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Q&A: Vegan life on the farm with Jenny Brown

As a little girl, Jenny Brown lost her leg to cancer and her heart to a kitten named Boogie, the feline companion who shared the heartaches and triumphs that came with learning to get on with life after the disease. The relationship marked the start of a passion for the welfare of all living things that grew during her life and eventually led to the creation of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. At the sanctuary in New York’s Catskills Mountains, her days are shared with about 200 cows, pigs, goats, chickens and other farm animals rescued from abuse, neglect and impending slaughter.

In her book, The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals, Brown details her path from fast-food eating teen to vegan animal welfare activist who, before starting the sanctuary, worked as a filmmaker who sometimes took her camera under cover to document farm animal abuse. I spoke with her Friday to learn more about life as an ethical vegetarian and activist.

Are most of the visitors to your farm already vegetarian? Do you make many converts? Do you hear from visitors later about changes they’ve made?

I would say it’s about half and half. We get a lot of people who come here who are already leaving animals off their plate and whose courage to continue against adversity is strengthened by having a connection with these animals. Their lifestyles have been changed because of these animals. Knowing these animals as individuals, spending time with them gives them the courage to continue leaving them off their plate.

But we also get a lot of folks who bring friends, family or loved ones here, so they can meet these animals. And we hear from so many of the folks that visit here, we get phone calls and donations with letters attached, we get Facebook posts. Some were so quiet when they came, they might have come because they thought it would be cool to meet an 800-pound pig. But then they see these animals as individuals, surrounded by people who love them. For the first time they’re in that kind of environment, and it can cause major paradigm shifts. Sanctuaries are such a powerful form of farm animal advocacy. Farm animals are the most exploited and abused beings on the planet. We look at their secretions and flesh on a daily basis,  but don’t see them up close and in an environment where they’re not treated as commodities or production units. It’s a really powerful form of activism.

We can’t rescue all the animals, so we would never do this without an educational component. When you plant that seed of compassion, people look inside and question their lifelong habits.Their eyes have been opened. Sanctuaries are places of transformation, not only for animals that need to be healed but also for people who need to  be healed. People who proclaim themselves to be animal lovers but have never considered these animals. It starts with people meeting them, to realize they’re not just walking hamburgers or wings.

Sanctuaries are magical places of healing and transformation. If you are of like mind and have trouble with the fact that others are not, you can find it very frustrating when it feels like you’re not being effective with a loved one. That’s because it’s a loved one. If you bring them to a sanctuary, and they’re meeting the animals and hearing how animals just like them are dying, you’ll bring the others into the fold.

You write in your book about how hard it was early on not to judge those who continue to eat meat after they become aware of where it comes from, and that you learned the hard way that preaching at people isn’t the way to change hearts and minds.  How do you change hearts and minds?

You’re talking about a very ingrained cultural habit. It’s a convenient habit. A tasty habit. I wish we were a society of critical thinkers, but we’re not. I have to remember that once I was a self-proclaimed animal lover who didn’t make that obvious connection that I’m eating them as well.

People ask what you eat and people have a fear that they’re never going to enjoy a meal again, or that all vegans eat steamed tofu and broccoli on brown rice. There are so many myths that need to be dispelled — it’s not a diet of denial but abundance and living our true values. What we have to stop and remember is our greatest hurdle — we’re prisoners of our greatest indoctrinations. People resist change, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

That’s why when you come here for a vegan meal, you are going to have something gastronomically fabulous. And more and more there are veggie restaurants and veggie cookbooks. Try it out and it’s not as scary as you think, and the benefits to their health and the planet are huge.

Nobody’s perfect. I’m a passionate activist and I get frustrated with the problem. But I always have to remember that I too thought of myself as an animal lover, but I just hadn’t come out of that vegan closet. We are all truly capable of being more conscious and compassionate. We provide a place to get the experiences and education you need to make the decisions that are more in line with your values.

As we teach compassion for all living beings, it’s an exercise and a daily reminder to be compassionate and forgiving to all who don’t subscribe to our way of thinking. Most people have not been exposed to what I’ve been exposed to.  The undercover films that documented such hopelessness;  you don’t want to be a part of a society that’s capable of doing that. Every animal out there on the sanctuary represents the others in their species that suffer. Everybody has an idea how to get to total animal liberation. We all have our own ideas of how to get there. To me, the infighting needs to stop and we need to focus on what we think is most effective. And to be our most kind, so we’re not alienating others. For me, it’s always about bringing it back to animal cruelty. That is the common ground.

The groups out there that do lobbying for animals, we’re on the front lines. We know that there’s no difference between our beloved cats and dogs and that animal on our plates. Yet look at what we do to these other animals. We compartmentalize them, divide them into those we love and those we eat. We are going to shift that with compassion and progressive action.

You grew up eating a pretty typical American diet. Do you have advice for others who want to make the change?

I think it’s different for different people. Transitional foods like veggie burgers can be helpful. I don’t understand people who attack vegetarians who eat “fake meat.” It’s not like we don’t like chewing or tasting. Our mouths are conditioned to like certain things. If we eat meat, we’re not eating a raw piece of meat.  Everything tastes the way it does because we season it. Yes, go ahead and start out with wheat balls and spaghetti, veggie burgers, try Vegenaise. If you want ice cream, your mind will be blown when you taste some of the almond varieties out there.

I’ve always had a love of Asian and Indian foods. If you are a lover of sushi, get a sweet potato or avocado roll and dip it in wasabi and soy sauce. Are you tasting raw dead fish or the flavors of the seasonings? With Thai, Indian and Vietnamese, it’s really easy to not eat dairy.  Go online and look up some veggie recipes. Go out to restaurants, join a local veg meetup group. So much good stuff can come from that. Like our Facebook page and read the postings there for more ideas.

It wasn’t a tough transition for me. My mom was always a good cook, so we had big pots of vegetable stew and baked potatoes with lots of stuff on them. I’ve been vegan since 2002, but vegetarian since 1989. My husband loves to cook and we do a lot of experimental cooking and keep learning about how to eat well. Quinoa and brown rice pasta are better for you and just happen to be delicious. One problem I had in terms of transitioning in the early days before going vegan was, anything that was meat I replaced with cheese. So I hear from a lot of people who say they gain weight. You have to use the creative part of your brain.

Is it getting easier to find vegan options on restaurant menus?

At privately owned restaurants, absolutely. More and more, it’s strange if you don’t see a vegetarian section on the menu. And we can use the power of our voice. We can get up and leave if there’s nothing vegetarian. With the current obesity epidemic, people are looking for healthier options without any animal products. It feels good that you can find stuff these days even in weird little cafe places.

Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary offers weekend tours April through October. The Sanctuary is an on-site B&B that features vegan meals and “live rooster alarm clocks.”