Kathy Stevens is the co-founder of the Catskill Animal Sanctuary. Since it’s opening in 2001, Kathy, along with other staff members have saved more than 5,000 non-human individuals through direct rescue. She is the author of Where the Blind Horse Sings and Animal Camp, two critically and popularly acclaimed books about the work of Catskill Animal Sanctuary.
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Kathy Stevens founded Catskill Animal Sanctuary in New York’s Hudson Valley in 2001. The Catskill Animal Sanctuary is a leading voice in the call for humanity to adopt veganism as the single most impactful way to save animals and reverse climate change. Kathy is the author of two books about the work of Catskill Animal Sanctuary, a former Huffington Post blogger, and a frequent contributor to books, podcasts, and articles on animal sentience, animal rights, and veganism.
Hey Kathy, thanks for coming on today. Chris, I’m thrilled to be here. Thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m excited to have you to talk to you about what you do. So give us the story, give us the rundown, the 30 seconds on you. How did you really get into doing all of this? I grew up on a horse farm. Okay. We were surrounded by other animals as well. We had goats that I used to sneak into the house, when my parents weren’t looking. We had cows. Once there was a pig. Dogs. Cats. So I’ve never not had animals in my life in a really central way. I became a high school English teacher. I did that for 10 years and was invited to become the principal of a new charter high school opening up in Boston.
As you know, based on how hard it was for me to connect with you this morning, media and technology are not my thing. And it was a media and technology high school. Oh. So it wasn’t the right fit. Yeah. So I turned down the job and it felt like a pivotal point in my life where I wanted to bring the best of all of me to my work. So I decided at that point to combine my love for teaching and learning with my love for animals. And Catskill Animal Sanctuary was born from that, the marriage of those two things.
Now, did you already have the property? I mean you just one day decided, “hey, I need to start this animal sanctuary.” Where did you even begin? My partner, Jesse, and I. This was such a new endeavor. And what I learned, this was in the early days, 2000 when there were not so many animal sanctuaries out there, and most of them were pretty dismal places. So we toured sanctuaries up and down the East Coast and found some breathtaking ones. Poplar Springs Animal Sanctuary is the one that really stands out. Just a beautiful place, quite honestly, that should have been shut down by law enforcement and everything in between. So that sort of gave us the how to. I asked the founders of the good ones a sort of standard set of questions. And then we went to our little community in upstate New York. We had since moved.
Once we left Boston, we’d move to New York City and I said to Jesse, if you want me to live in Manhattan, we have to have a little place upstate. I don’t care if it’s a tiny house, even though you know, they weren’t a thing back then. We bought this teeny little house in upstate New York in the Hudson Valley, and we kind of put a plan together and held a public meeting that said, “here’s a vision. here’s the mission. here’s what we need.” Well, one of the things we needed to get started was land, and a woman stood up and said, I have 50 acres that I’m not really using. Wow. I’d be willing to chat with you about getting going. She was a quarter mile down the road from us. I used to pass by her farm every single day, so that was a tremendous gift.
You know, she didn’t give us the property, but we were able to use it to establish our credibility, to get all our ducks in the road while we built our board while we started a sort of a modest PR and fundraising campaign. And all the while that was this tremendous gift that gave us the opportunity to have a year and a half to build that foundation while we were also looking for a permanent property. And we are fast forward 19 years that we bought that property of very, very, very run-down property, but it was affordable all these years later, we’ll have 150 acres that we own with nine big barns and lots of smaller barns and a couple of dozen pastures and ponds and beautiful willow trees. And that’s the short. That really just sounds amazing.
So now you have a property. Where do you start? How do you find the animals that you’re going to rescue and give permanent residents well as dog and cat shelters know, the animals find us. We turn down animals every single day. If we had said yes to every animal that comes our way, we’d probably have 200,000 right now, and nobody can accommodate 200,000 animals. So it’s similar to how animals come to dog and cat shelters, surrenders because of hardship, cruelty cases, animal hoarding is a massive problem, not only with dogs and cats, deaths in the family, what we call random acts of cruelty.
A guy opened his mailbox and found a chicken stuffed in his mailbox. Somebody found a pig walking across Brooklyn Bridge. A sheep and her baby were being chased through the Bronx by dogs, all manner of cruel acts. And then finally, the final big category, of course, is because we rescue food animals, and a lot of our animals come from industry. We a few years ago took in 300 chickens from an egg industry that was downsizing and was simply gonna, as it’s kind of standard practice, crush or gas all of its chicken. So a big coalition got together quickly, and we took 300 chickens.
So now, tell me about the residents that you have there today. We live in a world that recognizes who dogs and cats are and how individual they are. But we don’t live in a world that knows that if you love a cow or if you love a sheep or if you love a turkey, that and that animal develops a trusting mutual relationship, then that animal becomes a turkey who wants to fall asleep in your lap. Or a cow who runs to you when you call his name, or licks your face until you have to pull away because your face is gonna bleed because a cow’s tongue is a cat’s tongue on steroids, so they are remarkably individual. You know, in any group of any species you’ve got the really raucous, outgoing ones, the affectionate ones, the demanding ones, the more reserved ones. There’s no meaningful difference between a dog and a cat and a chicken and a pig. We just live in a world that compartmentalizes them. These are friends, these over here are food. To see the lunacy of that and to understand the devastation that it means for billions of animals every year, and that philosophy has done. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change.
