Sanctuaries: The Forgotten Child of the Animal Rights Movement?

by Kristen Butler

We all seek to work towards a better world—a compassionate, cruelty-free, non-violent one.  A world in which animal rights are acknowledged and implemented, and where human and non-human animals co-inhabit the same planet, even the same spaces, without use and abuse.  A vegan future.

Many of us contribute to this movement in different ways.  Some do outreach or direct action, while others liberate animals (openly or anonymously), organise and visit demonstrations and vigils, carry out scientific studies, do undercover research, create memes, write essays, produce YouTube videos or podcasts, develop and share recipes, produce and sell vegan food, spread the truth about animal injustice on social media, hand out vegan food aid, cook for their families and raise their children on a cruelty-free diet and teach them compassion and justice for all. 

Many people ask ‘What will become of all the farmed animals when everyone goes vegan?’.   Most vegans are familiar with the ad-nauseum claim by non-vegans that if vegans succeed in creating a vegan world, the world will be overrun by farmed animals…but of course this is not the case.  The answer is that we will no longer breed them, and the ending of their exploitation most likely won’t happen in an instant, but gradually.  But – there’s still something missing in the picture.  Even if, in an ideal case, the rate of breeding goes down relative to the animals kept captive, there will still be one generation of animals at farms and CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations, aka “factory farms”), laboratories and breeding facilities, circuses and zoos, who will have no place to go when the people who considered them their property either retire, switch to cruelty-free sources of income, or close down in any other way.

Who is going to take care of all these animals, if not us?  Of course, as this is exactly what we have hoped and struggled for long and hard, it is thus our duty to provide not only a life line, but a life worth living, appropriate to their needs and desires, to these animals.  And so, sanctuaries are needed.

Sanctuaries are the link between the current state of the world, and the brighter future we envision and work towards.  And in order to fulfil that role, to make a transition even possible, many more of them are needed.  And they need support – much more support than they have ever received.  They need huge numbers of volunteers, on-site and for fundraising, financial support, support with bureaucratic jobs, technical jobs – you name it. 

Some farmers have already decided to give up animal farming, either for financial reasons or because they couldn’t face sending any more animals to slaughter.  Many of you will know of Harold Brown and Howard Lyman, both farmers-turned-activists, who have become famous through the amazing film Peaceable Kingdom.  Many of you in Europe will know the film 73 cows, and its protagonists Jay and Katja Wilde, whose Bradley Nook farm is in the process of being turned into a veganic vegetable farm after their cows were sent to Hillside Animal Sanctuary in the UK.  Some more might know about Hof Butenland in Germany, a previous dairy farm which was turned many years ago into a cow sanctuary.

But did you know that even here in Ireland there are farmers already prepared to retire or turn to another source of income, and who have offered to turn their animals – in some cases their whole herds – over to sanctuaries? A number of “Sanctuary Not Slaughter” and “Freedom Not Freezer” projects have in fact already taken place, and many cows have been sent to Hillside as a result.  However, there are more farmers (and cows) waiting – and farmers are not usually willing to wait indefinitely. And…there are no sanctuaries currently in a position to take these animals being offered. 

The two Irish vegan sanctuaries who take in cows, Eden and Heartstone, are already beyond capacity.  Lately, there has been an unending stream of requests to take in calves and other farmed animals.  Both sanctuaries have taken in as many as their capacity allows, but there is a limit.  Heartstone, for example has taken in 5 calves over the past several months, with another on the way—and they are only a microsanctuary, with limited land space and a very limited budget.  Some of their residents are also special needs such as 2 blind calves, a horse and a sheep.  Lack of sufficient support (both physical/volunteer and financial) makes maintaining a sanctuary difficult, some days bordering on the near impossible.

In addition to farms wishing to turn over their whole herds, there are also individual instances of compassion where farmers have asked sanctuaries to take individual animals for whatever reason, when they could have sold them or sent them to slaughter, or cases of individual or small groups of animals who have been saved from the slaughterhouse by activists or members of the public.

Surely, as vegans, we cannot tell these farmers we have no interest in taking the animals and that they will have to just send them to slaughter?  No, it shouldn’t be our responsibility to be financially responsible for and care for these animals until the end of their natural lives, but the reality is the farmers aren’t willing to do it, and if we don’t do it no one else will. 

There are numerous animals, including a large number of farmed animals, especially cows and calves, in dire need of a forever home, and right now we simply do not have the capacity to provide it.

