The Vegan Catch 22 . . . or . . . seriously, what do we do with all the horses?

kudira-about-3(This blog is in response to a small volley of attacks I received from some vegans who believe they know the “solution” to horses. I know for a fact they do not, because for the past 17 years I have been in the thick of active horse rescue as well as providing sanctuary for those animals deemed “useless” to society. Even so, I don’t know the solution to horses . . .)

First, here’s the quote that everyone is having so much fun twisting around in which I’m clearly talking about me. “Judge me when you have the option of living a cushy life of restaurants and Broadway plays but instead choose to spend $10,000 a month on hay and grain, $2,000 a month on farrier bills, who knows how much on vet bills (anywhere from $500 to $5,000.)” This was our choice. My husband had expected a lifestyle of restaurants and Broadway plays and perhaps nice furniture with no teeth/claw marks. We make a lot of money, more than most people. This is little more than a fact. My husband didn’t expect to have to work from before dawn ‘til after dusk and seldom have a nickel for entertainment. He didn’t expect to spend every dime on hay, grain, worm paste, farriers, fencing, etc. But I made my choice, told him that’s what came with me, and he came along for the rocky ride and fell in love with it, and with the animals. (He claims he’d already fallen in love with me, and for that he has paid dearly.)

I really don’t know if you get to go to Broadway plays, but if you do, you lucky sot and I feel small pangs of envy.

The truth is, I’m human. I miss going to plays. I miss concerts. I miss NYC. I miss travel. I miss living in a nice house, and by that I mean one with no holes or mold. But I know the difference I make and I will never choose to take anything away from the animals in favor of something for myself. I’ve been this way for all of my 57 years and I can’t change. Contort my words to try to make me an elitist of me if it makes you feel better, I actually don’t care. I have too much work to do and not enough of an ego to worry about anyone’s opinion of me.

Second: Horses are a distinct problem that most people can’t fathom. You can argue semantics on paper all you want, but I live in the real world and in this world horses die horrible deaths, terrified, knowing what’s coming, hit in the head with a bolt gun that sometimes stuns them, sometimes doesn’t. Hanging upside down with a hook through a back leg, desperate and screaming, watching as the horses ahead of them in line are killed. THIS IS MY REALITY. THIS IS THEIR REALITY. It sucks.

The majority of the horses who die in this manner are unable to work anymore and are sent to auction, which more often than not means slaughter. Here’s a miniscule list of some we’ve rescued from this fate:

Amigo, a retired police horse (even men in uniform are not safe!)

Hero, a horse who got bored with being attached to a live merry-go-round

Lucille, a PMU mare who didn’t get pregnant

Captain (and dozens of other males from the PMU industry) a PMU foal from Canada who was clearly useless, as males can’t be bred to supply estrogen-rich urine for the Premarin industry

Annie, a 10-month pregnant mustang who was seconds away from being loaded onto a double-decker tractor-trailer with a one-way ticket to Canada

And several hundred more. Aside from a few exceptions, they were all going to die because they were useless to humanity as anything but meat.

This is reality. Most of them couldn’t be ridden so their only fate was a gruesome, painful, terrifying death.

If I am being realistic (and being a Capricorn, it’s all I know,) I realize that we are one of the few facilities that will keep horses that can’t be ridden. We have a LOT of them. I also know that even a well-trained horse will go to slaughter and all it takes is a reversal in fortune to send a horse to auction. In 2015 the USA provided more than 125,000 horses to the meat industry. In 1991, that number was 345,700. These are the statistics that crush my heart and soul. What can we realistically do about this?

Currently, we have to work within the concrete realm of reality. Untrained horses are meat. Period. Like dogs, horses have been bred to be human-dependent. The damage is done, and it’s too late to fix it. THEY HAVE BEEN BRED TO ENJOY HUMAN INTERACTION AND YES, THEY HAVE BEEN BRED SO THAT THE VAST MAJORITY OF THEM LOVE THE CONNECTION OF RIDING WITH HUMANS. Over tens of thousands of years, humans chose the horses best suited to this activity and bred them to make lots more just like them. When treated well, they are enjoying the activity as much as the humans riding them. Sorry, to a “vegan” it’s an ugly truth, but it’s humanity’s own fault. Also like dogs, an untrained horse is a deadly dangerous thing. We bred them to need training, and now we have to train them so they don’t hurt anyone and therefore, be killed for meat. It’s a classic catch 22; you can’t break these rules.