So to find a way to say to good people, like people know we’re not a petting zoo. People know they’re gonna hear an educational message when they come down our driveway to find a way to do that with truth, but also with love and with the understanding that, “of course, you eat me. How could you not eat meat? We’re a meat-based culture. It’s our tradition. It’s our habit.” You know, to find a way to say to people we are not judging you. But here is why it’s important to consider a different way, is what we try to do.
Yeah, and you know, you touched on something that I think is really interesting because obviously here in the US, we look at dogs and cats, as you said, as companion animals. And one of the things that we get outraged about is in China, where they’re killing dogs for food. Yeah. And, you know, we’re killing cows, as you pointed out. But in India, cows are sacred. Revered. I mean, when you look at the global population, we all love animals, but we all kind of have focused on different areas. Yeah, we compartmentalize, and we must, if the planet is going to be here for future generations, the planet we get to enjoy now, you know. Well look at the alarming change that’s already taking place. We’ve got to make a rapid shift toward a more plant-based lifestyle, so we’ve got our work cut out for us. Yeah.
But it is—there’s a really interesting book by a college professor named Melanie Joy called “Why we love dogs, eat pigs and wear cow,” and she talks about the arbitrariness of it and how it’s totally culturally bound. It’s what you learn from the time you come out of the womb, and in our culture you love dogs and you eat pigs. And in halfway across the world it’s very different. We all want our lives. We all feel the same emotions. We all experience pain and suffering no differently from the other one. It’s not species-specific, those things.
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Now I know, one of the things that’s a passion for you guys in for Catskill is to be a teaching sanctuary. So tell me more about that, like, what does that mean? Okay, here’s what it means: we turn down animals every day, at any given time, we’ve got about 300 roughly divided between the big animals, which are the horses, the cows, the pigs, the medium animals, which are the goats and sheep, and then the small animals, which are the birds. We’re always at capacity, and so is every good sanctuary across the country. So you get to a point just like dog and cat shelters. There’s some programming at some shelters that push very hard the idea of adoption if we all adopted. If we stopped buying animals that are bred to sell to humans, the purebreds, then we wouldn’t have the homeless animal problem to the extent that we would.
Well, similarly, we start from a place that people are good. Most people have good hearts. Most people, even if they’re indifferent to animals, very few people only a depraved sort of person, wants other beings to suffer. Right. Regardless of whether they’re human or animal. So the teaching peace is simply a matter of inviting people to see the truth about who these animals are. They come down and the chicken falls asleep in their arms or the pig runs, when you say “Amelia,” no matter how far away she is in her field, she runs to the fence to say hello or to get a butt scratch, or what have you. Yeah.
So the teaching peace is a matter of showing people who these animals are in a way that’s disarming to them, also simultaneously saying, “well, here are the lives that they endure because of your choice to eat them.” And then what happens is that people—my favorite story is something like this for many people who come. A guy had just finished a tour. We bumped into each other in the parking lot right outside the main barn. He burst into tears. He grabbed my forearms and he said, I get it now. “Tell me, tell me what to do.” And so you have to have programs available. We have two vegan chefs. We have a cookbook. We have a free vegan mentor program, where if they’re moved and want to take that step but don’t know what the hell to put on their plate if you take the chicken off, then we have lots of resources. Yeah. We even do free vegan cooking demos and taste testings on the weekends. Wow. We got cooking classes. We’ve got a camp for kids. So we offer the programming so that good people whose hearts are open can get the help that they might need the help that lots of us had when we went from a meat and dairy-based diet to a plant-based diet.
I love that, and I love the fact that you guys are really taking the opportunity to expand, and it’s like you’re really you’re living your mission. You’re not judging other people. You’re saying “here, let me show you. Here’s how you can do this. There are small changes that you can make.” And like you said, “we’ll teach you how to cook. We’ll give you a cookbook, we’ll give you all those things that you need to make the decision yourself.” And it’s one of those things that I really believe in is not trying to shame other people, just show them, teach them and let them make their own decision because likely they’re gonna make the right one.
Good people do. We see it over, and over, and over, again. The greatest joy of my life would be if I woke up tomorrow and everybody was eating plants instead of animals. But it’s not going to happen overnight, so we just have to keep upping our game and leading with love. And how could you judge? I mean, the only people I get impatient with are the vegans who get impatient with people who aren’t vegan. Because it was a journey for all of us. Very few people saw a grisly documentary on TV on Tuesday night and woke up vegan, Wednesday morning. People don’t do it like that.
