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How one farm provides refuge for animals — And a new outlook on human-animal relations

When you use the restroom at the Hefer Valley Freedom Farm, your gaze meets a framed photograph of an enormous pink hog named Yossi – a rescue pig given to farm founders Adit Romano and Meital Ben Ari by the same people who breed hogs for meat consumption. 

The animals fortunate enough to live in the spacious farm all suffer from some defect that made them into a, so to speak, bad product. The meat, dairy and poultry industries are designed to meet human desires for flesh, milk, cheese and eggs. A young calf was unable to stand and suckle, which meant it could not get big enough in the short time desired by the farmer to send it to the slaughterhouse and be butchered and served as a steak. The farmer decided to gift the calf to Romano and Ben Ari instead. A bull that broke its leg was also given to them for a similar reason (if a limb is torn off, the rest of the animal is not kosher anymore) and now walks with a prosthetic leg. 

The fourth century BCE Chinese master Zhuang Zhou remarked that straight and young trees are cut down for furniture while old and twisted trees with thick barks are left alone to thrive, making it wise for those seeking to live long and avoid destruction to be useless. At Freedom Farm, this principle bleats and clucks.

Naming a hog Yossi, or a goat Garry, is one of the ways in which the farm attempts to re-connect humans with animals. Animal rights activist Garry Yourofsky is famous for using emotionally charged language to drive home the arguments as to why a vegan diet is more ethical than a normative one. Calves are called babies, as if they were human. A cow is referred to not as an “it” but as a “she” with milk described as taken from “her body.” Trucks delivering calves to be killed for meat are called “concentration camp trucks.” Animals are described as the ultimate victims. His 2011 Youtube lecture changed the lives of many, including Romano and Meiri, who named the rescued goat after him. He goes on to challenge how most people understand food. Honey is bee vomit. Milk contains pus due to the machines employed in the milking process injuring the udders. Milk, he says, is meant for one being only – baby cows – not people. An egg is chicken menstruation, and so on. His lecture, titled in Hebrew “The Most Important Talk You Will Ever Hear,” goes on to claim meat consumption is “an addiction” and that our species is not designed to eat meat. The arguments are mostly ethical, many are research-based – and all are emotionally moving.

If the reader flinches at the idea of concentration camp trucks, Ben Ari will be happy to explain what happens to hens that can no longer yield the amount of eggs the industry demands. 

“In this country there are two trucks that drive around to electrocute chickens,” she told the Magazine. “The hens are very thin at this point because the demand to lay 300 eggs each year wastes their bodies away. They are hung upside down and killed using electricity. They are then grounded for pet food and even given to cows to eat.” Cows are not meant to consume chickens, so they must get special shots to prevent them from dying, she explains.

If you ever saw a spotted hen running around a yard pecking for worms or taking a dirt bath, you may have wondered why picture-book chickens are white. The answer is that the consumer prefers to buy whitish cuts that do not carry marks of the body the meal came from. A yard hen in contrast, lays fewer eggs and, if fertilized by a rooster, would nest over them to produce chicks. All the activities mentioned – running after a worm, rolling in dirt, fluttering its wings – are the natural things a healthy chicken does that are denied to industry hens. Packed tightly, they become frustrated and peck each other, which is why their beaks are clipped. Nobody in the industry invests the time to offer each hen anesthesia; they are fully awake during their anguish.

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if(window.location.pathname.indexOf(“656089”) != -1){console.log(“hedva connatix”);document.getElementsByClassName(“divConnatix”)[0].style.display =”none”;}CHICKENS WERE domesticated roughly 5,000 years ago in what is today India. Humans bred chickens for their own needs during this long domestication process. In our own times, the poultry industry produced hens that can gain weight at an appalling rate. More meat on their bones means a plump hen. If they were people, each chick would be bred to be so obese as to be triple the weight of an average person. Their size is misleading; they seem like an adult chicken when in fact they are still babies. They suffer from heart attacks, as their hearts are unable to pump blood to all that mass of flesh and in the heat of summer they often die. At the farm, the hen houses have air conditioning. They were turned on while I was there.

