Why the Institute? (Part II)
On the eve of us officially becoming a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, and officializing this at an age when I am acutely aware most people in life are looking to start winding down - I have had so many questions of the universe and myself, and spent some time going over every step of several decades, especially the last ten years in animal care, rescue and advocacy. How did I get here?
While Animal Rights has been a through-line of my existence since the age of ten - an ongoing evolution - this is pretty much a complete 360 degrees from the life I was prepped for, as a child growing up in the NYC rough edged avant garde world.
“SPIRIT ANIMAL” IS CULTURAL APPROPROPRIATION, SO LET’S JUST SAY: ANIMALS SPEAK AND I ALWAYS WORKED TO LISTEN.
I was an animal lover from day one, but I did not come into the world declaring: I am going to rescue chickens! But they kept showing up.
Supposedly, the house I grew up in (a money-pit-11-foot-wide brownstone on a very depressed midtown drug block) had been occupied by a sailor before my parents bought it (they purchased it some years before I was born “for a song” - it was the 1960’s when non-wealthy people could still afford a home in NYC). The sailor, my parents chuckled telling me, had lived with a pet chicken! And the folklore was the pet chicken was buried in our backyard. The backyard was not incredibly inviting, thanks to the intense amount of drug activity and misery that was all around permeating that block and all spaces behind the homes where it sat, but I was fascinated by the possibility that there was the ghost of a chicken haunting our house and the yard. I didn’t obsess about it but - let’s just say it was not a detail I took for granted.
Later, at the age of 10, a chance meeting with a chicken at summer camp outside of city limits made me question everything I had been told about animals.
It had been a real blessing to get out of the urban chaos of 1970’s Manhattan, but I found myself struggling socially at the camp and seeking out times to be by myself. One day, I wandered around behind the dining hall to find a bunch of young fairly small chickens in a cage. I panicked - why were such cute beings in a cage?! I asked permission to play with them and take care of them and was told it was okay in the “free hour” we were allotted before dinner. I crudely constructed a small second floor in the cage for them so they would have more space to move… I let them out to follow me around and I learned to feed them dandelion leaves, holding each leaf for them patiently so they could take gentle tiny bites. One camp counselor told me: if you breathe on the chicks, they will warm and think you are their mother, and fall asleep. I held one little chicken cradled in my arms - they must have been only a month or two old; the one that followed me around the most, wouldn’t leave my ankles, and seemed to be most needing my attention - and I dutifully did just that… breathed gently on them. The little one fell right asleep. I peacefully sat with them sleeping, head drooped on my shoulder, while I read a book. This became our little routine. I was enchanted; completely in love.
But one day after this idyllic time hanging with them, I was summoned by the bell into the dining hall for dinner and - was served a bland slab I had never questioned before; it was chicken. As a city kid especially, I had never had the chance until that moment to connect what I was being given as food with the chance to get to know the animals themselves. This was 1978 - there was no internet, and actually there were no books around me about vegetarianism let alone veganism. But one girl, a cabin mate at the same table, was not served the same slab on her plate; she was given a plate of steaming pasta topped by bright cheery tomato sauce, and a salad bursting with rainbow colors. I asked her why she was given different food. She responded, “my family doesn’t eat animals.”
That resounded like shock rings of water out from a rock, inside my head. The sentence: “my family doesn’t eat animals.” It was the first time I had heard that this was even an option. My own heart immediately responded: I love animals, I don’t want to eat animals. I panicked. I was not able to get myself to eat what was on my plate. I was trying to piece together heart and mind and make things make sense.
Camp was over shortly after, and I just remember arriving back home and announced to my family: I will no longer eat animals. I stopped eating them literally overnight, started reading any books I could get my hands on (pre-internet!) and my education began.
Raised in the avant garde world my parents inhabited, I was extremely lucky they were supportive of my choice. The vegan information just was not out there at the time - at all. I do remember my mom had the book, “Diet for a Small Planet” and I read that a few years later as my questioning of all subjects related to food continued. That book was not about the rights and lives of animals, but it was an awakening to the issues of poverty and our food systems, and very radical land-use information; the premise that we could feed more of the world’s starving if we did not devote so much land to animal agriculture; that plant protein took far less resources to grow and fed far more people using less space. I already was a friend to animals but that book reinforced things from the humanitarian side: if we all don’t eat meat, we can feed the world’s hungry.
