EP026 Catskill Animal Sanctuary: Love Spoken Here

Animals. Let’s visit with the animals! Come with me and I’ll introduce you to the big family of rescued-farmed animals of Catskill Animal Sanctuary. Located in the Hudson Valley of New York, rolling hills and 148 acres are the backdrop for over 300 rescued animals who live here surrounded by love, safety, and friendship.  I saw it for myself in 2018.


 (audio of ducks in the pond, rooster crowing…then other sounds, too)

Animals. Let’s visit with the animals!

Come with me and I’ll introduce you to the big family of rescued-farmed animals of Catskill Animal Sanctuary.

Located in the Hudson Valley of New York, rolling hills and 148 acres are the backdrop for over 300 rescued animals who live here surrounded by love, safety, and friendship.  I saw it for myself in 2018. This place is real. This is a healing place.

Let’s start with the Underfoot Family. This is unique to Catskill Animal Sanctuary: a small group of animals is given free-range privileges during the day.

Kathy Stevens, founder and executive director, realized early on that some personalities demand larger freedom. Many of the Underfoot family were rescued from small, filthy, and overcrowded spaces. Many became claustrophobic during their previous years of abuse and abandonment. They were not comfortable unless they could roam.

I noticed a calico cat grooming herself in the rain. When I asked why they informed me that she was claustrophobic from her previous life of neglect and captivity. She prefers the great outdoors – no matter the weather.

The main barn houses the Underfoot Family. This includes elders and special-needs residents who sleep in the safety and warmth of the barn. But come daybreak, the Underfoot gang enjoys breakfast, and then they stroll out into the sunshine of the sanctuary: free to roam, graze, and enjoy hands-on attention from visitors and staff. According to Kathy, there is always someone underfoot – just when they need to drive the tractor or pickup truck.  The “all-clear” signal must be used by the humans. But what a wonderful arrangement for animals who were once forgotten, abused or nearly slaughtered by previous humans who did not value their birthright of freedom.

Catskill Animal Sanctuary is their safe space, their home: one big adopted family of mixed species (human and non-human).

And their home is founded on one thing:  Love.

In 2001, Kathy Stevens envisioned a sanctuary where education is the cornerstone and kindness is the daily mantra. Through this effort, Kathy and her team raise awareness that humans and animals have much in common. In all the ways that matter, we are the same. Catskill recognizes each individual animal as a unique and valued personality. Each animal is viewed through the lens of love and respect.

During my visit, it was apparent to me that it’s true:  Animals are like us in so many ways!  They have their routines (just like us). They have their preferred grazing spots (just like us). They have their favorite pals and friends (just like us). And they run from suffering and they crave affection (just like us).

We know this.  Our companion animals amaze us with their antics, affection, and smarts.

So… why are farmed animals any different?

The answerThey aren’t. They simply are not different.

When given freedom to live in peace, farmed animals become who they are meant to be: creatures of Mother Nature. They form friendships and family hierarchies. They develop preferences: where to nap in the shade or sun. They play, romp, jump, or run in the fields. They get into mischief (just like we humans often do!).

So, allow me to introduce some of my favorite memories from my 2018 visit.

Russell the pig:  Oh, Russell! You crack me up! Oh, my word! Every time I turned a corner, there you were… strolling down the lane. Later, I spotted you meandering through the barn. Then, I saw you on the far side of the sanctuary…searching for a tasty spot of grass. “Who is this little pot-bellied pig?” I wondered.

You Were Everywhere! I chuckled out loud. You were always “on the prowl” for a snack. You glanced at me sideways, a bit of mischief in your eye, then you proceeded on your way, your handsome tail moved back and forth.

Russell, you surprised me when you took that sharp right across the little ravine to hike up the green, lush hill by the barn. It made me think of my childhood when we explored the green areas of our neighborhood. Kids and animals. Both natural explorers of the great outdoors.

Your days are great adventures in search of treasures. You only arrived last year, yet it looks like you found your paradise. Russell, thank you for making me laugh. You are a hoot.

Julius the horse:  When I rounded the lane, I saw you standing at your fence. I stopped in my tracks.

Looking around for anyone who could tell me your name, I realized it was just you and me. I cannot recall ever approaching a horse before. Truly believe you were my first encounter.

Slowly approaching and speaking softly, I was grateful you stayed put. Wow, you are huge. You lifted your front left leg and stomped on the ground. Uh, oh. What does that mean, Julius? I’m a rookie horse person.

Are you impatient with my slow approach? Do you want something? I’m clueless, Julius.