“The industry veterinarian acts very differently from the one you take your pet to,” Romano says. “Their client is not the animal but the farmer. The medical knowledge used in the treatment of animals is not created to make them healthy or happy but to serve the needs of a profit-motivated industry.” 

The result is, she explains, that many procedures are carried out brutally, causing pain, and there are many gaps in what we think we know. For example, it is cheaper to kill a sick hen before it infects the other chickens than nurse it to health.   

Due to the brutal treatment many animals receive in the industry they are scared of humans and the Freedom Farm is often the only place where they are not beaten or screamed at. 

“I see the animals as ambassadors of their species, able to re-educate us to offer respect and kindness to those who are different from us. They were lucky, they are tasked with representing their butchered and suffering brothers and sisters in the industry,” Romano told me.

“People sometimes think animal lovers hate people. This is absurd. It is our compassion that motivates us. People who visit us are not asked what they eat or told to remove their leather belts before they enter the gate. We just ask them to come and meet these wonderful creatures we share our world with.”

The farm has goats, chickens, bulls, calves, rabbits and hogs. Volunteers and workers jointly look after the “ambassadors” and as the first priority is the quality of life the animals enjoy. The farm could not operate without generous donations. Calves do not remain little; they grow into bulls that require more food and roaming space. A nearly blind turkey calls and Romano calls back to him with joy. This might be the only place in the country farm animals die from old age and are mourned after they pass.

She explains to me that rabbits, despite being white and fluffy, actually hate being picked up by people. 

“When a child learns to respect the rabbit and not exploit the fact he or she can pick up a smaller creature, that child will think twice before picking on a child who is different or disabled,” she said, “I truly believe this.” 

The rabbits are there because they are survivors of the cosmetics industry.

THE DUCKS Daniel and Dan with middle duck May and Noga in back. (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

THIS FARM is unlike any other due to the relaxed atmosphere in it, which allows the “ambassadors” to explore. One billy goat is able to climb the fence and looks about with pride, another goat learned how to unlock doors and enjoys exploring. This particular goat, I am told, does not attempt to teach others to follow her lead and enjoys keeping her secrets.

Animals do indeed have personalities; a powerful truth farmers have always known. The question of what gives humans the right to castrate the bull in order to have it plow the fields for us as an ox or to remove the skin of a cow to write a Torah scroll is a serious one (Jewish law sees nothing wrong with removing the skin of a cow which died of natural causes for this purpose). Most humans do not enjoy inflicting pain on other living things and would be emotionally distressed at the sound of a panicked cow calling for its calf after it is taken from her so that the farmer can take the milk meant for it. The reasons given are usually historical (it has always been this way), theological (humans are special), practical (the ox is a very useful beast of labor) or pro the status quo (without cattle ranches, how will burger joints stay in business and create jobs?).

What makes veganism special is not the idea of radical non-harm. Emperor Ashoka, ruler of the Maurya Empire in what is today Afghanistan, preached the same message after his conversion to Buddhism roughly two and a half centuries BCE. Even that mighty ruler, his stone-carved edicts inform us, could not completely quench the human lust for meat despite greatly reducing the number of deer killed for his banquets and promising to stop consuming meat entirely “soon.” What makes veganism special is that, in a profit-oriented society, it dares to remind us of the real cost that the milk we are so used to pouring on our morning cereals extracts from the natural world. Ashoka needed oxen and war horses to lead his people; today we have tractors and tanks. His guests demanded deer flesh and Ashoka did not have a convenient vegan-friendly option to offer them at his table. 

We do.  

Yourofsky argues meat consumption is an addiction. If so, it is one that began three million years ago when humans first emerged on this planet.

“At every prehistoric site where humans lived and conditions allowed for bones to be preserved we have found evidence of massive meat and fat consumption,” Prof. Ran Barkai from Tel Aviv University told me.

Barkai studies how humans evolved and argues one possible reason our brains grew bigger over time is that we wanted meat so badly we were compelled to hunt smaller animals once large ones became rare. Small animals are harder to hunt, so we had to use more brain power.  