The world is what it is. We can attack people over semantics or we can deal in reality and actually make a difference to these animals. As I’ve said, most horses are perfectly fine with being ridden as WE MADE THEM THAT WAY. On our farm, those who don’t want to work, don’t. We have chronically lame horses, a horse who rears, truly ancient horses and a horse named Bobby who was so abused by the Amish he suffers from PTSD and is deadly dangerous (but we know how to handle him . . . and love him to pieces . . . and so he lives.) We have a horse named Teddy who doesn’t like paddocks so he walks around loose all day. Whatever they want, they can have.

If anything happens to us, our veterinarian knows what to do. Those who can’t be ridden and have no place to go will be gently euthanized; we won’t take the chance of them going to the horror that is slaughter, and I know oh-so-well how little space there is for “useless” horses. Our lesson ponies, however, have a chance. Their new humans will be carefully and painstakingly screened to make sure they are cared for their entire lives, even after they are retired from riding.

A trained horse is a safer horse for humanity and themselves, and we work hard to not fail any of ours.

And this begs the questions for the militant vegans; what exactly are we to do with all of these horses if we can’t train them? Because THEY ARE ALREADY HERE. IT’S TOO LATE. What alternate plan is there for the 6.9 million horses in the United States alone that annually can each cost anywhere from $7,000 to, well INFINITY number of dollars to maintain? Who will fund this? Where is the land to turn them loose when we currently don’t have enough for our wild mustangs (damn those ranchers who took it all to graze cattle . . .) WHAT’S THE PLAN? My husband and I are two of the very few who will fork out over a hundred thousand bucks a year to take care of 20 retired horses (it’s another $100,000 plus for the rest of the animals.) The only “realistic” option for “true vegans”  is to find a way to convince people to stop breeding them. Instead of animal lovers attacking each other over words and titles and spewing their brand of righteousness and judgment, our greatest opportunity exists in completely eliminating the animals that humanity worked so hard to create by no longer creating them (and that includes domesticated dogs who also must be trained or they will die.) All attempts to curb the breeding of domesticated animals up to this point have failed and I assume it will be the same with horses. Do I advocate annihilating horses and dogs? No. But I do advocate responsible breeding and, well, that’s another hopeless mess. If I think about it I cry, so, instead, I work . . .

And so, being a pragmatic plant-based eater, I will continue to do my absolute best and dedicate my life to working within reality. My horses will be gently trained, as they are at every reputable horse rescue aside from those for wild mustangs. (The farm animal rescues that don’t take horses make that choice because they know horses must be trained, exercised, shod and carefully monitored for health and that they are far more expensive and labor-intensive than other animals.) We will continue to have a small lesson program that, by the way, doesn’t make enough money in a year to support even a single horse, but does keep our horses fit and trained so they may possibly avoid a bolt to the head before being bled out. I will always take into account their likes, desires and dislikes and I will allow them that autonomy. This is how I raised my children, and this is how I raise my animal babies . . . we do our very best with what we have and keep striving to find a way to do more.

If being a vegan means living in a fantasyland of useless words and unattainable goals, I’m out. Titles mean nothing to me. Wordy rhetoric means nothing. Lofty and idealistic plateaus are useless if they don’t make a difference to animals in the real world. Saving animals, however, is all that I am. Providing for the needs of this collection of otherwise rejected beings is my greatest goal in life.

I haven’t eaten meat in 36 years, dairy in at least 20, and what I know about eggs is that they taste nasty . . . but if saving horses in the best possible way that currently exists precludes me from being a vegan, alas, I’m not a vegan and it doesn’t matter to me at all. Because above all else, I am an animal rescuer. It’s the essence of my being, the essence of my earthly job, and I will be among the lucky few who will die with no regrets.

So go ahead and judge me – I mean, you will no matter what I have to say. I’m not worried about your words. What I worry about is the animals, where the limited energy and resources of animal lovers is being spent, and what we can realistically do to help them right now.

(. . . That said, I return to my regularly scheduled program of shoveling, training and lamb physical therapy. I hope any ensuing conversation is productive for the animals and not divisive for the humans.)

