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Volunteer Experience at the Catskill Animal Shelter

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The volunteer experience I have gained throughout the past couple of weeks at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary has been incredibly valuable. Not only were the staff welcoming and knowledgeable, but the animals were welcoming as well. The staff worked hard to create a friendly environment for volunteers and visitors. The sanctuary welcomes many visitors throughout the year for tours, overnight stays, as well as multiple themed events. The staff at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary work hard to provide various farm animals with a secure home in which they can roam freely without suffering and the threat of slaughter.

The sanctuary is a 148-acre refuge located in Saugerties, New York, a town in the Hudson Valley. Since 2001, when the organization was founded, over 4,000 animals have been rescued from exploitation. At any given time, 250 to 350 animals reside at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary. The underlying goal of the sanctuary is to provide the animals with freedom to live peacefully and safely. Throughout this paper, I will describe my role and experience as a volunteer at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, as well as express how the sanctuary exemplifies Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s ethical theory of utilitarianism as well as Tom Regan’s animal rights theory.

In addition to providing animals with a sense of safety and security, the Catskill Animal Sanctuary both promotes a vegan lifestyle. All staff members practice veganism and encourage social change regarding human treatment toward animals. As their website expresses, the staff believe that “looking an animal in the eye and seeing someone-not something-looking back is one of the most profound shifts human beings can make in their understanding of the world and their place in it.” Although the staff does not push their vegan agenda on volunteers such as myself, they certainly advocate for veganism, as they ask that visitors come prepared with a vegan-style lunch.

Prior to this experience, I was unfamiliar with the Catskill Animal Sanctuary. In 2001, Kathy Stevens and Jesse Moore founded the sanctuary at its original location in Kerhonkson, New York. They have since expanded and moved to a 148-acre plot of land in Saugerties, where their rescued animals roam freely. I was immediately intrigued in the sanctuary’s mission once I learned that the Kerhonkson farm’s first resident was Dino, the only horse out of twenty-three, who survived the killing of a Brooklyn arson. After learning about Dino, I immediately knew that the staff on the farm were dedicated and capable of making a major difference in the lives of farm animals.

I volunteered at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary with a few of my classmates, all of whom were previously unaware of the sanctuary and what it stands for. We each developed a great appreciation for the staff and the animals throughout our various mornings spent at the farm. We first attended the farm on the first Saturday in October; we were taken under the wing of the volunteer coordinator, Jen, who welcomed us warmly and completely. She provided us with tasks to complete immediately following our arrival. On the first Saturday morning that we volunteered, Jen taught us how to clean out the horse and goat stalls and stables. We used agricultural tools including shovels and rakes to remove the soiled straw and wood shavings throughout the entire barn, clearing a total of about 12 stalls. As we worked, the animals walked beside us. This was extremely eye-opening to me, as I had only previously been to farms where the animals are kept full-time in enclosed pens.

The animals were given an abundance of freedom in order to feel safe and free of threat. Jen worked alongside us in the barn, correcting and complimenting our work as we progressed. She, along with her co-workers, have a clear love for each of the animals. I found it touching that the staff knew the names of each resident, and were able to give them personal attention as they walked by. The staff truly cares for the animals at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary. Not only is that evident in their efforts to continually rescue animals and provide them with a loving home, but it is also evident in their daily treatment of the animals as they happen to walk by during the staff’s completion of their daily work. It was also neat to witness the reciprocation between the staff and the animals. The staff are loving and gentle with the animals, and the animals are the same to the staff.

After we cleaned out the stalls and reset the animal beds, Jen asked us to clean out and replenish the animals’ water bowls. Flocks of pigeons have made themselves at home on the beams across the ceiling of the stable, and they have little courtesy in regard to contaminating the animals’ drinking water with their feces. Because of this, the water bowls had to be cleaned thoroughly with a sponge and disinfectant spray. Although the tasks sound relatively simple when explained, they were not very easy. A lot of our tasks required heavy lifting and manual labor. When we took short breaks, we gathered in the main kitchen area. We were able to watch some of the staff administer various medications to the animals. Although we did not administer the medicine ourselves, it was interesting to see.

The next time I volunteered was at the sanctuary’s fall event, Gobble and Groove, on the second Saturday in October. I worked as a gatekeeper for the sheeps and goats field. I enjoyed this event, as I was able to interact with the public, the animals, as well as some staff I had not previously met. In addition to my role as gatekeeper, I was able to explore the various tents and stands set up for the event. There were various food stands set up with a variety of vegan food. Additionally, there was a culinary demonstration, in which one of the staff members made a vegan chocolate cake and provided the audience with a recipe to take home. At this event, many of the animals were to remain in a designated area, as the amount of people was overwhelming for them. Also, the event was open for the public, so young children were roaming around and the staff wanted to prevent any issues between the children and animals. However, as soon as the event was cleared, the animals were let back out to walk freely upon the grounds. Every staff member that I met expressed an obvious passion for their work, essentially viewing their job as far from a “job.”

