On a cold spring day in Upstate New York, a stack of hulking pink pigs sleep in a pile, their skins steaming. They snort dreamily and snuggle deeper into each other, perhaps comforted by the fact that around here, nobody wants to eat them.
Woodstock Farm Sanctuary, three hours north of New York City, serves as a depository for animals whose relationships with humans have gotten uneasy. Run by a militant vegan named Jenny Brown, the sanctuary has become the second home for the mistreated, the neglected, or the victims of simple miscalculation.
Following swiftly behind the boom in urban livestock-keeping, was a boom in abandoned ones.
“We’re up to our eyebrows in chickens,” says Brown. “We’ve seen more chickens come through here than I can count.”
There are so many that they had to build an annex to accommodate them. Up the road from the pastoral acres of the sanctuary there’s a barn just for former backyard and slaughterhouse chickens. In the distance, one rooster after another emits a plaintive crow.
Roosters, with their tough meat, incessant crowing and inability to lay eggs, are usually ground up shortly after hatching. Brown describes how practiced hands at hatcheries peek into the nether regions of newly hatched chicks, sifting the useful females from the annoying males. The males are deposited into a churning machine that immediately kills them, while the ladies, depending on the specialty of the hatchery, grow up to be layers or broilers.
Most of the time the people sifting the hens from the cocks get it right, but newborns look very similar and once in a while one of the fluffy yellow chicks grows up to be a rooster. The roosters who were accidentally sent to New York City find themselves quite unwelcome. Most people don’t want a living alarm clock hanging around their backyards, and even if they did, city ordinance prohibits roosters. Some of them get sent up to live at the farm sanctuary.
It’s not just roosters here. Behind one fence is a coop full of clucking white hens, bred to grow fast with big, juicy breasts. These were rescued from the butcher and brought to the sanctuary to spend their days scratching at the ground and pecking at grubs until they die of natural causes.
Along the room’s concrete floor, small animals wander around, taking shelter from the flurries of early spring snow. There are red-eyed lab rabbits cowering in one corner, while others meant as floppy-eared pets or meat rabbits are more sociable, hopping up to wiggle their noses at the resident dogs or sniff at the underside of a mean-eyed but glorious heritage breed turkey. The bird looks like it belongs in a painting with a pilgrim and a cornucopia, but actually spent its youth in a suburban backyard until its habit of flying over the fence outweighed its novelty.
Another barn across the way is filled with the insistent bleating of sheep. A short black goat, its front legs bound in robotic-looking metal braces, hobbled straight up to us with what looked like a sly, sideways grin.
This one knew the love of children. It spent years in a petting zoo, where his hooves were left to grow so long that they impaired his ability to walk, which wore down the joints in his knees until they started to bend both ways. Horrified visitors alerted the animal authorities, which is how he found his new home with Brown.
The farm sanctuary contains the residue of a city squeezing pastoral animals into its concrete-bounded spaces.
Calves that escape from the many live-kill slaughterhouses in New York, goats from unsuccessful religious sacrifices and so many backyard chickens, who, as they happily cluck away under blue skies and open pastures, suggest that giving a home to livestock might be at the limit of what we can ask of New York City.
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Aurora Almendral is a reporter and radio producer. Usually from New York, she is currently based in Manila.
Courtney Dudley is a freelance photographer based in New York.