A Letter to the Judgmental Vegans . . . From a “Working” Vegan

I don’t have time to write this today. I have to do physical therapy with a lamb. I have to give a bath to a newly-rescued young ram who was slated for ritual slaughter this week but was saved at the last second – his tail wasn’t docked and I must get the crusty, cement-hard manure off and clean him up before he gets maggots. I have cages to clean, cats to pet, hooves to trim. I have laundry – about a dozen blankets and up to 60 towels a day must be washed. Oh, and somewhere in there I have to do some actual work because we need money to survive. I absolutely don’t have time to sit down and write this today . . . but I’m gonna anyway.

A friend sent me a copy of a vegan Facebook page on which someone had written that there was an animal sanctuary to visit in Connecticut, our farm, Locket’s Meadow. Another person responded that we are not a sanctuary because we give riding lessons and pony rides. Thankfully, my friend responded that we are, indeed, a sanctuary, but who knows what the judgers will think. I shouldn’t care, but I do because they are WRONG. The hardcore vegans firmly believe that riding horses is exploiting them. They think pony rides are a horrible, demeaning form of torture to an animal. Sure, if the horse doesn’t want to do it, it probably is. But if, like our riding horses, they see themselves as part of a family all working together as a unit, all of us giving to each other out of love and respect, it’s a totally different animal, so to speak.

Wild animals are wild. Let them be. Give them their space. In fact, give them enough space so that they can all co-exist together, keeping the balance as God and nature intended. But domesticated animals have been bred for thousands of years; they are here and unless we stop breeding them, they aren’t going anyplace. Aside from cats, we can’t undomesticated them. They were bred to do certain jobs, so herding dogs love to herd, guard dogs WILL protect their families, a Jack Russell will take care of rats in a barn. That’s how our ancestors made them, that’s what they will do. And by breeding them to want to work, we made them dependent on us. Again, unless we stop breeding (and we DO NOT BREED on Locket’s Meadow) we are responsible for not only taking care of these animals, but giving them the jobs that actually keep them happy.

Dogs are part of a pack/family. Every one of them has a job in that pack and if they can no longer work, they are the lowest of the low on the totem pole. They don’t want to be there as losing their job is just short of death. Horses all have a job in their herd – lookout, protector, mother, etc. Same deal. It’s how they work together as a family. Every animal here on Locket’s Meadow is a member of our family. They all know they are loved, and they all love us. If they want to work, they work.

walking invalidsHere’s where the judgey vegans are wrong; they underestimate domesticated animals’ ability to comprehend. They see them as totally disconnected from us, and uninterested in being a part of our world. THEY ARE WRONG, BECAUSE HUMANS BRED THEM TO BE EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE!!! Animals are so much more aware of who they are and what they can do to be a part of a family so stop selling them short. A trained dog is a happier dog. A dog with a job is an ecstatic and fulfilled dog. We have a lot of horses on our farm, but Captain is my special man. We have a bond . . . no words for it. When is he happiest? When I walk into the barn and say, “Crunchy, we’re going for a ride.” He lives for his time with his mama, and we have a blast. When was the last time that happened? Well, it’s September . . . I’d say it was July. Because I’m busy doing hooves, physical therapy, distributing meds, training dogs, washing towels, shoveling manure, organizing fundraisers and sitting at this computer writing blogs that take up way too much time when I should be feeding those parrots who are yelling at me from the next room. (It’s still early – they will deal.) Anyways, I know for certain at the end of today Captain will be sad because we didn’t play. Again.

Sure, humans constantly cross lines with domesticated animals. Our farm is filled with the victims of humanity; beaten, neglected, pulled from slaughter yards, etc. etc. Humans suck for what we do to these beautiful, spiritual and sentient beings. Some days it’s all I can do to remember that the same Spirit that flows through these animals I love so much is the Spirit that flows through the humans who have hurt them so badly, and because we are ALL ONE I can’t judge humanity as a big nasty lump of hideousness. We are all on the same journey, working together, and every animal on this planet is with us AS AN EQUAL. And if they are equals, we have to give them the credit they deserve, and as far as domesticated animals are concerned, they believe they are an immediate and contributing part of our families.