The third time I returned to the farm, I felt comfortable and confident in my role and with the various tasks I would be expected to complete. Again, we began by cleaning out the horse and goat stables and stalls and the water buckets for each stall. The work felt repetitive, though I knew the staff needed our help as there were only a small handful of volunteers present and the work required time and effort. Jen had informed us that they had just done a full cleaning of the barn only a short few days prior. Knowing that and seeing the condition of the stalls at our arrival, I became aware that this is a job that needs to be completed frequently and correctly. Despite the difficulty of the task, it is extremely important that the animals are provided with a clean and comfortable space to live. The staff’s diligence and willingness to complete the various tasks for the animals was certainly admirable. After we finished cleaning the barn, I was sent to work one-on-one with a staff member, Kelsey.

Together, we discarded the fecal matter present in the duck and chicken houses, as well as provided the animals with fresh hay and wood shavings. The weather was not pleasant, as it was windy and hailing, but the staff continued to work through it, so us volunteers were expected and willing to do the same. Working with Kelsey was quite an interesting experience, as I got to ride passenger in her pickup truck. It was refreshing to spend time with somebody who was so dedicated to the upkeep of the farm that she did not care that her truck was covered with dried mud and grass. I enjoyed the carefree nature of the staff members. Working on the farm seemed to serve as a stress reliever, as we were focused on completing various tasks alongside friendly people and animals.

Once our work was complete, we were able to spend a few final minutes with the various residents. My favorite animals to spend time with were the pigs, especially Jasmine. I had never gotten to be so up close to a pig in that way. Tucker was also a fascinating animal to see. I had never been so close to a cow of that size before. It was inspiring to see how happy and content all of the animals were to be at the sanctuary. Despite my respect for the animals and the staff, I am not vegan, and nor did I feel pressured to become one when at the sanctuary. I definitely did not know what to expect when first arriving at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, though I enjoyed my experience greatly and would certainly recommend anyone to visit or volunteer at the farm.

Indeed, Kathy Stevens and Jesse Moore founded The Catskill Animal Sanctuary in effort to protect the lives of farm animals and save them from human exploitation. This underlying mission of the sanctuary parallels various characteristics of certain theories we discussed in class. The farm’s mission identifies most closely with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism theory, as well as Tom Regan’s animal rights theory.

Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism proposes a maximization principle, which suggests that an action is right insofar as it creates maximal pleasure and minimal pain. According to utilitarians, a being is capable of possessing moral significance as long as it is a sentient being.

Philosopher Peter Singer aligns himself with utilitarianism in agreement with the idea that a capacity for suffering exists as the vital trait that provides a being the right to equal consideration. Singer suggests that we know animals can feel pleasure and pain, due to their “writhing, facial contortions, moaning, yelping or other forms of calling, attempts to avoid the source of pain,” they are relevant in regard to ethics (Singer 11). That said, their feelings and interests must be taken into account when calculating total pleasure and pain resulting from any action using Bentham’s hedonic calculus. When calculating the act of consuming animals using the hedonic calculus, the pain suffered by the animals during slaughter significantly outweighs the pleasure humans face while biting into a burger. Therefore, utilitarians as well as the Catskill Animal Sanctuary staff believe that eating animals is unethical. The sanctuary actively exercises this through their practice of the vegan lifestyle.

By providing the animals with a safe place to reside, the sanctuary maximizes the happiness of the hundreds of animals they provide for. Additionally, by abstaining from consuming animal products, the staff work to minimize pain while maximizing pleasure. One of the greatest concrete examples of this on the farm is the infamous Tucker. Tucker, a Guernsey Steer, was purchased by a petting zoo shortly following his birth. A mother and daughter who visited the zoo frequently noticed that Tucker was being loaded onto a large truck in anticipation for auction. The family opted to pay for Tucker in order to ensure his safety from human exploitation. Since 2007, the sanctuary has taken care of Tucker, providing him with a life full of happiness and security.

Clearly, the Catskill Animal Sanctuary’s efforts are rooted in treating animals as lives worthy of living. Had Tucker not been taken to the sanctuary, he would have been auctioned and most likely slaughtered for consumption, where his life would have likely consisted of extreme pain and suffering before ending shortly thereafter. However, due to the dedicated mission of the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, Tucker along with the abundance of other rescued animals, get to live and roam freely outdoors under the care of those who greatly appreciate them.