(It was later that I learned how you are known for your friendly demeanor.  So very true!)

As I cautiously grew near, you remained still and looked directly at me. Finally, I was close enough to reach up and put my hand on you. (Was this something horses liked? Boy, did I feel like a little kid.)

You stayed still as I moved my hand down your head and closer to your nostrils. It surprised me how hot your breath was. (What a huge animal, I thought to myself. So powerful and magnificent.)

Knowing so little about horses, it was overwhelming to be so close. Overwhelming and joyful.

Julius and I had our moment together. No one was around. It was just the two of us. I gazed into his eyes and he gazed right back. Wow, Julius. You are a gentle soul. Thank you for offering me this moment.

Tucker the cow:  I first set eyes on Tucker when I left the Homestead Bed and Breakfast and walked about 100 feet to the sanctuary entrance. Standing high on the hilltop, I could see down in the distance a red and white cow. Tucker! That must be Tucker! Kathy Stevens wrote of Tucker’s early years when he arrived in the winter of 2009. And Tucker is often featured on social media stories. So, seeing him in the distance that quiet morning… well, majestic is the only word to describe him. There he was, grazing peacefully in his field.

Tucker had been a petting zoo calf. And at six months old when the petting zoo closed for the season, he was destined for the slaughterhouse. Petting zoos want cute, small animals for kids. And Tucker was a growing boy. Fortunately, an animal lover called Catskill. At just six months old, he found himself in the “Land of Love” at Catskill Animal Sanctuary.

During my visit, Kathy Stevens led her special “Break All the Rules Tour” providing a group of us an up close and personal encounter with this sweet cow.

As we entered the big field, we saw Tucker resting at the far end. There we were, adults and children alike, making our way to the 3,000-pound cow who is the shining star of Catskill Animal Sanctuary.

But here’s the thing. Tucker does not know he is a celebrity. He’s an unassuming gentle soul in a gigantic body. He could have easily been born your puppy or my cat. But he was born into a bovine body that is considered by the food industry as a profit maker. His birth family is long gone. Tucker was orphaned quickly by the hands of humans.

I slowly approached Tucker. Kathy instructed us to take off our sunglasses and turn our caps around so that he could see our eyes. Gee, imagine that. Animals look into our eyes for cues of our intentions (just like we humans do with other humans!).

Standing next to Tucker, I whispered “thank you” into his ear. He was looking right at me.

I wondered what he was thinking. His big beautiful ear intrigued me. So, I gently rubbed it. The fuzz at the top made me grin.  Cute ears, Tucker, cute ears!

What a gentle ambassador for all farmed animals. Tucker the cow has a presence that humbles and brings joy simultaneously. Thank you, sweet Tucker. Sending you love and respect…always.

So next, let me mention a few other animals…

The chickens and roosters. Travis the rooster enjoyed being held by Kathy during the private tour. He seemed to settle in and forget about humans gazing at him. Kathy invited the kids in the group to step up and massage Travis’ neck if they wished. Soon Travis was getting sleepy and his eyes began to shut. The kids were thrilled with this interaction.  Hopefully, they will take their experience back to school with them and share the beauty of a live rooster who made their visit to CAS a special one.

Next up… Alice the Exuberant and Leo the PreciousThese two baby goats arrived a few months earlier. They share sleeping quarters in the new nursery built just for them. Leo is a special needs baby, so his fan club is growing by the day. Alice also has a fan club, as she is spunky, vocal and energetic. If you wish to hear more about Leo, I recorded a special episode. You may listen to Episode 16 to hear how this little goat captured my heart.

Oh, but before I go on, I must share one incident that made me laugh. As I walked toward the cow pasture, I looked around and took in the gentle breeze in the trees. It was quiet with no one else around. Just as I came within 40 feet of the pasture fence, a black and white face popped up and looked in my direction. I was startled! And so was he!

Benjamin the cow had been drinking water from the trough and I had not seen him. So, when his head popped up and caught me off-guard, I had to laugh. Benjamin was not amused.  He stood still like a kid whose hand was half-way in the cookie jar. His eyes were wide-open, and he had water droplets falling from his fuzzy chin. That made me laugh out loud. I knew he must be thinking: “Who are you and why did you sneak up on me like that?”