So, we gently train our dogs as we do our children. A child who does not know the rules is obnoxious and often dangerous. A dog who doesn’t know the rules is the one who ends up dangerous and euthanized. And a horse who isn’t trained is not only potentially lethal, he or she is a dead horse. If we are going to rescue horses from slaughter, yet not train them to have a job, we are irresponsible pieces of maggot-infested garbage. If I dropped dead tomorrow, the horses on our farm who are incapable of working are literally dead meat. If my husband and I went down together in a plane (as if that would ever happen as vacations are never an option,) they are dead meat even faster. Aside from us and far too few other sanctuaries, almost nobody will keep a nonworking horse around because they can’t afford to maintain a working horse and a retired horse (we’ve pulled at least 70 of those out of slaughter pens over the years.) So, if we have horses who are capable of working and are willing, we make sure they are trained and able to do a job not only because they like to contribute to their family, but because IT SAVES THEIR LIVES!!!! Our little lesson program is the best thing we could ever do for our babies because it’s as close to a life “assurance” program as we can come, and even then – we’ve pulled some beautifully trained horses out of slaughter pens . . .

So here’s the deal . . . if you want to judge us . . . make sure you are first willing to:

  1. Give up everything that resembles a normal life, such as sleeping until 6am. Get up at 3:45 and start feeding around 150 animals, in the pouring rain, in negative15 degrees, in a blizzard. Break up ice with a sledgehammer, check every horse blanket, dig snow away from gates and dig paths to the pigpens so you can carry out their warm buckets. When you’re done, start working at your real jobs so you can afford the luxury of doing all of the above.
  2. Judge me when you have the option of living a cushy life of restaurants and Broadway plays but instead choose to spend $10,000 a month on hay and grain, $2,000 a month on farrier bills, who knows how much on vet bills (anywhere from $500 to $5,000 . . . and more . . .,) a minimum of $15,000 a month out of your own pockets to provide for your animals. That doesn’t include food for yourselves, utilities, mortgages (ugh . . .) and all of the other “normal” things people spend money on.
  3. Judge me when you opt to live in tiny a 240-year old house that’s in danger of collapsing because you choose to fix the roofs on the barns before you fix your own roof. When you spend your money on fencing to keep the pigs safe before you put a floor down in your kitchen and instead cut squares of plywood to fill in spaces where tiles used to be (because the 650 pound house pig keeps breaking them beneath her weight.) Judge us when your bathroom is vintage 1962 and still has a hole in the floor from when you bought it 18 years ago (kinda hidden beneath the trash can) because the needs of the animals and their housing come first.
  4. Judge us when you are sitting down to a dinner of popcorn, again, because all of the money went to the animals, who are all fed and watered in their clean stalls, have their meds and supplements and are content and tucked in for the night. When you and your spouse are sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by pigs, dogs, cats and a crippled lamb, tossing popcorn to all of the above mentioned and talking about how you are the luckiest two people in the entire world to have the ability to spend your days doing what you do. When you understand that the “magic” of including these animals as part of your family, working, retired, disabled, whatever they are . . . that magic is what always saves you at the very last second and keeps you going for another day, another week . . . 18 years so far for us of never giving up on them or each other . . . go ahead.


Meanwhile, I assume you will continue to sit at your computer and say nasty, judgmental things about us. But until you’ve dedicated your entire life to caring for the beaten, starved, neglected castaways, until you’ve given up even the basics of normal American living and have to set pots and towels (ugh . . . more laundry) on the floor to catch the water when it rains, forgone any form of retirement fund or savings account, taken your change jar to Walmart to cash in and buy pet food (and popcorn,) put your trust in the magic of the animals you love and care for with all your heart, soul and existence, you don’t have the right to say one damned word about us.

And I know every single one of our babies will back us on that.

Every. Single. One.

The Rule of the Roost . . . or, Why We Can’t Take Anymore Roosters!

Let’s talk roosters. I adore them. Some of my favorite people have been roosters, particularly one named Wiggy who lived with us for 14 years. When we moved to the country he easily made the transition from beach bum to farm boy. That was in 1999, when we didn’t have resident hawks, foxes, coyotes, fisher cats, bob cats, raccoons and the occasional tornado. Wiggy was an only rooster with two happy hens, and when that sweet old man didn’t wake up one morning (he died of being ancient) we were devastated; there are still days when I miss him.

That being said . . . while we are a farm animal rescue, we can’t take your hen-who-has-SURPRISE!-turned-into-a-rooster. We just can’t. Pretty much nobody can, unless their plan is to eat them, but you already fell in love with him when you thought he was a she . . . yet you can’t keep “himmer” because of zoning, neighbors, talons imbedded in your ankle during a playful, but for-keeps kinda game of tag. (My husband, David, once had a talon break off in his shin, and I believe he still keeps it in his jewelry box to eventually turn into a necklace . . . he also eventually stopped bleeding . . . and afterwards he was still fond of our wild man Jackson.)