Tom Regan, an animal rights advocate argues against the use of animals for human consumption. In contrast with utilitarianism, Regan claims that “what is wrong isn’t the pain, isn’t the suffering, isn’t the deprivation. These compound what’s wrong…The fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as our resources, here for us” (Regan 821). Although Regan recognizes that animals feel pain, he believes that this pain is not the underlying problem of human consumption of animals.

Instead, Regan suggests that what is unethical, is the idea of using animals as a means to an end, rather than recognizing their inherent value as beings themselves. Singer aligns with this claim as well, as he states that “what we must do is bring nonhuman animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have” (Singer 20). Although utilitarians and Regan would deem eating animals to be unethical, Regan believes that utilitarianism is a problematic theory, as “a good end does not justify an evil means” (Regan 826).

He finds gaps in the theory of utilitarianism that eliminate the theory’s ability to prove that individuals have value in their own right. That said, Regan believes that the most effective approach to ethics is considering that individuals have equal inherent value independent of their usefulness to others.

While Regan admits that animals lack many abilities that humans possess, he then states that “neither can many human beings, however, and yet we don’t (and shouldn’t) say that they (these humans) therefore have less inherent value, less of a right to be treated with respect, than do others” (Regan 827). Regardless of our abilities, all humans deserve to be treated with equal consideration, as every human possesses inherent value that cannot be dismissed, according to Regan. He suggests that our similarities matter more than our differences, and that the most basic and important similarity is that “we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others…All the dimensions of our life…make a difference to the quality of our life…as the same is true of those animals that concern us…they too must be viewed as experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own” (Regan 827).

Because we cannot justly and rationally claim that humans who lack certain abilities have less inherent value than other humans, we cannot say that animals that lack the same abilities have less inherent value than humans as “all who have inherent value have it equally, whether they be human animals or not” (Regan 827). He claims that inherent value belongs equally to all who are experiencing subjects of a life. Because we know that animals are subjects of a life, it would be unethical to harm them for any reason. He claims that the fundamental wrong for commercial animal agriculture is that the animals involved are viewed solely as resources for humans lacking independent value. So, he suggests that these practices should be abolished.

The Catskill Animal Sanctuary’s mission certainly aligns itself with Regan’s animal rights theory. As previously mentioned, the staff at the farm work to provide a comfortable home for the residents in order to ensure their safety and protection from human exploitation. The work that the staff and volunteers put in to keep the farm clean for the animals also resembles their commitment to treating the animals as valuable beings in themselves. In addition to cleaning the stables and stalls that the animals live and sleep in, the staff also administer medicine to the animals. By doing so, they confirm that animals have inherent value and are deserving of proper treatment.

The Catskill Animal Sanctuary actively promotes animal rights, as they advocate the vegan lifestyle declaring on their website that “as an individual, one of the best ways you can help reduce the suffering of animals is to stop eating them.” The staff also offers culinary courses, in which they demonstrate simple and tasty vegan recipes to promote veganism. After volunteering at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, it has become wildly apparent to me that the staff work hard to provide their residents with the most peaceful and loving life possible.

The consistent work and effort put in at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary embodies both Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism, as well as Regan’s animal rights theory. Both theories, though with different reasoning, recognize that using animals for consumption is unethical. Everything that the staff at the sanctuary do is done in effort to better the lives of farm animals. The staff dedicate their time to rescuing and supporting farm animals that would have otherwise been subject to lives of pain and suffering on commercial farms by providing the animals with comfortable living situations, abundant space to roam freely, proper health attention and medication, as well as love and attention.

Though I did not know what to expect volunteering at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary for the first time, I did know that I was not necessarily excited to perform manual labor on an unfamiliar farm at eight o’clock on a cold fall morning. I reminded myself that my time would be greatly appreciated by both the working staff and the animals on the farm. After spending a few mornings on the farm, I learned how difficult it is to maintain such a large space, while simultaneously providing the most comfortable and clean environment for the animals. In addition to spending time with animals and helping the staff, my fellow classmates and I were able to connect the ethical theories we had been discussing in class to real-world situations.

The Catskill Animal Sanctuary’s mission is to rescue farm animals, encourage social change regarding their exploitation and unfair treatment, and promote vegan living. There is a clear connection between their goals and the characteristics of both utilitarianism and the animal rights theory. The Catskill Animal Sanctuary exists as a place where animals are cared for, provided for, and tended to by a set of staff and volunteers who dedicate themselves to promoting ethical and just treatment toward farm animals.

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