Tag Archives: farm animals

Christmas bonus: Farm animals in demand for Nativity scenes

Some farmers have extra reason to rejoice at Christmas: Tis the season for renting out animals for live Nativity scenes and other holiday events.

Growing up in rural Burlington, Wisconsin, one of Larry Squire’s favorite Christmas traditions was helping to set up a Nativity scene in his uncle’s barn.

“We borrowed the animals from all over the neighborhood,” he recalled.

So several years ago, Squire brought the tradition to Cargill United Methodist Church in his current hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, renting animals from petting zoos and small farms. The church rents two pens’ worth of animals to stand next to a makeshift stable alongside volunteers dressed as Mary, Joseph, angels and the three wise men.

“It’s a beautiful thing. There’s a calm and peacefulness that comes from having the animals there,” Squire said.

Farm animals, reindeer and camels are in high demand between Thanksgiving and Christmas, said Megan Powell, event coordinator at Honey Hill Farm, a mobile petting zoo with locations in Berry, Kentucky, and Utica, Ohio.

“We will do 25 to 30 events in one weekend,” Powell said. “It’s not uncommon for us to sell out.”

Renting animals for Christmas programs helps pay for their food and upkeep, she said, and has been a huge growth area for the business.

“Churches love it,” Powell said. “We didn’t create the demand. We just became overwhelmed by it.”

Jodi Collen, an event planner at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and president of the International Special Events Society, explains it this way: “As event professionals, it doesn’t take you long to say, ‘I’m organizing a Nativity and I can get a donkey — why wouldn’t I get a donkey?’”

Honey Hill works with dozens of churches, schools and businesses to provide sheep, donkeys and goats for live Nativity scenes, said Powell, whose mother started the business about 15 years ago with a pony that she rented for birthday parties. “It really took off and she started adding animals.”

Rentals start at $325 an hour for a group of animals, depending on which ones are requested and for how long. In most cases, Powell said, visitors are allowed to touch and pet the animals.

“We do have a camel,” she said. “But we only have one — so he goes really fast.”

Few petting zoos and traditional farms raise camels, and they are harder to incorporate into programs and exhibits, said Bob Hudelson of Lost River Game Farm in Orleans, Indiana. He raises foxes, skunks and other exotic animals.

“There are a lot of camels out there — just not a lot of tame camels,” he said.

Many churches want them, however: “The three kings definitely had camels on their journey to see Christ,” Hudelson said. “With the camel, you get more of a feel of the story.”

Customers also want reindeer, said Powell, who does not raise them but has thought about it.

“The demand for reindeer is really high,” she said.

From his farm in Knoxville, Tennessee, Kyle Wilson rents reindeer to malls, Christmas tree farms, zoos, hospitals and other businesses throughout the South. His prices start at $1,500 for a pair of reindeer for four hours.

“I currently have 21 reindeer but that’s not enough,” he said. “I started 15 years ago and each year I have had a record year.”

Families love to see Santa arrive with reindeer, said Amy Boyles, marketing manager of Kingsport Town Center in Kingsport, Tennessee.

“It’s an added thing for our community and kids,” she said. “How many people get to see a reindeer? It gives them a bit of a wow factor.”

She has already booked “Dasher” and “Dancer” to appear with Santa during the mall’s Black Friday sale.

Woman turns Texas cattle ranch into vegan animal sanctuary

For generations, Sonnen Ranch has been a place for raising livestock — where animals, though treated humanely, were destined to be used for meat or dairy products. Now, after several rounds of fundraising, the ranch has been transformed into Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, a safe haven for farm animals, allowing the creatures to live out their lives without distress.

The sanctuary’s development was the brainchild of Renee King-Sonnen, who moved to the ranch when she and Thomas Sonnen remarried.

“I’m a Texas girl through and through, grew up eating barbecue, wearing boots, going to the rodeo,” King-Sonnen told The Facts of Brazoria County (http://bit.ly/1IriZpO). “Until I moved out here to the ranch, there was no connection to the animals that ended up on my plate. I’d experimented with vegetarianism, raw food diets, but never really called it ‘vegan.’ It all happened as a result of me living here.”

Being in the presence of farm animals — and seeing their reaction after calves were sold — was enough to change her mind about her diet and lifestyle, King-Sonnen said.

“The cows were so depressed,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared for the way it happened. And every year, it got harder for him to sell the calves, because he didn’t want me to see, wanted to hide it from me.”

“I’d been trying to sneak them out whenever she wasn’t around,” Thomas Sonnen said. “But she’d know anyway.”

