A Peaceful Place: Catskill Animal Sanctuary Founder Kathy Stevens Shares How Farmed Animals Transform Us

Stretching out over gorgeous grassy acres in the heart of the Hudson Valley, just two hours north of New York City, Catskill Animal Sanctuary (CAS) provides a joyous and loving home to hundreds of rescued farmed animals.

CAS was founded in 2001 by Kathy Stevens, an accomplished educator who turned down a role leading a new charter high school because she believed that she could do more to make the world a better place by opening a sanctuary for non-human animals. 

Stevens had a strong connection with animals from the time she was a child growing up on a large horse farm, where her companions included a pair of goats named Noodles and Missy, as well as cats, dogs, snakes, and a pony whom she would sneak into the house when her parents weren’t home. 

Kathy with a cow

As she grew into adulthood, Stevens’ professional life took her away from the world of animals she had reveled in as a child. “I moved to Boston and went to graduate school for public policy and education,” explains Stevens.

She became a high school English teacher for a decade and was then invited to be the principal of a school that was opening in Boston. She turned down the job.

“I’d always imagined that that’s how I would try to help the world: through teaching and through influencing young minds and hearts.” But Stevens found herself at an unexpected crossroads, not interested in the position. At the time she thought, “I have no idea what I want to do for the next 30 years.”

Kathy Stevens

After a great deal of writing, long walks in the woods, and conversations with friends, Stevens knew what her new path was. “I wanted to combine my love for teaching and learning with my love for animals.”

She did just that, and for nearly twenty years, CAS has provided loving sanctuary for animals who have suffered in abusive and neglectful scenarios—from industrial farms and hoarders to slaughterhouses and stockyards.

In those settings, they were treated as commodities instead of the living, breathing individuals that they are. In their new lives at the sanctuary, they receive an abundance of care, clean bedding, state of the art veterinary services, nutritious food, and the love that they were deprived of for so long. 

Enjoying the lush pastures and country sunshine at CAS are goats, cows, turkeys, horses, pigs, chickens, donkeys, ducks, sheep, and geese.

It would be impossible to rescue every animal who is suffering as part of the food system, but those living at sanctuaries such as CAS act as ambassadors, inspiring humans to go vegan—which saves even more animals. In this way, sanctuaries have played a massive role in changing people’s minds about eating animals, and are largely responsible for the growth of the vegan movement.

True to Stevens’ background as an educator, in addition to saving farmed animals, CAS also provides a nurturing space for humans of all ages to learn and grow. After meeting animals at the sanctuary, or through virtual online “CAS Live” visits, many people decide to go vegan.

The sanctuary provides everything people will need to make that change: from fun cooking classes (online for now) to the opportunity to get Stevens' two memoirs, Where the Blind Horse Sings and Animal Camp—as well as her “All Beings Considered” podcast, and the sanctuary’s own vegan cookbook, Compassionate Cuisine: 125 Plant-Based Recipes From Our Vegan Kitchen.

Compassionate Cuisine

Stevens wanted the sanctuary experience to be transformational. “After all,” she explained, “that’s what the most positive educational experiences do. They expand us.”

And so the sanctuary’s tours were created with that idea in mind. Stevens shares that first-time visitors are surprised by their instant connections with the non-human residents. “They don’t expect to be kissed by cows,” she says. “They don’t expect turkeys to plop down in their laps.” 

She recalls one visitor who had just finished a tour. “He ran up to me, grabbed my forearm, and burst into tears,” she says. “He said, ‘I get it now. Tell me what to do.’”

At sanctuaries, humans connect with animals in ways that change them. And they often leave as new vegans.

Stevens is excited about the abundance of vegan products today, compared to twenty years ago, which makes life a lot easier for new vegans. “There’s food out there!” she exclaims. “There’s more than fruit and vegetables and grains and nuts. For people who still want the meat and cheese experience, there are all kinds of  products.” She adds, “There’s so much milk. There’s so much cheese!” 

But as Stevens shows, no animal needs to suffer for this new wave of meaty, cheesy, milky products. There is a vegan analog to everything. 

Kathy Stevens

Running CAS for nearly two decades has changed Stevens, too. “When you realize that cows mourn, when you realize that sheep have a profound capacity to love, and a need to connect soul to soul with humans, when you see that chickens have senses of humor—and when you see the shape that these animals come in and observe and participate in their transformation—that changes your DNA,” she says.

Seh continues: “You really do realize that there is no meaningful difference between us. That ten chickens are as individual as ten people. We all move toward joy. We all move away from suffering.”

Since many sanctuaries, including CAS, are closed to the public for now due to Covid-19, Stevens recommends connecting with farmed animals through books and videos. “There are wonderful books about the emotional lives of animals, some are called things like The Emotional Lives of Animals,” she laughs, referencing the book by Marc Bekoff. “There are books on the personalities of fish. There are my books! And there’s a delightful book called The Good, Good Pig.

Stevens also suggests watching videos, although she admits that they’re not as impactful as the real thing. “Sanctuaries have gone virtual with their virtual tours,” she says. “But there’s nothing like this.” As she speaks, she is surrounded by a trio of rambunctious goats who climb on the bench where she sits, pawing her and chewing her hair to get her attention. They succeed, and she talks to her four-legged fan club as would a loving mom.

When she gets up to leave, they follow.

Kathy Stevens

KATHY’S TIPS FOR NEW VEGANS

  1. Don’t beat yourself up if you slip. Most of us got here through a process, not by seeing a movie on Wednesday and waking up vegan on Thursday. Give yourself time.
  2. Seek out support from other people who are fun and who love to cook. Find that vegan community in your area.
  3. If you're not already, start using cookbooks. If you like cookbooks, there are exceptional vegan cookbooks out there—Compassionate Cuisine included!
  4. If you feel like you can’t live without sausage or meatballs, just go out and get the vegan versions! Plenty are better than their meat-based counterparts!

Kinder Beauty is proud to be able to donate a portion of the proceeds of our boxes to various animal rights and environmental causes, and thrilled to support the life-saving work of Catskill Animal Sanctuary.

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Maya Gottfried is the author of books for children and adults, including Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary (Knopf) and Vegan Love (Skyhorse).