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Lessons from Kathy Stevens’s Animal Camp

Kathy and Jesse havin' some face time

Kathy and Jesse havin’ some face time

On a rainy evening last October, over 100 folks found warmth and cover at Loft 56 in Midtown Manhattan as we gathered to listen to Kathy Stevens, founder of Catskill Animal Sanctuary, discuss her latest book, Animal Camp: Lessons in Love and Hope from Rescued Farm Animals. Stevens shared a story called “The Audacity of Love,” about Rambo the sheep who is adored by both Hannah the sheep and Barbie the hen. The tale spoke of both cross-species love and jealousy and shows the complicated emotional lives of these rescued animals. (Check out SV’s Patrick Kwan’s short video montage of the event.)

Animal Camp is Stevens’s second book, following Where the Blind Horse Sings. It is perfect for anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to run an animal sanctuary, and also a heartwarming and accessible introduction to the lives of farm animals.

The first part of Animal Camp focuses on three outcasts–a pig named Franklin, a cow named Tucker and horse named Hope–who had a difficult time adjusting to their new home at CAS and fitting in with others of their species. Stevens decides to set up a “summer camp” for these three at her partner David’s place in High Falls, NY. There, they would get individual attention and she could search for answers to her own questions:

“I wondered whether, and how, the weak ones from their respective herds would bond. Would a lonely horse and a picked-on pig become friends? Would they gain the confidence that they needed to fare better back at home, or would they cower once more as soon as they returned?”

The second part of the book begins after the three animal campers are brought back to CAS. This section is comprised of short essays about other CAS residents and daily life on the sanctuary. In the introduction to Animal Camp, Stevens mentions another book that inspired her: The Good Good Pig, by Sy Montgomery, the story of a pig named Christopher Hogwood.

“I laughed and cried my way through The Good Good Pig and strongly suspect that more than a few readers gave up eating bacon and pork chops after putting down this delightful work. Why? Because Montgomery made him real for us.”

In Animal Camp Stevens sets out to do the same for all the animal ambassadors at CAS. She attempts to show the depth and range of their emotions and their unique personalities. Some will accuse her of anthropomorphism, and she is equipped to respond. She even includes a chapter “On Anthropomorphism”:

“Not only do I dislike the term anthropomorphism, but I don’t buy it. I don’t think that when we talk about a dog being worried or a chicken being excited or a horse being depressed or pig being jealous we’re ascribing human emotions to animals… In my view, the term anthropomorphism is used either malevolently, for instance, by scientists trying to assuage their guilt or deny their humanity as they justify horrific experiments performed on animals, or mistakenly by people who know little about animals and thus accept the popular notion that they are fundamentally far more emotionally limited than humans.“

Animal Camp gives us not only a window into the lives of these rescued farm animals, but also one into the lives of their rescuers. Running a sanctuary is hard work (as described in the chapter called “When Winter Kicks Your Ass”). At any given time, CAS is home to roughly 250 animals, who are at various points in their own journey of healing. CAS is powered by the devotion and patience of the staff and volunteers (and also by solar panels!). Stevens shares with us the joys of this work, but also the difficult decisions along the way. CAS has rescued many animals from hoarding and cruelty cases, but with the recent economic downturn, individuals who can no longer feed their farm animals also come knocking on CAS’s door. “The stories leave us reeling: one job loss after another, one foreclosure after another… Yes, determining which animals to take in is always, always, an excruciating choice.”

Once in sanctuary, the animals heal at their own pace, on their own terms. In the chapter, “The Little Horse That Could,” we meet Andy, a male pony rescued from a “nurse mare” operation. Just like male chicks in the egg industry, Andy was discarded as useless. When he arrived at CAS, Andy was emaciated with pencil thin legs, a prolapsed rectum that hung outside his body, and urine the “color of dark chocolate.” When asked whether he’ll make it, Stevens responds, “He made it here alive. This is easier than what he’s been through.” But his recovery, Stevens admits, will be “anything but easy.”

In the chapter “Carpe the Diem,” Stevens writes a letter to Maxx, a horse on his deathbed. This is an intimate and emotional glimpse of the difficulty of saying good-bye to a dear friend, teacher and companion to many at the sanctuary.

At the end of her talk in Manhattan, the 52-year old Stevens gave some advice to vegans: “Don’t be so angry.” She explained that she ate meat and dairy most of her life and didn’t become vegan until she was 43, and how that, too, was a gradual process. In her book, she makes the same plea against judging meat eaters who have not yet begun their journey:

“How much more important is it for us to find inviting ways to engage others in a conversation that’s become truly urgent, and to provide the skills and confidence to help them consider eating with a conscience.”

At CAS, they are doing just that with two new exciting programs. Compassionate Cuisine will offer vegan cooking classes with Chef Kevin Archer. CAS’s Camp Kindness will be Animal Camp for kids–a vegan summer program that piloted this past summer–with the goal of being fully operational in Summer 2012 for day- and sleep-away- campers!

Stevens believes that you have to give people a chance, an invitation, toward choosing a more compassionate way of life. Animal Camp, like CAS itself, offers such an invitation.


  1. Comment by


    on #

    I am on board with most of this, but come ON–there is definitely such a thing as anthropomorphism. Just because animals think and feel differently than we do (and yes, most likely in a less complex fashion) doesn’t undermine our basic obligation to treat them well. If anything, it underscores the differences between humans and animals in such a way that makes it supports the case for veganism. For example, people often ask why I think it’s ok for animals to eat other animals, but not for humans to eat animals. A lion will never feel bad about killing a gazelle to eat it because ITS A FUCKING LION. However, a human is different from a lion in that he/she has the ability to make a well-reasoned choice on the matter. Rampant anthropomorphism only undermines our cause by making vegans look illogical and solely emotionally-driven.

  2. Comment by


    on #

    happy pongal fellow desis!