It’s week one of my internship at Farm Sanctuary in Orland, California, and, I have to say, I am already having the most incredible experience.
There are many animal welfare organizations that I admire, but Farm Sanctuary has always been at the top of my list. In addition to their advocacy and making great strides in improving legislation for farm animals, Farm Sanctuary has a reputation for a successful hands-on approach to rehabilitation, healing, and providing refuge for injured farm animals. And seeing it happen firsthand — and being part of it — is a phenomenal experience.
Previous Animal Rights Activism
I have been an animal rights activist for years, but there is a difference between signing petitions, attending protests, opting to not eat animal products, and actually caring for the animals damaged in our overly industrialized and extremely cruel food production system.
I don’t believe there is a hierarchy of importance in animal rights work, but working directly with the animals, as opposed to lobbying various institutions or governmental bodies for change, was something that increasingly appealed to my partner and I after we cared for ten chickens rescued from a battery hen facility in Western Canada. Seeing how damaged these chickens were was definitely an life-changing moment for me.
Internship Application Process
I applied for an internship at one of the three facilities that Farm Sanctuary operates within the United States (with shelters also located in New York and Los Angeles). Although there were communications/education positions better suited to my occupation as a journalist, I opted to apply for the internship where you get to work directly with the animals (Shelter Internship). I wanted to again experience the deep satisfaction you get from direct contact with animals.
I completed my application online, had an extensive telephone interview, and was accepted. I think it was one of the happier days of my life to find out that I would be interning during June and July 2012 at Farm Sanctuary.
So, here I am after one week at the beautiful Orland, California, sanctuary, nestled on 300 acres of rolling golden hills, dotted with multiple barns, enclosures, pastures, and roughly 600 animals, including donkeys, sheep, cattle, chickens, geese, ducks, goats, and pigs. The animals’ stories and histories are diverse, and their health conditions vary greatly, but most share the commonality of a previous life that involved great suffering.
Although I tried not to have expectations prior to arriving, it was difficult not to fantasize about what the internship would entail. Even though I was sent extensive information outlining what the program would look like, including examples of typical work days, I think I was a bit naïve in thinking everybody sat around all day hugging animals and talking about how great it is to be vegan.
This is a working sanctuary where the staff is truly dedicated to helping animals, and, for many, it is a vocation. There are the lobbying and educational components, but the majority of time here is spent caring for and loving the animals. The level of care here is very high; it entails a great deal of work to heal, rehabilitate, and maintain the animals that live at the farm.
A Typical Day
Many people have asked me what a typical day is like, but, so far, each day has been different. The first week has been spent mostly training the new interns in the various aspects of keeping the shelter running.
We work five days a week and have two days off; shifts start roughly at 7 or 8 a.m. and continue until 4 or 5 p.m., with a two-hour lunch break. Occasionally, there is a night shift where you assist in putting the animals to bed, making sure the smaller creatures are safely secured for the evening. Many of the animals are vulnerable to predators and much attention is needed to ensure everyone is safe and accounted for.
I have cleaned stalls, barns, and coops; gathered eggs; brushed goats; put sunscreen on pigs’ ears; delivered food and water to the animals; played with a calf who is currently in isolation due to contagious infections; helped get a rattlesnake out of one of the barns; prepared special treats and snacks for the animals; done vast amounts of laundry; cleaned the hospital and isolation areas; and swept floors — and I still had time to hold and hug the animals!
The days are long, and the work can be challenging. I have bruises and scrapes from tussles with the feistier and overly affectionate animals, and I end each shift tired and more than a little dirty, but I have never been in such a rewarding environment.
I live with six other interns in communal housing, and I am now part of a community where I don’t have to explain why I am vegan or think animals are important. I spend my days working hands-on, caring for the animals that were once viewed as disposable in an industrialized food system. There have been moments that fill me with joy, like putting sunscreen on pigs’ ears, and moments that have challenged me to stay present, such as assisting with attending to serious injuries — but not a minute goes by that I am not grateful for my decision to come here.
I feel nurtured by the community here and from spending my days with the animals. It’s only been a week, and my internship will last just two months, but I am already wondering what it would be like to spend my life working in an environment such as this, where my work is rewarding, my colleagues are loving and like-minded, I don't have to question whether my work is causing any harm, and I can embody right livelihood in the truest sense.
I feel like I have finally found a community, albeit a temporary one, that already feels so comfortable and right that I am going to spend the rest of my life seeking similar situations in which I can see, firsthand, the results of efforts to alleviate animal suffering. Although I will always continue to sign petitions, attend protests, contribute financially to animal rights organizations, and lobby governmental bodies for better conditions for farm animals, I am now certain that I also want to continue to work directly with animals.
I will blog more in the coming weeks, giving updates and insights into life as a Farm Sanctuary intern in California. Please leave comments and questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them in my next entry.
For more information, visit farmsanctuary.org.
Valerie Williams is a writer from Salt Spring Island, Canada, who is currently interning at Farm Sanctuary in Orland, California.
Photography by Adrienne Szamotula: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aszamotula/