At one point we did take in roosters, however, word got out and we went from one to 30 faster than a Ferrari reaches highway cruising speed. They were everywhere. We had them in the barn, in dog runs, in old parrot cages. EVERYWHERE. They were super handsome, and we loved them, but they have this funky little habit of FIGHTING TO THE DEATH. It’s a small quirk, but it has an impact when you go out to feed them at 6am and discover they were playing Fight Club into the wee morning hours.

Eventually we had to build a long row of individual rooster condos, 4x4x4 foot cubes, two feet off the ground, reinforced with hardware mesh to keep them safe from predators . . . and each other, in case anyone got loose. The visual effect was eerily similar to a cellblock, and the sound of testosterone-infused boys taunting each other with fowl language through mesh walls resembled jailhouse banter. We kept small children at a distance . . .

In an effort to keep our roosters warm during our horrible mountaintop winters we wrapped their huts in heavy plastic to keep wind out. The older, more fragile birds would still end up inside our house in a small dog kennel on top of the washing machine, hooked up to a bag of warm IV solution, being fed baby bird hand feeding formula out of a ketchup dispenser. I remember one Christmas morning awakening to the crowing of a rooster named Diablo who was mostly dead the night before . . . and thinking, “Damn, I’m getting good at this!” and then wondering why . . . why?

The truth is, we did it because, taken individually, roosters are totally cool and handsome dudes and we truly love them. We built runs, condos and a triage station in the mudroom because we love them. But now . . . we just can’t. We aren’t even taking hens because it’s too hard to keep them safe, and I hate having them locked up 24-7. But if a five-foot high fence can’t keep out the bobcats (it can’t . . . it just can’t and I don’t wanna talk about it . . .) well, hens are safer in the suburbs than out here in the country where all the wild things have moved in close to the houses.

However, suburban “hens” are the source of our daily barrage of people trying to give us roosters. Here’s one of my favorite lines – “We would like to DONATE three roosters to your operation and we will even give you a bag of feed to get you started” . . . OMG . . . if only it was about the cost of food which is, literally, chicken scratch, precisely .01% of a weekly feed budget that averages $2,200. (Please feel free to donate funds, bags of feed or lumber for fencing, but there IS NO SUCH THING AS A DONATION OF ROOSTERS, only a dumping of the aforementioned, and no, I will not give you a rooster receipt for tax purposes!!!!) There is also NO SUCH THING AS A GUARANTEED FEMALE BABY CHICK! I have seen as many as three out of six such guaranteed hens turn out to be male (see above reference.) For some reason, gathering fresh eggs from backyard hens has been romanticized, perhaps because of the extreme orangeness of their yolks, and egg eaters from raised ranches to brownstones want the experience. But there is a dark side, and that is the fate of the roosters, and oh, there will be roosters. There is no place for them to go and they will have to be killed, just like they are in commercial operations. Or, like the three I was asked to take today, they will have been dumped in an unsuspecting neighborhood because someone who got them in a guaranteed batch of “hens” from Agway didn’t have the heart to dispatch them (so they let them loose in a neighborhood to be potentially ripped to pieces by dogs, foxes, coyotes, etc. . . . I don’t know . . . sigh . . .)

I don’t have an answer, nor do I want to be a downer, so I’m not going to go into the horrors of the chicken and egg industry. If you can stomach it, go ahead and Google. It’s already been done far more thoroughly than I can attempt in a blog. But after 18 years of trying to make a difference by rescuing these poor castoffs , we are overwhelmed by requests. We’ve decided if we can’t offer these strikingly beautiful, intelligent and often charming individuals a reasonably happy, safe and natural life, we have to stop accepting them.

Not because we don’t like them, but because we love them. And they deserve better than what we can give them.

Kathleen Schurman and her husband David own Locket’s Meadow, a farm animal rescue and sanctuary in Bethany, CT, where they are down to two cellblock roosters and two of the world’s oldest hens. And about 150 other animals including 36 horses, steers, pigs and pretty much everything else but bunnies. The rescue is a 501(c)3 non-profit.