Despite these lightbulb moments, via my family I was fully immersed in their renegade art world in NYC, so how could I not follow that track? It is amazing how years pass and you can be just doing what you know, what you think you are good at and supposed to be doing. In nearly 2 1/2 decades I must have done literally hundreds of performances in all different mediums. I never made a living doing it and always had the drudgery day jobs, but by night - beginning when I was 16 years old - I was working with many experimental theater, dance, film and performance artists in the 1980's-90's East Village heyday into the mid-2000’s, with some touring outside of the U.S. as well. Activism was a big part of that world too... affordable housing, the early days of the AIDS crisis, No Nukes demos and ERA rallies... but all on my own, and very alone - I was an animal rights activist and identified deeply with the plight of other species. I did what I could: rescued "city" animals like stray cats and pigeons, volunteered at a cat and dog shelter, and even waitressed as a teen at one of the only vegan restaurants in NYC at the time. But there was no internet then; no Facebook... and it was not easy to get information or connect dots. I was disconnected from a larger animal rights community and also felt disconnected in my own social justice ethics, connections and understanding.
One day at a point of urban activist and artist burnout, I felt like I had done everything I could there. I decided to heed the calling I felt deep in my soul and left the city, my comfort zone and pretty much everything I had built up over two and a half decades at that point, to devote myself to animal rescue, care, and advocacy. I took a bus upstate that dropped me off on a dirt road (I didn't even know how to drive at the time) and started working at a small farm animal rescue where I had been volunteering on weekends.
This was the beginning of a ten year phase of the hardest physical labor I could imagine, a stream of non-stop emotionally and ethically challenging experiences one after the other, and a completely new awakening and purpose that would keep reinventing, keep challenging and keep maturing and remodeling my thinking; life was being peeled like an onion, constantly to a new layer. Each time over the next ten years that I thought I had gotten to the last layer, there was another one.
To say we were working in the trenches at this first farm animal rescue job would be an understatement; it was intense on all levels, emotionally, spiritually and physically. The worst part was the person who founded and ran this “sanctuary” turned out to be emotionally abusive and unstable, and despite all the compassion and rationalizing I was doing to stay working there for “the cause” and stay with all the animals I cared so deeply about - I found the strength to leave after three years. This was just the first awakening of many… the first layer of the onion, so to speak: when you learn a hard truth: that you fell for a label. I also learned that devoting ones’ self fully to something you believe in without asking for anything in return is not so simple in the exploitation-rich-minefield world of humans, and people who work as animal caregivers are a highly (and easily) exploitable workforce.
More on this another time as I am working on a support handbook for people working caring for animals, and I suspect some of these blogs will end up as chapters…
The animal sanctuary journey continued over the next 9 years in NY, NJ and CA as I worked and learned at several different organizations wearing a zillion different hats and offering everything I had in me: as volunteer, staff member, animal care- taker, barn cleaner, doing seizure/removal at neglect sites, tons of administration, running programs, doing educational tours for hundreds of visitors, fundraising & membership, running events and more. It is hard to romanticize any of it from my current vantage point. While many of these organizations operated as "rescues," they barely felt like sanctuaries in anything more than name; were not even remotely happy or ethical places to work and had high staff turnover rates. Over and over again I saw people justifying toxic, abusive or unethical behavior “for the animals.” To be honest, it was shocking and very traumatic, to see how much trouble people had calling out bad behavior at animal rescues. People were (and still are) terrified. From the inside at more than one place with truly surreal problems, I despaired to see how this negatively impacted animal care at rescues whose very mission was to help them. I also saw the toll this took on people - myself and others - breaking them down, draining their resources and confidence, confusing them about what they were strengthing or contributing to. Sadly, one co-worked at an organization, about a year after I left, commit suicide. Julie… one of the most hard working people I had ever met.
I know this sounds strange but it did feel hopeless - trying my best at one organization, then another, then another... I would get to the point where it was emotionally and physically untenable, not in line with my ethics about how people or animals should be treated, and just dust myself off and move on. I had worked a heck of a lot of jobs in NYC as an artist… and as a New Yorker born and raised I considered myself tough - but in my 25 years previous, I never experienced anything like what I was experiencing at these animal rescues, in terms of cruelty, manipulation, being overworked, and a job having absolutely no interest in my own well-being whatsoever.
