by Dalvin Aboagye
As Kathy Stevens sits in the shade contemplating the Catskill Animal Sanctuary’s next move, she loses her train of thought at the sight of a few goats approaching. She beams at each of their bleats. The four young recent rescues — Levi, Chester, Molly and Arlo — rush at her, licking her face and nibbling at her clothes like housebound dogs excited to have their owners back home.
“You always want people to have this,” says Stevens, the founder of the Saugerties-based sanctuary. For the last two decades, she and her team have been rescuing and rehabilitating neglected and abused horses and farm animals and sharing all the love and care they have to offer to visitors.
But in the spring and summer of 2020, things came to a standstill. Farm tours have been halted along with their usual lineup of fundraisers, galas, and other public events. The cost of caring for the 300+ animals and maintaining the 20-acre facility has stayed steady — with some cost hikes due to scarcity — despite the drastic loss in revenue this spring. This has become the new norm for animal sanctuaries around the country and world as they try to make do without their usual fundraising activities, according to Valerie Taylor, the executive director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
What would usually be a busy spring and summer season filled with tours, vegan cooking workshops, and even stays at CAS’s on-premises B&B is now spent monitoring the latest public health updates and moving whatever offline activities they hosted online. CAS and the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary in High Falls were part of several sanctuaries that collaborated with the Sweet Farm Sanctuary in California on Goat2Meeting — a service that lets people schedule surprise appearances from animals during their Zoom calls and other video chat meetings.
After a brief but successful period with the program, both CAS and Woodstock have continued offering virtual live-streamed tours separately. It’s not the same as getting up close and personal with a cow, chicken, pig or a goat — but in the face of the never-ending news cycle, the animals’ faces lift human spirits.
“Right now we’re all just in our phones, on our computers, just reading all this toxic upsetting content all the time — and then all of a sudden you’re scrolling and you see this rescued pig enjoying a mud bath in the sunshine,” says Lizz DeFeo, the marketing and communications director at Woodstock Farm Sanctuary. “It’s impactful in this very new kind of way, I think.”
Luckily, the continued push to digital has allowed CAS to garner an international audience hosting everything from Zoom happy hours to camps and corporate seminars. Over in Hyde Park, Andrea Parent-Tibbetts and her husband Michael Tibbetts have also had a modest amount of success holding virtual tours of Clover Brooke Farm for viewers as far away as Serbia. They chose to open their 20-acre property back up not long after Dutchess County entered Phase 1 of reopening, albeit with reduced group sizes, masks, hand-sanitizing stations, and other safety measures.
Parent-Tibbetts mentions that if there’s any silver lining to this strange new world, it’s that explaining to people the importance of making space for large animals like alpacas or llamas has gotten easier using the language of social distancing. Creating artificial barriers like fencing and coops between animals in order to prevent the spread of diseases is a crucial part of maintaining a place like Clover Brooke.
“One of the things that people need to remember about farming is we are all about biosecurity because we’re always dealing with bacteria, E. Coli, parasites,” Parent-Tibbetts explains. “Because we’re dealing with biosecurity all the time, we have a lot of these protocols in place. It’s just a matter of relayering and applying them, and explaining to humans why they’re important.”
Taking in new animals has gotten harder. Most of these sanctuaries are already spread thin taking care of the newborns and recent rescues they added this past spring. And aside from cutting into fundraising, lockdowns and quarantines have prevented many of them from accessing their usual volunteer pools.
A 10-person crew at Woodstock is all that’s left to take care of the 350 animals, so making sure everyone stays healthy is paramount, DeFeo says. The same goes for CAS, Stevens says. In the meantime, taking a virtual tour is a welcome alternative until in-person visits start back up again.