Last week we hosted a panel in New York City to discuss what the Trump Administration may mean for the animals. When it was announced, a lot of people asked, “Why do you have to get political? Can’t you leave politics out of your work with animals?”
I have to admit I was floored. Hosting a panel may be new for us, but the truth is, Catskill Animal Sanctuary has always been political.
You see, founding the Sanctuary 16 years ago was born from a drive that has fueled my entire life: the desire to use my time on earth to do all that I’m able to usher in that blessed day when all can know love. The Catskill mission is to rescue farmed animals and champion veganism, but what fuels that mission is an unwavering belief that all who breathe — regardless of race, religion, social class, sexual orientation, or species — are entitled to joy. “All hearts yearn to sing” is how I often inscribe my books.
When one’s heart is truly open, all suffering is intolerable. There is a line connecting my love for and defense of the underdog — a constant childhood theme — with Catskill Animal Sanctuary’s work to create vegans. And while Catskill works to free animals from suffering at human hands, we honor those who work in support of voting rights, immigration, environmentalism, marriage equality, workers’ rights, etc. All hearts yearn to sing: we want them to be able to. It really is that simple.
This desire — to help all beings experience joy — informs all that we are. It informs how we interact with the 330 animals who call CAS home. It informs our hiring process. It informs every aspect of our engagement with our followers, and with the public at large, from the tone and the content of our social media, to the tours we offer to thousands of people who drive down our hill each year to connect with cows and chickens, pigs and goats in a way that many never have. We lead with love and approach everyone, no matter their point of view, with kindness.
At Catskill Animal Sanctuary, we dream of a world without animal suffering and exploitation. But in America, agribusiness has a lobbying budget larger than the budget of all farmed animal sanctuaries combined. And just weeks into the new administration, the USDA made tracking animal abuse at puppy mills, zoos, and other industries that profit from the use of animals virtually impossible. In a David vs. Goliath world, we have to be political.
Pigs and chickens, cows and turkeys are as individual as you and I, as emotional as you and I, want their lives as much as we want ours, and experience pain, suffering, and terror no differently than you or I. In other words, in the ways that truly matter, we are all the same. This truth is what drives us to extinguish a barbaric industry that inflicts on innocent beings a level of torture and suffering that no person of good will would wish upon a depraved criminal. But the notion of a plant-based nation challenges our institutions, our farmers’ way of life, our habits, our cultural and familial traditions, and our beliefs about proper nutrition. And so our work is, by definition, political.
We know that agribusiness is the leading cause of water pollution, species extinction, topsoil erosion, and the destruction of Earth’s ecologically vital rainforests. It is also responsible for more carbon emissions than all types of transportation combined. But we live in a time when despite the fact of climate change, climate change is called a hoax, the new administration has already moved to roll back protections on our water and air, and Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, sued the EPA 14 times over its pollution regulations. So we have to be political.
I got plenty of practice as a young child in rural Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s. There was nothing remarkable about my family: we were a reflection of our time. And to be fair to my parents, much of my childhood (on a large “horse farm”) was magical. But painful memories from the first two decades of my life when my family and friends’ bigotry superseded all that was good about them could fill my next book: my brother’s black teammate — the pitcher/catcher duo were a Little League tour de force — wasn’t allowed inside our house until my parents finally yielded to my persistent lobbying. The sometimes casual, sometimes defiant use of racial slurs by respected community members. The catered dinner when an older man I’d known my whole life bellowed, “Honey, why are you friends with that <you know what he said>?” at the moment when a dignified black man in a white dinner jacket stood beside him, refilling his water glass.
My earliest memory from my racist upbringing is a day when I heard Bessie, our beloved housekeeper and babysitter, call out to my mother from the bottom of the stairs. My mom and I were upstairs in our old farm house; I was lounging on her bed, chatting away happily, as my mother put away boxes of shoes and several dresses purchased on her latest trip to the mall.
“Sally?” Bessie called.
I swear that in that moment I stopped breathing. And I’m pretty sure my mother did, too.
“Sally?” Bessie called again, this time more hesitantly.
My mother placed a pair of expensive navy pumps on the bed, and without looking at me, walked toward the door.
“Be nice to her, Mama,” I whispered to my mother’s back. But instead of a muffled conversation in the hallway below, I heard only footsteps. Bessie and my mother were walking outside, out of earshot. My heart was in my throat. What was she going to say to Bessie, who before this moment had always referred to my mother as “Mrs. Stevens”?
I rooted hard for my friend in the ensuing days, and when my mother refused to yield, I began calling Bessie “Mrs. Shelton.” “Mama, what time is Mrs. Shelton coming today?” I’d ask. Or “Mama, Mrs. Shelton and I are having grilled cheese for lunch. It’s gonna be good!” I only stopped using the moniker when Bessie asked me to, saying, “We’re friends, sweetheart. Let’s call each other by our first names … okay?”
“How about just in private?” I asked. This certainly didn’t help her predicament: how uncomfortable she must have been with my parents! To Bessie’s enormous credit, though, she and I made that pact. When we were together, I’d call her Bessie. In front of my parents, she was Mrs. Shelton. It was an eight-year-old’s first act of civil disobedience.The second was when, after confronting my parents about why my friend was not allowed to eat lunch at the table, I joined her and ate at the kitchen counter. “When you’re older, you’ll understand,” my mother had responded to my question about why Bessie couldn’t eat with us. Well, I didn’t understand. I wouldn’t. If this was my world, I’d simply change it.