And I think you’re exactly right. Cause approaching people with kindness and understanding and about their journey, it’s a much better way to go. I mean, there’s such a movement that seems to be happening when you hear about the Impossible Burger and Beyond Me and Burger Kings and McDonald’s. I’m an Impossible Burger fan. I just love those. I think they taste great, and it’s interesting to see that once we focused on—forget about trying to shame somebody in to it. Make a product, make a better product, and you find that people will gravitate towards it and they’ll be like “yeah, and if this is healthier for me and my health and for the environment and it’s saving animals, why wouldn’t I eat it? There’s no reason that I need to have beef.” Correct. Absolutely.
And the health angle is certainly one way in for a lot of people. Our diet is a leading cause of lots of forms of cancer and type two diabetes. We now are starting to understand the link between our diet and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. So all kinds of angles, you know, people have their own reasons to begin this change. So we’re available to support whichever speaks most loudly to each person. You’re right, The Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, our delicious not to mention, you know, the zillion and one milks out there. A decade ago, what could you get? Almond, maybe? Almond and soy. And now there must be 15 different kinds of plant-based milks. It’s amazing when we really put our minds to it, how we can innovate and even some of the biggest corporations that are big meat producers are spending millions of dollars now looking at alternatives because they’re sensing and seeing that change in the market. And so it’s really interesting to see how we’re starting to get that momentum and start heading in the right direction.
Well, but keep in mind, meat was an innovation. Factory farming didn’t exist that farmed in tiny, cramped spaces. Billions and billions and billions and billions of animals didn’t exist until the mid-century. And so there was lots of innovation around, creating all the meat products that we kind of take for granted today. So similarly, yeah, we’re doing just a really interesting thing in the meat substitute space. Yeah. And it’s changing really rapidly. Yeah.
So what’s next for you? I mean, you must have a vision for what you want, the sanctuary to do and the impact that you want it to have. I have launched my own podcast, All Beings Considered, which I’m really excited about. Chris, it is so much work, good Lord! They’re fun. It’s really fun. We’re starting our new strategic plan over the next couple years. We want to scale all of our existing programs. We want to take our tours up a notch. We want to expand the reach of our cooking program. We want to support tens of thousands, at least if not more than that of people internationally through our new Leaf Mentor Program. We actually are still in our pilot year, and it’s already been adopted by people in 31 different countries. So the demand for free support is out there.
So we’re hunkering down this fall to look at programs that kind of have proven their worth and looking at how to grow them. And one place we struggle is that you’ve got to always be very sensitive to the needs of the animals who call the sanctuary home because some love it, love the tour weekends. Some don’t want the engagement. We’re all different. So we’re going to be looking at how to scale the program, the tours program without impacting the animals because the last thing you want to be is a zoo. It’s not meaningful for the people, and it’s certainly stressful for the animals, so that’s what we’re doing. We like our four major programs. The educational program, the tours program, the cooking program, the New Leaf Program, Five. And All Beings Considered we’re just gonna look at how to grow them exponentially to deepen our impact, cause that’s why we’re here.
And I’m just kind of curious. You’re looking back now, in 19 years. I mean, is this how you thought things would turn out? No. You know, I don’t know that long ago I projected forward in that way, I’m a teacher, first and foremost. A teacher. A writer. A speaker. I knew that there was an urgent need for a teaching sanctuary because I didn’t know that we would, none of us did, I don’t think, except the scientists. We did not know that we would be facing extinction in 2020. We didn’t know that we would be looking at unlivable planet 10 years from now. And so that I didn’t expect. Certainly not that it would be incumbent on us, two decades in to say “okay, what can we do to help humanity understand that this climate chaos is directly linked to animal agriculture and that there’s got to be a massive and rapid shift?” So no, I had no idea that the climate and an unlivable planet would be part of it. In forming how we go about the next two decades, couldn’t have foreseen that.
So what’s one thing that you’ve learned about yourself as you’ve gone through this journey? Well, I think what I’ve learned from the animals is that in the ways that matter, we’re all the same. We all are individuals. We all want our lives. We all have rich emotional lives. And as I said earlier, pain and suffering feel the same to all of us, whether your child or a chicken. And so to use my best strengths to support that is something I need to do well. I’ve learned that I’m not a good manager. I’m not organized. I am a good teacher. Two decades in, virtually, I’m crystal clear about what I do well and what I stink at and part of this, the next steps need must be to get me out of the management, support the people who are good at that day to day stuff, so that I can use my best drinks in service to the mission. That’s what I’m good at, and what I’m bad at. Yeah.
So, Kathy, as we’re starting to come to the end of our time. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up? I would love to share that Catskill Animal Sanctuary welcomes guests on weekends through the end of November. And that we have a beautiful bed and breakfast right on the property. And it would be great for people to learn a little bit more by going to our website, casanctuary.org. From there you can hop right onto my new podcast, “All Beings Considered.” Absolutely, like I was telling you, I’ve already added it to my playlist. So I’m looking forward to catching up on the past episode. And then, as I said to you, when I figure out how to add a podcast to my playlist, I will do the same thing with yours.
Well Kathy, thank you so much for coming on today. It was really fascinating to hear your story. And I really appreciate you sharing everything. Well, I’m so grateful for the time. I loved discovering the podcasts, and I can’t wait to listen in regularly. Thanks, Chris. Thanks, Kathy. Okay, have a great day.
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