will re-enact the false narratives of “regenerative” or “holistic” grazing that have long been proven scientifically incorrect.  Large herbivores like cows usually have a very detrimental effect on soil health, biodiversity and wildlife, and cause much more emissions than they could ever help sequester.  Thus, we need to have sufficient land available to allow for re-wilding at a significant scale, while allowing for a better realisation of animal rights at the same time.

Many of you will have seen the fundraiser for the extension of Heartstone. There, we are talking of 25 acres we urgently need to acquire.  Of course, 25 acres is by no means approaching the scale I am discussing.  The additional land is intended as an immediate fix to the most urgent problems Heartstone faces, namely, the massive overuse of the current lands, which has literally destroyed them, and the long list of precious souls on the waiting list with no other place to go in Ireland or beyond.  While our friends at ‘Sanctuary Not Slaughter’ were able to send more than 200 cows and calves to the UK over the last couple of years, this opportunity has now dried up.  British sanctuaries are beyond capacity.  And yet, at any given time we could be saving dozens, if not hundreds of calves and cows from slaughter, if only there was a place for them to go.

More and more farmers are trying to get out of animal agriculture, transitioning to more sustainable and ethical sources of income.  Others don’t go that far (yet), but at least don’t want to send specific individuals to “the factory” – usually disabled animals, like the blind Heartstone girls Ivy and Angel, or “useless” bull calves on dairy farms, like Ernie, Stevie, Mike and Bailey.  Then there are the so-called dairy cows some farmers want to grant retirement, instead of reaping the extra benefits of having them killed at the end of an already torturous life.  The list is long, and even longer the list of those individuals who could be saved but won’t be if we don’t make space and increase our capacities, funds and volunteers to take them in.  The same is true for sheep, donkeys, horses, chickens, turkeys and pigs and many other animals.

A shift is occurring, and from my perspective, we (vegans) need to support it in every way we can. This responsibility includes offering a life to those who might escape the system – and along with it, an untimely (and terrible) death – and taking care of them in a truly ethical way, embracing this new concept of what their rights should encompass.  Thus, the 25 acres we are currently fundraising for will be an immediate fix, but won’t solve the long-term problem.  Nonetheless, it is absolutely needed!

The additional land will also be developed into a model of what we are, in the medium-term future, planning to put into practice on an even larger scale.  As well as sanctuary space there will be an area to be re-wilded.  Bog lands will be restored in order to sequester carbon and support wildlife and biodiversity.  Hunters will, of course, be kept out.  Part of the land is designated as “Special Area of Conservation” and holds a “hunting prohibited” status already.  The land also offers areas which will be reforested, either with native species or edible forest-garden crops – specifically nuts, fruit and edible leaves, as well as nitrogen-fixing plants for natural binding of nutrients available in the soil.

From a broader perspective, the future of sanctuaries will need to be, I feel, what has been referred to as “Vegan Mergers: Sanctuaries, Veganic Land ‘use’ and Biotopes” – a holistic concept of a peaceful, nonviolent, mutually beneficial, human co-existence with nature and our fellow animal beings, or, in the words of James O’Donovan of Nature Rising: “Humans learning how to make space for other species while producing plenty of healthy food”.  To me, “making space for nature” in this case encompasses re-wilding huge parts of our land, reforesting it where needed, restoring bogs and other natural habitat, and – in terms of food production – agroforestry, forest gardening, permaculture, veganic methods, no-dig growing, a focus on perennials and other truly sustainable methods that do not take more from the land than they return, while actively improving soil life and, most importantly, leaving the carbon in the ground.

To wrap it up, the 25 acres we are fundraising for are an essential stepping stone to get to a point where we can actively merge all those concepts essential for the long-term survival of humankind, along with all those animals we bred into existence and made dependent on us.  A truly vegan organic sanctuary space, re-wilding, and sustainable food production in the truest sense making the above-mentioned concept of a holistic co-existence of human and non-human animals, as well as nature herself, a lived reality, and freely passing on the knowledge gained in the process to everyone who is willing to listen.

Please help us to be able to take that step, and the ones after that.  No-one else but only vegans will support a vegan vision of the world.  While environmentalists will agree with re-wilding and other ecosystem-related aspects, only we – vegans and animal rights activists – see the need and responsibility to save those beings who are being freed up, not only by our own efforts to spread veganism, but also by the demands that climate change, its social and economic effects, the ongoing catastrophic species loss, and the biodiversity crisis, are putting on humanity and the planet itself.

Or, simply and poignantly put by Randal Plunkett: “We can save the animals, but what are we going do with all these animals if people stopped eating meat tomorrow?  We can’t go kill them or we would be no better than we were before.  So it’s important to save as many as we can save.”

Only a few organisations see and work towards this broader picture, integrating the individual goals of the environmental, climate and animal rights movements, and share this holistic vision that in my understanding is so desperately needed.  Animal Rebellion Ireland and Nature Rising are two who do – which is the reason I consider them, alongside Dunsany Nature Reserve, as the currently most important vegan projects in Ireland.  Do you know of any others?  I would ask you to please support them!

From a Heartstone perspective, of course, your support is encouraged, and needed, not only financially but in all of the ways you might be able to help.  Share, volunteer, cooperate with us if you have any way to spread the word, or skills that would be useful in the realisation of any of the plans mentioned above.  Amazing and incredibly kind people have already offered their help, and we are blessed to be a small but passionate and committed team of qualified people – one of them being Randal Plunkett – who truly see, and wholeheartedly, tirelessly, and with a lot of sacrifice, work towards the bigger picture.  Let’s create more vegan sanctuaries! And make them “Vegan Mergers”.

In my humble opinion, there is only one way to get from where we are now to a sustainable, ethical, vegan future: Re-wilding of soil and soul.  Or as Monbiot put it: “Re-wilding the land, sea and human life”.  And that naturally includes our life philosophy, activism and interaction with those rescued.

To let Randal have the last word, and please, let it sink in, as there is nothing to add to that:

“We are coming to a global crossroads, either we as a species change, or we perish.” – Randal Plunkett, 21st Baron of Dunsany

Thank you!

All photos courtesy of Heartstone Vegan Sanctuary, with kind permission.

You can donate to the Heartstone funding appeal here.