Farm Sanctuary Diaries: My Volunteer Experience


Bogged down by stress and tired of the superficial, former fashion editor Elisa Brunke chucked it all in to jet off to New York and volunteer at an animal sanctuary. Her bold decision took her to the destination of her dreams – but also to places she had never imagined. Here is her story, day by day, exclusively told to Vilda.

Day one

May 1st: I can’t believe it. One week ago I was partying with Snoop Dogg (!!!)  at the famous Catch Rooftop in Manhattan and having the time of my life. Now, I am standing in the middle of nowhere, all by myself. Instead of hip-hop beats and drunken people, I am listening to the peacefulness of the nature and scattered birds’ twittering. Around me only trees, above me the clear sky and before me one big adventure. After quitting my job as the editor in chief of a big fashion company, I decided to pack my bags and for a month of volunteer work at an animal sanctuary far away from home. I know, this sounds extreme. But it was exactly what I needed. As an ethical vegan, the ignorance of this superficial industry got too much to bear. It made me sick to be surrounded not only by products that support cruelty to animals, such as fur coats, leather bags and angora sweaters, but also by people, who were totally okay with all of it. And to be sneered at, because I really was the only one, who did not buy that new Valentino bag, which was made of super-soft calfskin. So, here I am now, standing on a huge sanctuary in a small town named Watkins Glen. It is the first day of my internship and two hours ago, I met a tiny little calf, which has been rescued from a stockyard in Pennsylvania some weeks ago. Because he couldn’t get up (his legs were deformed and he was only about one day old), he was considered as worthless and left to die in a shabby barn. Luckily, someone called Farm Sanctuary, where the little guy got a second chance, much love and medical care. And a name, of course: Valentino.



Bye, bye, artificial life

One month earlier: After some internet research, I found Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit organisation, that was founded in 1986 and today has three shelters in Acton (CA), Orland (CA) and Watkins Glen (NY). As its name implies, they take care of former farm animals, who have escaped from slaughterhouses, been rescued from stockyards or just been given to the staff in trust by caring people. It was mid-April when I applied for a May internship. One week, a telephone interview and several e-mails later, I was given an assurance for Watkins Glen, where currently more then 500 pigs, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys and cats are living a happy life. I was so excited to meet all of them. But before that, I wanted to visit my friend  in Manhattan and enjoy all the vegan highlights this city has to offer. I ended up eating my way through the Big Apple like The Very Hungry Caterpillar through her salad: I had chocolate brownies, cinnamon doghnuts, avocado toasts, raw lasagna, kale salad, peanut butter smoothies and much more. Who said veganism is about depriving yourself?


After a week of gluttony, on April 30th, I took the bus from Port Authority to Ithaca, where I met Kathy, my future roommate. ‘Any chance, you’re going to Farm Sanctuary?’ she asked with a warm smile and I liked her cheery nature from the start. Funnily enough, she was half American and half German, so we switched between the two languages and the five hour bus drive went by quick. After Scott, the intern coordinator, had picked us up, we had a really nice drive to the sanctuary: Ithaca looked exactly like what’d you’d expect from a small American town: pastel-coloured houses with cute porches and US flags. Several vineyards, hiking trails and beautiful lakes later, we reached Farm Sanctuary, which was picturesquely situated in the middle of…well, nowhere. We loved it! At the so called Vegan House, where free accommodation was provided to us in exchange for our work, we met our flatmates for the next month: the cats Sophia and Gabby, nature-boy Aaron from Canada and punk rock girl Sarah from Philadelphia. During our internship we had to live 100% cruelty-free, which Scott described as “living in a vegan bubble“ and which was an advantage rather than a disadvantage, because all of us had banned animal products from our lives for some time. As different as we all may have been, we shared the love for animals and the passion for veganism and I was surprised how easy sharing a house with three other people turned out to be.