Outside my home, institutionalized racism and absolute segregation just was: My parents sent me to a private elementary school that had a bogus “admissions test” intended to keep out black kids. Later, in our public high school, my classes were all white, and there might as well have been a wall down the middle of the cafeteria, for black kids ate on one side of the room, white kids on the other. And each summer day on the drive into town, we passed a community pool where black families gathered, and I can’t even type what my mother called the children. “Look at all <them> at that pool!” she’d say, the hateful words rolling off her tongue as easily as if she were saying, “Look at all those colorful bathing suits! Aren’t they pretty?”
How I knew that all of this was wrong is a question I can’t fully answer. But my little heart did know it. It hurt for all those who weren’t like me, and it burned with anger and shame each time my family or friends’ racism surfaced.
When I moved to Boston in the mid-1980s, it was not only an attempt to shed the weight and the shame of this part of my past but also to be part of a community that looked like what thought America should. I touched down in Jamaica Plain, a true melting pot of races and religions, cultures and classes. My father visited, and in inimitable Ed Stevens’ style, asked “Where are all the white people?” and commented that the neighborhood “looked like the damned United Nations.”
“I know!” I responded as my entire body smiled.
As I moved from childhood through young adulthood, I became better able to refuse the bait from my father. Racist jokes? “Whatever, Dad,” I’d say, dismissively. And as soon as he began to spiral downward during a political conversation, I’d change the subject. Much as I loathed my Dad’s racism, homophobia, and the rest of it, I loved him in spite of it and didn’t want to lose him altogether.
But then I met Jesse Moore. If you read my books then know how important Jesse Moore was to both me and Catskill Animal Sanctuary. But what I didn’t write about then was the early months of our relationship.
Jesse was a San Francisco-based actor staying in Boston for a theater production. When he and I met at a party, the attraction was instantaneous. He was gorgeous, bright, hilarious, worldly, and deeply kind. Within a few months, he’d uprooted and moved across the country to live with me. In Jamaica Plain. This black man.
“Jew, black, or I-talian?” my Dad asked during our weekly phone conversation when I announced the happy news that I was living with a wonderful man.
“Uh … the middle one,” I said.
The silence lasted for nearly a year. For nearly a year, I didn’t speak to my father. Nor did I speak to my mother, or my younger sister or brother. My choice of an African-American partner was too much for all of them. As much as my friends said, “This is their loss, Kathy,” I missed them — especially my larger-than-life father. But they were the ones who needed to get over themselves. I would have to wait it out.
And then one day the phone rang. It was baseball season, and my Dad’s best friend was Joe Morgan, the manager of the Boston Red Sox. Dad came to Boston each year and split his time between visits with me, visits to Suffolk Downs, a thoroughbred racetrack on the outskirts of Boston, and visits with his pal at Fenway Park. Dad loved the Red Sox, and Joe loved Dad, even inviting him to sit in the dugout during games.
“I’m coming to Boston next week,” was all the voice on the other end of the phone said. He was nervous. I was nervous.
“Dad … will you meet Jesse?”
And then came the words I’ll never forget: “Shit, Kathy, I’ve gotta meet him sometime.”
At a Copley Square lunch spot a few days later, Dad and Jesse sat across from each other, and the child of a Southern racist watched her partner use humor and sports talk to chip away at fear and hatred. And she watched her father soften. Quickly. Saying goodbye outside the restaurant, she whispered “Thank you, Dad. This is the greatest gift you’ve ever given me.” And her father, choking back tears, whispered back, “He’s a fine man, honey. He’s a fine man.”
Love trumped hate outside Fenway Park that day.
Judgments based on color, class, religion, intellect, sexual orientation, or ethnicity have always baffled me, perhaps because as someone whose heart is wide open, I quickly feel my way past those superficial differences to the person inside. That’s what love does: it feels past barriers that the fearful use to divide us. It doesn’t see color or class, race or religion. And neither does love see species. Those of us lucky enough to understand that love and joy are pretty much all that matter in life are rarely confused about why we’re here. All of us — whether we’re working on behalf of animals, children, poor folks, women, refugees, or anyone else marginalized by the status quo keepers–we’re all doing the same work. In the early days of an administration that appears to be trying mightily to tromp on the rights of many marginalized groups, why wouldn’t I feel bad? And concerned? And why wouldn’t I look for solace among my four-legged friends?
While I appreciate that many good people voted for Donald Trump, for me, he is an abomination. His rhetoric fans the flames of the haters in our midst, and the consequences of many of his hastily conceived executive orders (most of which either explicitly target the vulnerable– the poor, women, retirees, the planet — or negatively impact them) could be cataclysmic. So could his blatant attempt to discredit as “fake news” any media outlet critical of him. I see a narcissistic, amoral man being manipulated by extremists who’ve been put into positions of power who are smarter and more dangerous than he. Folks like me — Republicans and Democrats alike — see these profoundly un-American men crafting an America that we don’t recognize.
Dr. Martin Luther King remarked that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And right now, justice is being threatened everywhere we look. At Catskill Animal Sanctuary, we’re a small staff, and much of our time and budget go towards the daily care of 330 animals. But our hearts? They are an endless resource, and we will use them to champion love — so that all hearts can sing. We hope that those who might disagree with us politically understand that we are not judging them! No: to judge the actions of an administration is not the same as judging those who voted it in. If people don’t understand that — well, as my friends said about my family’s rejection of me all those years ago — it truly is their loss.
And so, again, friends: May love lead us. Always and forever. Onward.