Eventually, King-Sonnen laid down the law: If the “red trailer” came again to take calves to the sell barn, she’d follow it herself.

“So he told me he was going to sell the whole herd, was getting out of the business,” she said. “That meant all the cows that had lived their lives here were going to be slaughtered. They wouldn’t have a chance.”

Because Sonnen couldn’t just give away the cattle, his wife asked him a simple question.

“She asked to buy them from me. I asked why, and she said she would keep them in sanctuary,” he said. “I thought that was crazy. This was Texas, it wasn’t going to work. But I said ‘OK, go for it.'”

King-Sonnen turned to the Internet for help, blogging at her “Vegan Journal of a Rancher’s Wife” page and starting an Indiegogo campaign to purchase the animals. In under four months, the necessary funds had been raised, and the sanctuary was founded.

“All these people across the country, across the world, were rallying and supporting us, cheering us on,” she said. “In less than four months we’d raised more than $36,000.”

“I didn’t know if she could do it, but she raised the money and bought the cows,” Sonnen said. “The sanctuary’s working. It’s pretty incredible, all the help she’s gotten.”

Eventually, Sonnen came around to the vegan lifestyle, as well — though for different reasons from his wife.

“My dad died of a heart attack when he was 62, and I had high cholesterol,” he said. “I’m doing it for health reasons. Started cooking for myself, learning a little bit and went full-fledged vegan when I found ice cream and cheeses that would work. And I had my blood work the other day. My cholesterol’s way down.”

To keep the sanctuary sustainable and generate some income, plans are in the works to open a veganic farm on the property, where fresh produce can be made available to the public. Shelley Katz, who met King-Sonnen after looking for ways to approach ranchers, is hard at work growing crops for the farm’s opening.

“I remembered reading about Renee on the Internet, so I asked her how I could approach ranchers about turning ranches into produce farms,” Katz said. “We just kept talking for months, and I’ve been here for over two weeks, just doing what I can.”

After another successful crowdfunding, this time on the website Barnraiser, the sanctuary will be able to purchase the necessary tools to grow a larger and more diverse crop. For the moment, Katz is keeping herself busy.

“Probably 200 plants started already, herbs, melons, cucumbers, all kinds of stuff,” she said. “Within two months, lettuce and herbs should be available first, because they’re the fastest-growing. The goal now is to get it off its feet, a regular yield coming in, a loyal customer base, then pull up the numbers and see the difference between the farm and the cattle ranch.”

King-Sonnen hopes her project will serve as a model to others absent any judgment, she said.

“There’s other sanctuaries in Texas, but as far as we know we’re the only beef cattle ranch that’s gone vegan,” she said. “We’re not out here telling everybody they’re wrong, it’s just something we couldn’t ethically do anymore.”

Beth Arnold, an early contributor to the campaign and a member of the sanctuary’s board, remains impressed by the speed at which the project has grown.

“I can’t believe how much she’s done in seven months,” she said. “Her original goal was to save the cows, and now it’s turning into a whole movement. A lot of people believe in what she’s doing, changing the way they view farm animals.”

Already, the sanctuary has received a steer from a Future Farmers of America family that could no longer care for it, and Rowdy Girl rescued a pig that had been abandoned for six months after the death of its owner. “Herman, the Miracle Pig” prompted the first of what could be more expansions for the sanctuary, and King-Sonnen is happy to do her part to help animals in danger.

“Any animal that’s going to be slaughtered, or is in harm’s way,” she said. “They’re treated like family members, and we take care of them every day, to let them have the lives they deserve.”

Congress to consider protections for farm animals in federal research

Federal lawmakers this week introduced a bill to require protections for farm animals used for agricultural research at federal facilities.

The bill follows a report in The New York Times that revealed animal cruelty at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, a federal livestock research facility in Nebraska.

The cows, sheep, pigs and other farm animals used in experiments at the facility currently are exempt from protections under federal law because of a loophole in the Animal Welfare Act. This loophole exempts farm animals “used or intended for use for improving animal nutrition, breeding, management, or production efficiency, or for improving the quality of food or fiber” from basic welfare standards.

The bill, with bipartisan support, would remove current exceptions that exclude animals used in agricultural experiments at federally-run facilities from certain protections under the Animal Welfare Act.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, and Matthew Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA/American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, both announced support for the proposed Animal Welfare in Agricultural Research Endeavors Act. The short name is the AWARE Act.