I moved 7 times in 9 years, following the jobs and hope - and felt very lost and destabilized. I was even briefly homeless at one point for 3 months, but good friends let me land in their cabin studio while I tried to find yet another job and my own place: I slept on foam cushions on the floor; there was no plumbing and for heat, just a woodstove, and it was just me and my few little animal friends - a rooster with crippled feet named Nelly, a Polish hen named Tina, and my two cats Chewbacca and Nermal - who were with me during this whole difficult time. They were my family and I am quite sure I kept going for them, as it was otherwise pretty despairing…
But amid these challenges, I didn't realize until much later that something else had begun building… in my mind and heart.
At each of these jobs, no matter how difficult, badly managed, unethical and shocking, I still learned a lot. Desperation and having lives in your hands - beings looking to you for help - forces you sometimes to go beyond what you thought your own abilities were. Besides starting to accrue crucial organization and animal care skills, I had started to bring home chickens that were very special needs - who clearly needed an extra level of support and care, and who as a species were generally taken for granted and given less care options even at animal rescues. I was poor and didn't own land, so I couldn't bring home a sheep! But I could bring home chickens and they were quite clear in letting me know they needed more allies. Nelly, the sweet rooster I already mentioned with two deformed feet, was the first. Rejected from the sanctuary where I worked for “being too much trouble” I cried thinking about what his options were for the specialized care he needed, and eagerly placed him a basket and drove him home to live with me.
Then others followed. Tina... Little Larry… Blanche… Buckles and Pancakes… Zoltan, Flopsie and Mopsie… Tony Orlando Rooster and Dawn, Almondine and Chickpea… Kumquat, Toodle Lou and Festus… Beautiful Honey, a frostbite victim from a local farm….
What started as a website raising money for other organizations via a song download and a few vegan items, began to take root even more when I met my partner Brian and we found a place to live with a small but lovely 1/2 acre yard. Up sprouted the first incredible (heated and insulated) coop… then a second one… and and then a THIRD! Bird after bird arrived from different situations of neglect, abuse, abandonment. A room inside our home became the de-facto "“Chicken Hotel” for those who were special needs. A vegan festival packed with educational offerings has sprouted up bringing new visibility to veganism in the region; a vegan arts "uprising" is in the works... and so much more is to come.
The "Institute" that was my one room cottage is now growing into so much more! And interestingly, art is becoming a part of the compassionate mission of this place too. The two big loves - animals and art - each are finding their own supportive space in the Institute we are building, and are very much connected in their compassionate goals. I believe that both forces - the creative force, and the force of unconditional love that is at the root of caring for rescued animals - can work together to bring greater happiness to humans and non-humans alike, and greater compassion to the world.
I can now look back at the phase of challenge that nearly broke my spirit, that was filled with so much hopelessness, and realize that it was a proving ground. I can say I am grateful for what I learned at each job no matter how shockingly bad. The truth is I am using skills learned from those experiences. The truth is sometimes bad experiences actually teach you important things. But I don’t want anyone else to have to go through such lonely and difficult times if I can help it. Now my mission is even more resolute, more focused and more honed: A “sanctuary” must be that: an actual sanctuary. It must actually strive to be a place of safety, healing and compassion for not only the residents, but those tasked with the difficult job of giving them care, and it must be a place of healing and safety for all who enter.
I hope this is okay with the universe, but this musician can’t accept the dysfunctional status quo she experienced at more than one organization - enough experiences to confirm a serious problem; a broken mindset and a pattern. It is no longer a coincidence if it is the fourth and the fifth organization you have gone to work for. Most people don’t last long enough to experience that many organizations so I am in a unique position to share those experiences now. I don’t accept the dysfunction and cruelty the same way I don’t accept animal agriculture and it’s cruelty. It’s a status quo that holds a compassionate movement hostage, keeps the animals prisoner to exploitation, and keeps us all locked in a false reality promising change but serving up the same, toxic, unchanged world with a misleading labels.
This writing will keep going til it is a support handbook of some kind. Meanwhile, I wish you peace and power; to rise up against oppression in all it’s forms. Please - no matter what, keep getting back up, and never give up. Do what you can to take care of yourself so that you can keep rising. If you do, you will grow stronger, and things will get better. If you can’t find compassionate space, then try to be the one who creates it for yourself and others. It doesn’t have to be a lot of space and you don’t necessarily need a lot of resources, you just need to work from a place of authenticity, compassion and unconditional love. You can start with just caring for one chicken who needs you.
May all beings be free - and find happiness, too.