04 September 2012

Wandering Around Watkins Glen

Along the shores of Lake Seneca, among the hundred or so wineries and dozens of farms, Watkins Glen, New York, claims several distinct attributes over neighboring, equally charming, towns. Built around glacier carved gorges that formed hundreds of millions of years ago when North America was still attached to Europe and Africa, Watkins Glen State Park paints a dramatic portrait. Waterfalls, caves and streams cut through steely slate walls with thickets of greenery accenting the steep precipice hundreds of feet above the gorge. A cool energy radiates, despite the late summer heat, as a tour guide passes around fossils that date back to the Pleistocene Epoch. Hiking the park, it's not difficult to imagine wooly mammoths once trod this ancient land.

A more recent addition to Watkins Glen, Farm Sanctuary also graces this Southern Finger Lakes town. Its residents—cows, pigs, goats, sheep, turkeys, chickens—are decidedly less exotic than prehistoric beasts and are in no danger of ever becoming extinct. The typical farm sanctuary resident has been mass produced by humans with little input from nature, for the sole purpose of creating cheap food.

Farm Sanctuary's visitors begin their tour with a short film about factory farming. Behind the flat screen TV depicting images of poultry man handled on conveyor belts as if they were cheap tchotchkes rather than sentient beings with maternal instincts and nerve endings that feel pain and natural instincts that register terror, despair and confusion, photos of celebrities beam benevolently from the wall of fame: Ellen DeGeneres, Ali McGraw, Ed Begley, Jr., Chrissie Hynde, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Clinton, Russell Simmons, Chevy Chase and dozens more.

Farm Sanctuary started when co-founder Gene Bauer went to an animal auction to photograph dead piles in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Dead piles are exactly what they sound like—a pile of dead livestock. Upon hearing the click of Bauer's camera (this was back in 1986, before digital), a sheep covered in feces and maggots, lying among literally hundreds of dead animals, raised her head. Bauer rescued her, named her Hilda, nursed her back to health (against all odds), and Farm Sanctuary was born.

Animals who make it to rescues such as Farm Sanctuary and Indraloka Animal Sanctuary in Mehoopany, Pennsylvania, literally go through hell to get there. I keep thinking about the book, Beatrice and Virgil, written by brilliant novelist Yann Martel, in which Martel compares the treatment of animals to the holocaust. The novel received mass criticism and ire for drawing such a parallel.

I also keep thinking about Step 1 on the road to sociopathy—torturing animals. And yet that is exactly what factory farming does on a magnitude almost too huge to comprehend.

I also keep thinking about how long it took me to become willing to give up Greek yoghurt, the last animal product in my diet. I'm ashamed to admit this, but even after I'd heard of the film Earthlings, I still couldn't imagine living without that yoghurt. Two years later, I can report it wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be.

Farm Sanctuary educates about factory farming in the gentlest possible way. Bauer is fond of quoting the Dalai Lama: "Whenever possible, practice kindness. It's always possible." He's referring to how his staff needs to treat all beings, including those who perpetrate factory farming. The film Farm Sanctuary shows prior to its tours is not sensational. Tours are peppered with facts meant to enlighten, not shock: it takes 4,000 gallons of water to raise animals to feed one human for one year, versus 80 gallons of water to raise plants to feed one person for a year. Countries with the highest dairy consumption—the U.S. and Sweden—also have the highest ovarian cancer rates. Farm Sanctuary offers food for thought for anyone concerned with their own health, the environment and the treatment of animals.

My favorite animal on the tour is a turkey named Antoinette. Until my visit to Farm Sanctuary, I'd never considered turkeys to be particularly cuddly. Antoinette set me straight. I'll spare you the details of how she wound up at Farm Sanctuary—suffice it to say, it's an unpleasant story. What blows me away is that these animals are willing to trust humans again after what they've endured.

For East Coasters looking for an autumn escape, Watkins Glen is an excellent choice. With its lakes and rivers, wineries, state park and farm markets a lot of activity is packed into this lovely destination. And if you decide to check out Farm Sanctuary while you're there, please give Antoinette a gentle squeeze between her wings from me.

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