Guest post by Wesleyan University student Katie Bartel, who recently completed a six-week summer internship at the sanctuary. We’re sorry to see her go but happy to publish this account of her experiences!
The very first thing that struck me about VINE was the amazing variety of interspecies relationships. Generally, in captive settings, it seems that species are always separated. However, at VINE, individuals of different species are able to interact and build relationships with one another. It was fascinating to see roosters and sheep, sheep and cows, a pig and turkeys, etc. interacting and spending time together.
Of course, I cannot leave out the interspecies relationships between humans and non-humans. Because all of the VINE residents are treated as individuals existing for their own purposes, the human-non-human relationships are purely based on love and care. This was a refreshing change from the usual human-animal relationships I’ve observed, which are often based on some form of exploitation or domination.
Being at VINE also helped me to acknowledge and overcome my own biases. I realized my “mammal bias” when I was surprised by how much I loved hanging out with the turkeys. I had assumed that I would feel more connected to other mammals than to birds. Fortunately, spending time with the turkeys at VINE challenged this bias.
There was Fabio, who would always “puff up” and show off for me anytime I went into Wayne’s World, where he lived. He let me kiss his head and would even try to sit on my lap sometimes. (Unfortunately, he was unaware of his 40-pound weight, his claw-like feet, and the fact that I was wearing shorts.) Also, more than once, I had to go behind VINE’s fence to find Pearl, another turkey, who decided to find somewhere “better” to nest. Wilbur would follow me around if I stopped petting her, making the cutest chirping noises until I would predictably cave in and continue giving her attention. Finally, turkey Lily adores Truffles the pig and almost evaded being put into the coop one night in an attempt to stay with her.
That brings me to the next thing being at VINE taught me – that animals are individuals. Having lived with companion animals for most of my life, I’ve always said this, and really did believe it, but my time at VINE made me even more aware of it. All of the residents have such distinct personalities and relationships. Just among the turkeys, everybody is so different and dynamic. This makes the systematic exploitation and objectification that non-humans experience even harder to think about. Luckily, at VINE, everyone is free to be themselves and is valued for it.
Someone else who challenged another one of my biases is Boo. Boo challenged my “rooster bias,” in which I thought of roosters as loud, “cocky,” and aggressive. In addition to realizing that hens can actually be much louder than roosters, I found that most roosters do not live up to this stereotypical gender role constructed by humans. In my opinion, Boo is the antithesis of aggressive, cocky, and loud. He is quiet and sweet, spending most of his time on the step of the infirmary where he sleeps. He was always the first in line for breakfast in the mornings, often times eating out of the feed bucket before I had a chance to refill the bowls. On one of my last days at VINE, I sat on the step with Boo for a while, just enjoying his peaceful energy and observing the yard from his point of view.
And, of course, I cannot talk about VINE without mentioning Blake, my best non-human friend. We first met when I visited VINE last October, and I immediately fell in love with her. Blake greets people by licking them, a cow’s way of caring for someone, and being licked from head to toe was quite an unforgettable experience. Blake’s love and care for human people, after being left to starve by them, astounded and moved me. I think that humans could learn a lot from her.
I was surprised by how physically demanding working at a sanctuary is. I waitressed outside last summer, so I figured I could handle being on my feet in the sun every day. I soon realized that sanctuary work is harder than anything else I’ve ever done. First, there is a lot of bending down – scrubbing out and refilling water bowls and ponds, cleaning out coops, shoveling, putting down straw, etc. There’s also a lot of upper body work, such as carrying 50 pound bags of feed, pitchforking hay, and raking. I was surprised by how tired I was at the end of each day, especially during my first couple of weeks. Afternoon naps became very necessary. One day, I even fell asleep in the duck coop that I intended to clean! Luckily, Lois and Wilbur, the turkeys who were nesting in there, didn’t seem to mind.
On the way home from my first visit to VINE, I remember thinking that it was the best place in the world. After six weeks of 5 am wake-ups, roosters who did not seem to appreciate me being there (shout-out to Sylvester and Pago), and lots of poop, I can still say with certainty that VINE is the best place in the world. I miss it all the time. Thank you to all of the wonderful humans and non-humans who made my experience so great and continue to make VINE the best place in the world each and every day.
VINE Sanctuary could not exist without members of our extended community like Katie. Join the VINE Action Network for ways to help the sanctuary from wherever you are.