Sanctuaries, by their very existence, help the public mindset to change in a number of ways.  At sanctuaries, animals are cared for and given the conditions to live out their natural lives and nothing is expected back from them.  Many peoples’ primary experience of farmed animals is seeing them in fields as “things” destined to end up on a breakfast or dinner plate.  At the very least, their encounter with animals at a sanctuary plants a seed of the concept that other animals are beings in their own right, not here for our use, and that they have individual personalities, preferences, etc. and are not all alike or just interchangeable beings.  In some cases this encounter can even serve as an epiphany where something “clicks” for the observer, where a connection is made that may catalyze empathy.  

Therefore, the very existence of a sanctuary is a critical symbol, both physically and theoretically, in the vegan movement and in our endeavour to seek justice, protection, and recognition for animals.

But woe to those who think sanctuary caretaking is a dream job full of communing with animals… Try living on a shoestring budget and working 14-16 hour days in the rain and muck!  Yes, it is rewarding, but it’s also very hard work.  Depending on the animals and where they are kept, sanctuary life can entail hours of cleaning out and rebedding stables every single day, often in the wind and rain.  In addition to the daily running which is already demanding, there are usually a pile of extra jobs that keep falling to the wayside since care, feeding, and cleaning are the priorities.  This could entail anything from pulling ragwort to building a shed to improving fencing, scrubbing water buckets, frequent repairs of all kinds, improving lands (reseeding), cutting up fallen trees, etc.

Once-off volunteers are great, but anyone who can commit to a more regular volunteering schedule is particularly welcome.  They can come in and help with whatever needs doing, instead of having to be instructed each time.

At the moment, there are four sanctuaries in Ireland that identify themselves as vegan sanctuaries and publicly seek support.  Two of these are microsanctuaries which entail smaller numbers of animals (though this does not necessarily mean their expenses are less):

  • Back Into Daylight Animal Sanctuary, Co. Meath.  This sanctuary currently cares for over 400 non-human animals (mostly birds).
  • Eden Farmed Animal Sanctuary, Co. Meath.  Eden is home to over 160 farmed and other animals.
  • Heartstone Veganic Microsanctuary, Co. Sligo.  The Heartstone family at the moment consists of 20 members: Cats, dogs, sheep, ponies, calves, cows, and horses, all of whom are provided with (and thrive on) organic, vegan and veganically grown (using stock-free horticulture, whenever possible) sustenance.
  • Little Ones Microsanctuary, Co. Cork.  They currently care for 30 residents: Chickens, dogs, cats, rabbits, African land snails and rats.

Microsanctuaries, while being a large part of the solution and probably the way of the future, may seem not worth, or in need of, much support, but that completely depends on the type, size and needs of the individual animals (and their number, of course, too), and they also have the disadvantage of often not being in a position to register as a charity and thus do public fundraising and accepting official donations, as well as practical issues like not having the means of purchasing bulk feeds, not getting donations in the form of feeds, bedding or other supplies, and not having machinery to work with, for example, large bales of hay or straw.

Some situations may not even refer to themselves as microsanctuaries, as it may just be an instance of vegans taking in a few needy farmed animals and housing and caring for them on their property.  But they, too, are an essential part of the movement.  Every time we provide an animal with a life worth living, removing them from the exploitative system, we are giving sanctuary, and this is significant, at least for that one individual being.

Sanctuaries really need your financial support.  And not just at Christmas.  One of the most important things you can do for a sanctuary is to set up a standing order for a certain amount per month.  This way a sanctuary is able to depend on this money monthly.  And, it does not even need to be a large donation in order to help.  Small, but regular, donations from many people often adds up to more than we would imagine. 

For example, the Dublin Vegans Facebook group has over 10,000 members.  Imagine if each one of these 10,000 people set up a standing order for only ONE euro a month to a particular sanctuary.  If every one of those people donated to this particular sanctuary, that would give the sanctuary a budget of 10,000 a month, which would enable them not only to care well for the animals in their care, but also enable them to consider taking more animals, so more animals get saved.

Photo courtesy of Heartsone Vegan Microsanctuary

Please, let’s not allow sanctuaries to become the “forgotten child” of the movement.  Please consider supporting one of our Irish vegan sanctuaries either financially and/or as a volunteer, or with other services you can offer.  Contact them today to ask how you can best assist them.

Kristen Butler is a long-time vegan, based in County Kerry, who is currently completing a doctoral thesis related to compassion and justice for animals. She also runs a vegan baking business.