Saved from the Dinner Table

By Heather Mangal

As Kathy Stevens walked through the barn of her bustling sanctuary, she greeted all her seemingly content farm animals, each responding lovingly to her voice and touch. They seemed happy to see her. One of the goats buried his head in her stomach, one of the turkeys leaned up against her, and a ram gave her a kiss. After all, she is the one who rescued them from a life of suffering. “Our farm may not be the most efficient farm in the world, but it is definitely the happiest,” says Stevens. “I do believe that their happiness come first.”

Stevens, 53, founded Catskill Animal Sanctuary (CAS) in 2001 and it became one of the most successful sanctuaries in America; the sanctuary has become the home to over 2,000 rescued animals. She also wrote two books, which included heat-warming stories about the animals that live there, Where The Blind Horse Sings followed by Animal Camp. She plans on writing a fictional tweens series on talking animals. “Animals cannot communicate to us with words,” Stevens says, later implying that they do communicate with us in other ways like their actions; Stevens learned this during her childhood.

She was born in Ohio on January 11, 1958 to Ed and Sally Stevens and has two siblings, Ellen and Ned. When Stevens was six, the family moved to a horse farm in Hanover County, Virginia. “My childhood was spent with all kinds of animals, dogs, cats, pet goats, a pet lamb, a donkey, pet birds, turtles,” she says. “ My deep love for animals was rooted in childhood.”

As a young girl, Stevens says she always stood up for the underdog. She was upset by racism, and attended graduate school for public administration at Tufts University in 1983, where she studied civil rights.

After graduation, Stevens entered the public policy program in Boston. Two years later, she realized that she could not make a difference from behind a desk. She decided to teach English and make a difference in her students. She didn’t want them to just become better writers. “I hoped they had learned to believe in themselves and in their ability to direct their own lives. I hoped they were happier people,” Stevens wrote in Where The Blind Horse Sings. She began teaching in 1987 and left 11 years later to pursue her two passions at once, teaching and animals.

The moment that led to the rescue of over 2,000 animals came during a hike Stevens was taking with her late yellow lab, Murphy, one of her favorite activities. It suddenly hit her. She would create a safe haven for animals.

The generosity of one woman, Rachel Jacoby, made it happen. Jacoby purchased an old run down farm at 316 Old Stage Road in Saugerties, with the agreement that Stevens would pay her back annually from the donations the sanctuary received. The old farm finally became paradise for thousands of abused animals.

“I was immediately impressed with Kathy’s ease and loving way with the animals, and her concern for those most ignored and abused by our society, the animals we use for work and food,” says Jacoby.

“Kathy works tirelessly to speak out for farm animals and the injustices they face. Her work goes beyond just providing good care and living conditions,” says Julie Barone, Steven’s right-hand and business manager. “She strives to allow each animal to blossom as an individual and hopes more people will consider how they are treated once they see them as individuals.”

“This place feels like a big family; the lines between human and animal are very blurry. Each human feels like it is part of his or her job to allow each animal from a horse to a chicken to thrive, not just to be safe and warm,” says Stevens.

The Catskill Animal Sanctuary is different from other animal rights’ groups like People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF). “Unlike other organizations that have a very forward and militant vegan message, our message is come meet the happy animals,” says Stevens. “When people come down here, a turkey wants to climb on their lap, a cow licks their face and a sheep comes up and pushes his head into their side because he wants a massage.” Stevens continued to say that CAS did not feel it was its job to convert every visitor to veganism because that would be counter productive and keep certain people away.

Stevens says that she supports PETA and ALF because, like any other social movement in history, their outrageous tactics are needed. She says that they are to the animal rights movement what Malcom X was to the civil rights movement.

“It’s absolutely necessary for these sanctuaries to exist, so that the animals have shelter from being tortured, murdered and enslaved,” says Nicoal Sheen, a press officer for ALF. “Sanctuaries educate the public about veganism, while rehabilitating the animals.”

Stevens understands that most people have a deep love for dogs and when people visit the sanctuary they see the goats jump up like dogs do, the pigs come running when they are called, the cows give kisses, the sheep, turkeys and ducks follow people around like puppies.

However, there are days when things aren’t always ducks and lambs. As Stevens begins to talk about an old sheep names Aries, who recently died, she starts tearing up. “He was such a peaceful animal who had no demands,” says Stevens. “He had not gotten up. He was in a lot of pain. It was clearly time to let him go with love, so we scheduled a vet for that morning and that morning he got up and he walked the whole barnyard and I know he was saying goodbye.” When Stevens entered the barn she saw Aries lying down, surrounded by his human friends. She bent over him and he looked into her eyes. “I know he was telling me he loved me,” says Stevens. “He knew it was his last day.”

Aries was part of the farm’s “underfoot family,” the name, she gives because these animals are constantly under the staff’s feet. The group consists of the blind, the old, the picked on, the psychologically traumatized, and the ones who can’t handle a herd and prefer to be surrounded by humans rather than their own kind. Stevens and her staff have grown extremely close to this group. “They are in our faces all day,” she chuckles.

The animals are like her family while her own family is not close by and she has no children of her own.

“Presently, my father, a character if there ever was one, lives in Virginia, Florida and New Jersey, and has a girlfriend in each state. My mother is a sad story because her life was destroyed by alcohol. None of us are in touch with her,” says Stevens.

Stevens was never married, but is very much in love with her partner of seven years, David. They both share a passion for animals and he even built her a barn on his property, so that she could bring some of the animals closest to her to his house when she spends her summers there. He lives about an hour away from her.

“I love children, but I never had any desire to have my own. The world does not need more people,” she says. “All of my nurturing instincts are satisfied through working with the animals and through nurturing/mentoring my wonderful staff.”

As much as Stevens wants to save all the suffering animals in the world, there is just not enough room at CAS. “We have a nine page waiting list and take animals on an emergency first basis. Three quarters of our animals are from cruelty cases,” says Stevens. There are only a handful of reputable sanctuaries, but they are also packed to the hay bails.

In the coming years, Stevens hopes to expand the farm so they can take on more animals in need. Death visits CAS and when it’s one member of the family’s time to go, another one comes and lives out their life in peace.

“There is profound beauty in those final moments,” she says. Losing that friend is deeply sad, but it’s also empowering. You don’t hold onto grief here. You say goodbye, but then you walk out and the other animals are waiting and they need you just as much as they always have.”

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