Oh, Benjamin! That really was a hilarious first meeting for us. Love you for that. Benjamin will be four-years-old this spring. He arrived at age six months and was quickly adopted by Sadie the cow. Mama Sadie nurtured him and the other young calf, Blossom – their little herd was very close. Sadly, Kathy posted recently that Sadie fell ill suddenly. On Sadie’s last day on earth, the entire Catskill team was by her side. I’ll post the beautiful tribute that Kathy wrote in Sadie’s honor. The link will be in my show notes on my blog. Kathy’s narrative is one of the most poignant stories I’ve read – ever. Please check it out.

So on to the pig friends that I met and photographed.

Sister Mary Francis ignored me altogether. I photographed her as she slowly walked and dined, walked and dined. Yes, eat, eat, eat. This piggy is on a diet at the barn, so it appears she takes full advantage of the salad bar which grows in the lush, green yard nearby. I’ve been told she scored a solo bunk because of her rock-star status. I also heard that she got her feeling hurt one day when as she napped in the sun, a younger pig accidentally stepped on her foot and startled her so much that she jumped up, squealed, and ran between the legs of a human for solace. See, animals do have feelings. Just like us.

Reggie the 14-year old pig was napping when I stopped by his digs. He has severe arthritis, so the animal care team provides physical therapy by way of an electromagnetic blanket. Many of us have had this treatment after car accidents. Well, it works for pigs, too. And Reggie gets top-notch care by the team.

Audrey and Mario are celebrities since their story was told by the documentary titled “The Last Pig.” The pig farmer, Bob Comis, had a change of heart and could no longer take his pigs to market.  He knew how extraordinary this species is: how smart, how dramatic, how kind. The documentary is beautiful and touching. I own the DVD.

I stopped by to watch Audrey and Mario snack on fresh hay that magically appears each day on the bright yellow pickup truck driven by dedicated animal caregivers.

Hint Hint: Donations to buy bales of hay are always welcome at Catskill Animal Sanctuary. The pigs will thank you! The cows will thank you. The sheep will thank you.

Oh, speaking of sheep.

I’d like to close with a special encounter. It was with Junior the sheep.

During Kathy’s “Break All the Rules Tour,” she pointed out Junior in a barn stall. This was Rambo’s son, she said.  My mouth dropped open! I had no idea that the legendary Rambo sheep had a son residing here at Catskill. Junior did not come out of his stall to greet our big group.

Kathy informed us that Junior had taken on the role of protecting the special needs residents who lived in the main barn. He kept a watchful eye on visitors – just like his dad back in the day.

So, on my last afternoon of my visit, I meandered quietly through the barn.

There were no other visitors: just me. As I slowly approached Junior’s stall, I turned to see him standing about six feet from the entrance. He spotted me. I stopped in my tracks.

I spoke softly and greeted him. Junior took one step toward the open stall door – closer to me in the aisle!

I spoke again as Junior took another step toward me.  My eyes widened as Rambo’s son continued to walk, bit by bit, until he stood close enough for me to bend over and put my hand on his head.

My heart was pounding. This was surreal and certainly the most surprising moment in my three days of interacting with the Underfoot Gang.

I had to fight back tears because I did not want to break this connection with Junior. What I did not know at the time was that he only recently began to greet visitors. He protected his barn family without approaching visitors on a daily basis.

So, the moment that Junior and I had together …it’s that much more special.

Animals are like humans. We both size up the humans we engage with. We look for body language and signals to see what mood they are in… to make sure it’s safe to engage.

Animals, both human and non-human, have many of the same behaviors. And all animals, two- and four-legged, are “sentient.”  When I heard that word years ago, the meaning was unclear to me.

Sentience is defined this way: “the quality of being able to experience feelings.”

Another dictionary describes sentience this way: “Aware. Finely sensitive in perception or feeling.”

One more:  Having senses makes something sentient, or able to smell, communicate, touch, see, hear.

So, let me assure you, this animal lover interacted, observed, spoke and connected with the extraordinary, sentient residents of Catskill Animal Sanctuary (both the human and non-human variety).

During my four-day vacation, I felt the collective warmth of this big, diverse family. And my heart still feels their love to this day.

If you have the chance, go visit.  Their website is CASanctuary.org

For more in-depth stories, Kathy has written two books that you will find extremely interesting: Where the Blind Horse Sings and Animal Camp. I would highly suggest getting a copy of each of those books, especially if you are an animal lover.

At the very least, follow them on social media where they post and share videos, photos, and heart-warming stories.

Thank you to the humans: Kathy Stevens and crew. Thank you to the animals: Tucker, Russell, Sister Mary Frances, Leo and Alice, and all their buddies.

Thanks, Catskill Animal Sanctuary! Your tagline is spot on: “Love Spoken Here.”