Rob Robinson, long hair wedged against his head with a faded blue cap, walked up to McWilliams with his arms spread wide. The hug was vigorous enough to make the lens of the glasses tucked into McWilliams’ collar to pop out between their chests like a banana being squeezed out of its peel.
“Sorry about that,” apologized Rob.
He turned to me as McWilliams wiped dust off the lens, his eyes flitting to my rollie.
“One thing about the farm…there’s no tobacco allowed.”
Catskill Animal Sanctuary (CAS), located a couple miles North of Saugerties in upper Ulster County, takes in animals that have no place in our economic system. They don’t make people money anymore and so are tagged for liquidation by poison, chopping block, cattle-gun…
Rob and the rest of the CAS crew intercept animals on their way out of the system, transporting them to the fields and barns of the sanctuary. The place is like an animal version of a retirement home or a psychiatric hospital—a place for those that can’t produce for the system, but still want to live.
Rob, who is also a medical marijuana advocate and the former head of the New York chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), was taking McWIlliams, Liz and I on a tour of the sanctuary. I smushed out my rollie and daintily placed the remains atop a scrap of paper in Liz’s car, then joined McWillaims and Liz as they followed Rob down the sun-beaten path, passing fields and barns and pens live with retired chattel.
We came across a chicken poking and buk-ing around a fence post.
“That’s Emmett,” stated Rob. “He’s our ambassador chicken.”
We were encouraged to pick Emmett up. He had vicious, two-inch talons stabbing out of the back of his legs, so Liz was a bit nervous. She lifted him at arms-length, and when she had gone un-mauled for a few moments, she comfortably tucked Emmett in the crook of her arm and started stroking his flame-hued back. Emmitt buk-buk-buked contentedly.
Rob said he used to love bacon, but giving it up wasn’t hard when he befriended the pigs of the Sanctuary. They ranged from Pot Bellies—abandoned pets small enough to pick up—to 800-pound giants that would’ve had trouble fitting in the bed of a pickup. We entered a barn where the giants were cooling themselves from the sun, oinking softly and continuously like they holding piggy commentaries with themselves.
Rob started petting a porker that could’ve killed the lot of us just by sitting on our chests.
“Pigs are so smart…like dogs, or smarter,” said Rob.
The pigs would never have grown this large in their original farms. These pigs were bred for their meat, so they were bred to grow huge quickly. Typically, the Giants were slaughtered when they were a year old and weighed 100-200 pounds. But if they weren’t, they just kept on growing to obscene sizes.
McWilliams and Liz joined in the petting, and the giant flopped over on its side and started letting out low, happy squeals.
Rob’s favorite pigs were nosing around a large pen. He called them over by name. One of them kept right on nosing, but the second started poking in our direction.
“Hey Moses! C’mon over!
The pig started trotting. When he got to Rob’s feet, he looked up with a piggy smile.
“Those horses,” Ron pointed up ahead, “are blind.”
He explained that the horses had little sight when they came to the farm, and their eyes had to be removed because they would flip out whenever a blur hoved into their range of sight. We saw one with a cloth mask over its face that kept knocking its head against the fence as it tried to walk towards us in vain. Two farm workers led eyeless horses along the path, and we saw how their sockets had grown in with fur. A fourth horse, avec-eyes, flipped his head in our direction as we passed his pen.
“He’s the only horse of that group that can still see. He’s not mean to the other horses…helps them out,” said Rob.
We saw other discarded beasts along the way: Mulard Ducks, which are bred for foie gras…’Easter Rabbits,’ so-called because parents would buy their kids rabbits on the resurrection day, but eventually grew bored of their presence and discarded them…little flocks of roosters that were born in egg-producing farms…
These farms had no use for chickens when they came out male, so the infants are thrown into “grinders, live, to make McNuggets and shit,” said Rob.
Or, if they’re lucky, they get picked up by the members of the sanctuary.
CAS gets most of their animals through middle men—usually the SPCA or the DEP. The sanctuary survives off of memberships, endowments and donors. I can’t see the farmers making much money. It’s a labor of love.
As we finished walking the farm’s loop, we saw one of the Giants flopping around happily in a pool of muddy water. The Giants would dig these pig-sized tubs for themselves in the morning and then lounge in them when the sun reached its zenith. It was time to move this particular pig, though, and if an 800+ pound pig doesn’t want to leave its mud-tub, it ISN’T leaving its mud-tub. Shoving would be futile, so one of the farmers had to bang pots together behind the pig to get it up and walking. Pigs apparently HATE this noise, and the Giant started producing a piggy version of a dog’s whine.
“Don’t take a picture of that,” Rob said nervously. “It would look bad without explaining why we’re doing it.”
Well, now you know.
McWilliams had tucked his glasses in his pocket to avoid further damage, so Rob’s goodbye hug went smoothly. Rob gave me and Liz a hug too, even though he had only just met us.
As we walked towards the car, we got to see the baby goats being walked to get their dinners. They bounded along after the farmer, kicking their rear hoofs up high. They seemed happy to be alive.