I look outside the window and see happily grunting pigs

May 12th: I don’t know if it was due to the air conditioning in the bus or the travelling in general, but during the first week I felt really sick and had to see a doctor. To my horror, he diagnosed  a bronchitis and told me to take it easy. I felt useless, but also didn’t want to endanger my health. As a result, my second day of work arrived over a week after the first, and I have to admit that it was tough! After cleaning the cages of sick chickens over and over again, collecting the eggs from several pens, feeding the cats, rabbits and squirrels, sunscreening the pigs, doing tons of laundry, cleaning the hospital and moving heavy feed bags from A to B, I am extremely exhausted. But also content. Right now, I am sitting on the couch, with Sophia sleeping on my lap, and looking out of the window, and what I see fills my heart with joy: the beautiful view of the farm and some happily grunting pigs.



This is why I’m vegan

May 14th: This is too much for me. I am sitting next to Scott’s car and waiting or the others, while tears are running down my cheeks. Today, we went to a stockyard in the neighbourhood to see the sad everyday life of billions of animals in the US. This is just a smaller one, a drop in the bucket. But what I saw, was more than enough for me. The umbilical cord still hanging from their bellies and screaming for their mums, the two-day-old (at most) calves were being pushed from one barn to the next and advertised like living meat to the round standing farmers. During the five minutes, I endured inside, I also saw chickens stuffed in cardboard boxes and a tiny piglet that was trembling with fear. I feel sad, angry and shocked at the same time and one thing is for sure: This is why I’m vegan.

The drive back home was quiet and we spend the rest of the day with the animals. During my time as a volunteer I discovered a love for cows and the pasture of the special needs herd became my favourite spot. I lost my heart to very two special boys: tiny Valentino, who will always look like a baby because of his growth disturbance, and who always seems so happy, and gentle Prince, who is suffering from bad hips and some heavy injuries after a bad fall last winter. As often as possible I visited my two favourites to brush and cuddle them and to tell them how precious they are. Honestly, how can people not just love cows? Would they feel the same as I do, if they met Valentino and Prince?

I once asked Susie Coston, who is the shelter manager in Watkins Glen and really sacrificing herself for the animals, how she manages not to get depressed by all the injustices and cruelty of our world. Her answer was that “there is too much work to do and if you allow everything to make you sad or angry, you won’t be able to do the job.” Despite her hard physical and mental work, she has an incredibly positive attitude, which I really admire. Susie is one of the most impressive people I have ever met.


Small things that fill you with big joy

May 24th: Today, sixty chickens fell of a truck in Brooklyn and the driver didn’t even notice. Many of them broke their legs and wings, which then had to be amputated. But at least they are safe now and after quarantine, they will run around as happily as all the other birds at the sanctuary. Susie described the first time you see a chicken from a battery facility take a step in the grass as one of her favourite sanctuary moments. These are the small things, that fill you with big joy and compensate for all the heartbreak.  A few days ago, a staff member found a box with eleven baby turkeys that someone had put down before a barn. I did really not expect it, but they turned out to be some of the most adorable creatures I had ever seen! They are so curious and friendly and when I caressed one of the little guys’ head, he sat down and fell asleep.



Final Reflections

May 31st: Well, this is it. I am sitting on the bus back to NYC and can’t believe that everything is over now. During the last weeks I lived in the here and now, without thinking of the past or the future and this is the first time I really reflect on everything. Although some days were really hard,  I wish I could extend my stay instead of leaving this wonderful place and all the animals behind. But that’s not an option. I have to go back to my normal life and tomorrow I will take the plane back to Germany, where I will tell my cats, my friends and my mum about this valuable experience. I will definitely need some time to work on impressions and sort my thoughts, but one thing is for sure: I will always remember this month and someday, I will come back.


Photos by Elisa Brunke. See more info about volunteering at Farm Sanctuary here.

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Elisa Brunke

Fashion & Lifestyle Writer

Elisa was born in Hamburg, lived in Berlin and Luxemburg and then returned to her beloved hometown, where she studied fashion journalism and now works as an editor. She is passionate about cooking (and eating) healthy vegan foods, the combination of chocolate and peanut butter, boys with tattoos, punk music and animals, especially (her own two) cats.

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