The Meat Animal Research Center is part of the Agricultural Research Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 2006, ARS has spent nearly $200 million on the center, according to a report prepared by the USDA for Congress as part of the budgeting process.

The New York Times exposed the center performing inhumane experiments on farm animals, including:

• Locking pigs in steam chambers until they died.

• Breeding calves born with “deformed vaginas” and tangled legs.

• Leaving lambs abandoned by their mothers in pastures to die of exposure or starvation.

The center also performed painful experimental surgeries and allowed at least 6,500 animals to starve to death.

Report: FDA allowed harmful antibiotics in farm animals

The Food and Drug Administration allowed 30 potentially harmful antibiotics, including 18 rated as “high risk,” to remain on the market as additives in farm animal feed and water, according to records obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The data, released on Jan. 28, show the use of the drugs in livestock likely exposes humans to antibiotic resistant bacteria through the food supply, the NRDC said. The FDA’s reviews of the antibiotics occurred between 2001 and 2010, yet the drugs remain approved and, in many cases, on the market for use in industrial animal agriculture operations.

“Drugmakers never proved safety. And FDA continues to knowingly allow the use of drugs in animal feed that likely pose a ‘high risk’ to human health,” said Carmen Cordova, NRDC microbiologist and lead author of the new NRDC analysis. “That’s a breach of their responsibility and the public trust.”

Cordova added, “This discovery is disturbing but not surprising given FDA’s poor track record on dealing with this issue. It’s just more overwhelming evidence that FDA — in the face of a mounting antibiotic resistance health crisis — is turning a blind eye to industry’s misuse of these miracle drugs.”

The NRDC report, “Playing Chicken with Antibiotics,” shows safety reviews of various drugs in the penicillin and tetracycline drug classes — antibiotics considered important to human medicine, which together comprise nearly half of all antibiotics used in animal agriculture in the United States.

NRDC, in the report, said FDA papers obtained through freedom of information requests, show:

• None of the 30 antibiotics would likely be approved as new additives for livestock use if submitted under current FDA guidelines, because drugmakers have not submitted sufficient information to establish their safety.

• 18 of the 30 antibiotic feed additives reviewed were deemed to pose a “high risk” of exposing humans to antibiotic resistant bacteria through the food supply and of adversely affecting human health.

• Drug manufacturers never submitted sufficient information for the remaining 12 products to establish safety, meaning there is no proof of their safety for humans when used in animal feed and the products could not be approved today.

• 29 of the reviewed additives fail to satisfy FDA’s first iteration of safety requirements from 1973.

A large body of scientific work on bacterial cross- and co-resistance has established that the misuse of one antibiotic can lead to bacterial resistance to other antibiotics.

According to the NRDC, the 30 penicillin- and tetracycline-based animal feed additives could reduce the effectiveness of a range of other medically important antibiotics that are solely used to treat people.

FDA first recognized the risks from the use of antibiotics in animal feed in 1977 when it proposed to withdraw approvals for animal feed containing penicillin and most tetracyclines. NRDC won a lawsuit against the FDA for failing to follow through and address the threat posed by the misuse of penicillin and tetracyclines in the livestock industry.

The FDA appealed, and a decision is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York.

Studies showing the intelligence of farm animals fuel new campaign of reform and awareness

There’s extensive evidence that pigs are as smart and sociable as dogs. Yet one species is afforded affection and respect; the other faces mass slaughter en route to becoming bacon, ham and pork chops.

Seeking to capitalize on that discrepancy, animal-welfare advocates are launching a campaign called “The Someone Project”, which aims to highlight research depicting pigs, chickens, cows and other farm animals as more intelligent and emotionally complex than commonly believed. The hope is that more people might view these animals with the same empathy that they view dogs, cats, elephants, great apes and dolphins.

“When you ask people why they eat chickens but not cats, the only thing they can come up with is that they sense cats and dogs are more cognitively sophisticated than the species we eat – and we know this isn’t true,” said Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary, the animal-protection and vegan-advocacy organization that is coordinating the new project.

“What it boils down to is people don’t know farm animals the way they know dogs or cats,” Friedrich said. “We’re a nation of animal lovers, and yet the animals we encounter most frequently are the animals we pay people to kill so we can eat them.”

The lead scientist for the project is Lori Marino, a lecturer in psychology at Emory University who has conducted extensive research on the intelligence of whales, dolphins and primates. She plans to review existing scientific literature on farm animals’ intelligence, identify areas warranting new research and prepare reports on her findings that would be circulated worldwide via social media, videos and her personal attendance at scientific conferences.