“We know for a fact that what we understand as “human” appears on the world’s stage as a stone tool-making, meat-consuming being,” he told me. When asked if meat consumption was the cause for our brain to evolve, he was careful to point out that just because tool-making and meat-eating appear side by side, it does not follow that one caused the other. In other words, we do not know the exact relationship between meat consumption and our own evolution.

“Not only do prehistoric humans eat meat whenever they can find it,” he told the Magazine, “so do our closest relatives, the chimpanzees.”

Chimpanzees living in Kibale National Park, Uganda, hunt red colobus monkeys to consume their flesh. The ape-hunts had been so effective the population of red colobus monkeys dropped at an alarming rate. The apes now focus on hunting mantled guerezas, the BBC reported in 2015.

Chimpanzees in Fongoli, Senegal, fashion spears to hunt Bush Babies (also called Galago), Barkai said. Interestingly, it is the females in that group that make the spears, hunt the Galago, and teach the young how to do both.  

Barkai is careful to point out that prehistoric societies hunted the animals they ate and did not rely on domesticated animals for their diet. 

“They ate all the parts of the animal and respected nature,” he argued. “Traditional hunting cultures that, for example, hunt elephants today not for their ivory but to eat, respect elephants and do not overhunt.”

When I ask if this is because they simply do not possess the necessary firepower, he brushes the question aside.

“In our own days these cultures know how to use a gun and still they do not over-hunt,” he pointed out.

“I too, as a modern person buying meat at the supermarket, feel this conflict. I know where the meat comes from and I know for a fact eating meat is something humans have done for millions of years. Our ancestors also felt this conflict and they honored nature. We do not,” Barkai concluded.  

YOUROFSKY REJECTS this argument in his lecture, telling his audience, “You are not a cavewoman or a caveman anymore, it is time to evolve.”

“Today, when I look at a glass of milk I not only see the pain and suffering that went into it, but I also see the starving children of the world who are hungry because of our addictions to meat, milk, and eggs,” Romano told me. “We can grow so much more food if we reduce the land given to grazing and use it to grow crops to offer the starving populations of the world plant-based protein.”

She is absolutely right. In a 2018 study conducted by Weizmann Institute scientists discovered that the same amount of land needed to produce just four grams of beef-based protein could produce 100 grams of plant-based protein. In the US, switching to a plant-based food economy would make it possible to feed 350 million people in addition to the population already being fed.

What Romano and Yourofsky are not discussing is the gap between science and how society is structured. Humanity could produce enough plant-based protein to feed every member of the human race, yet we do not choose to do so. The starving poor of the world cannot afford to buy food. Radical compassion, to see a cow as a friend, might one day lead us to open our eyes to the plight of the homeless and the refugee as well.

One inspiration for Freedom Farm was Woodstock Sanctuary, where Romano and Ben Ari learned how to care for animals in a compassion-guided setting in early 2016. 

“They were the ones who taught us the trick of feeding hens egg salad to enrich their diet,” Ben Ari informed me. “We are in touch with similar farms around the world,” she added. 

Woodstock Sanctuary co-founder Jenny Brown remains a close personal mentor to both women.   

The emphasis here is on providing the “ambassadors” the best lives possible. 

“We have a ram called Baruch who is 14 years old,” Ben Ari said. “Due to his age, he has health problems and had difficulty defecating.”  

The workers hooked Baruch on a drip, but that did not work. They then drove him to the University Veterinary Hospital where his stomach was pumped and its content replaced. That too, was ineffective. The surprising solution proved to be dark beer, which did the trick. 

“We learned it while looking for answers on the Internet,” Ben Ari told me. “This is a body of knowledge we are slowly gathering piece by piece.”

Freedom Farm is located at Olesh and encourages members of the public to come visit. Please pre-book your visit in an orderly fashion, so as not to disturb the workers or the “ambassadors,” by calling ahead at (09) 8987533 or email at info@freedom-farm.org.il. Three different types of visits are possible, for children ages 4 to 6, 7-10, and adults as well as children who are 10 and older. Tours are between 90 and 120 minutes and include a fee of NIS 50 per person. The staff encourages learning more about the farm ahead of the visit and gladly accepts donations. (You can decide to adopt an ambassador if you wish.) www.freedom-farm.org.il/en/ 

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