“I want to make sure this is all taken seriously,” Marino said. “The point is not to rank these animals but to re-educate people about who they are. They are very sophisticated animals.”

For Marino and Friedrich, who are both vegans, the goals of the project are twofold – to build broader public support for humane treatment of farm animals and to boost the ranks of Americans who choose not to eat meat.

“This project is not a way to strong-arm people into going vegan overnight but giving them a fresh perspective and maybe making them a little uncomfortable,” Marino said.

“Maybe they’ll be thinking, ‘Hmm, I didn’t know cows and pigs could recognize each other and have special friends,’” she said. “That might make them squirm a little, but that’s OK.”

The major associations representing chicken and pork producers are not pleased with the project. 

“While animals raised for food do have a certain degree of intelligence, Farm Sanctuary is seeking to humanize them to advance its vegan agenda – an end to meat consumption,” said David Warner of the National Pork Producers Council. “While vegans have a right to express their opinion – and we respect that right – they should not force their lifestyle on others.”

A pig’s life

Some researchers say pigs’ cognitive abilities are superior to 3-year-old children, as well as to dogs and cats.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a section on its website entitled “The Hidden Lives of Pigs,” which depicts them as social, playful and protective animals with a vocabulary of more than 20 different oinks, grunts and squeaks.

“Pigs are known to dream, recognize their own names, learn tricks like sitting for a treat and lead social lives of a complexity previously observed only in primates,” the website says. “Like humans, pigs enjoy listening to music, playing with soccer balls and getting massages.”

The website recounts news stories of pigs saving the lives of imperiled humans and saving themselves by jumping off trucks bound for slaughterhouses.

Treatment of pigs has been a political issue in several states due to efforts to pass laws banning the confinement of breeding pigs in gestation crates. In fact, the treatment of factory-farmed animals is so cruel and brutal that industrial farming corporations in some states actually have pressured lawmakers into passing laws making it illegal for activists to videotape abuse. Opponents say these “ag-gag” laws violate free speech, food safety and animal and worker rights.

For instance, a law in Iowa makes it illegal for investigative journalists and activists to take jobs at animal facilities for the purpose of recording undercover footage. The laws were enacted after videos were posted on the Web showing such horrors as workers kicking, beating and electrically torturing “down cows” – cows that are weakened  from sickness and starvation  or crippled from their long, overcrowded ride to the slaughterhouse.

“(Legislators) would recoil in horror if dogs and cats were subjected to the same conditions,” Friedrich said.

Bob Martin, a food systems expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said he developed an appreciation of pigs’ emotional complexity while serving recently as executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.

“Pigs in gestation crates show a lot of signs of depression,” he said. “When I went to a farm operation in Iowa where pigs were not confined, they came running up to greet the farmer like they were dogs. They wanted to interact with him.”

Bernard Rollin, a Colorado State University professor who teaches both philosophy and animal science, said he expected increasing numbers of meat-eaters to join the ranks of those demanding changes in the way pigs are housed at many large facilities.

“You have to have ideological blindness to think these animals are not intelligent,” Rollin said. “I hope we go back to an agriculture that works more with the animals’ biological and psychological needs and nature rather than against them.”

“The trouble is, we’re used to seeing them as herds,” he said. “You see 1,000 cows or pigs and think, ‘Oh, they’re all the same.’ But there are actually huge individual differences.”

According to Farm Sanctuary, cows become excited over intellectual challenges, chickens can navigate mazes and sheep can remember the faces of dozens of individual humans and other sheep for more than two years.

There is existing research suggesting that campaigns such as The Someone Project may make headway in influencing consumers.

In one recent study examining doubts that people might have about eating meat, University of British Columbia psychologists Matthew Ruby and Steven Heine concluded that the animal’s level of intelligence was the foremost concern.

Another recent study by university researchers from Australia and Britain concluded that many meat-eaters experience moral conflict if reminded of the intelligence of the animals they are consuming.

“Although most people do not mind eating meat, they do not like thinking of animals they eat as having possessed minds,” the researchers wrote in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Dena Jones, manager of the Animal Welfare Institute’s farm animal program, predicted that public awareness of farm animals’ intelligence would steadily increase, leading to more pressure on the farm industry from food retailers and restaurant chains.

“It’s the retailers who are going to force the industry to bring their practices into line with consumer expectations,” she said.

Louis Weisberg contributed to this article.

On the Web

HBO’s “Death on a Factory Farm”