At 10 years old, Jenny Brown was terrified as she was fighting cancer in her leg, undergoing chemotherapy and eventually becoming an amputee. It wasn’t until years later, as an adult, that she discovered this gave her a special gift–one that allowed her to relate to farm animals.
After an undercover trip to to film farm animal abuse in Texas, Brown gave up her career and dedicated her life becoming a voice for these animals. Brown is now the Co-Founder and Director of the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary—a not-for-profit organization and farm animal shelter located in the Catskill Mountains of New York and the author of The Lucky Ones, My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals. She is best known as an outspoken vegan animal rights activist who has been featured in the New York Times, New York Magazine, New York Daily News, Rolling Stone Magazine and NPR.
To find out more about how losing her leg inspired her to become an activist for farm animals, we talked with Brown, who among other things says she has learned that sometimes she just needs to “show a little leg.”
Congratulations on your new book. What inspired you to write this?
The 200 rescued farm animals I live with daily inspired me to write this book! If people got to know them in a loving and respectful environment like here at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, they would learn that they are very much like our beloved cats and dogs. I really want people to question why we love some and eat others.
How did losing your leg to cancer as a young girl motivate you to want to get involved with farm animals?
I’m very sensitive to suffering because I’ve lived it. I was a very sick, bald and terrified 10 year old when I was diagnosed with cancer and underwent over 2 years of chemotherapy plus the amputation of my right leg below my knee down. The isolation and frustration of not being able to run and play and do the kind of things normal kids were doing was very painful. During that time my mother allowed me to adopt a kitten who I named Boogie and who stayed with me from the time I was 10 to 28 years old. My relationship with her sparked an awareness about the intelligence and personalities of animals which has stayed with me all my life. I got involved with animal advocacy when I was 18 years old and after years of learning about the various ways that humans use and abuse other living beings, it became clear to me that farmed animals are the most often ignored yet the most exploited and abused beings on this planet. Ten billion of them live miserable lives and mercilessly slaughtered every year for human consumption–a staggering number but even more painful when you realize that each and everyone is someone, not a something. They think, the feel and the suffer very much like you and I.
You talk about your time going undercover at various farms–what exactly did you see there that changed the way you view animals?
It was in 2002 that I was sent undercover to document “downed animals” at various stockyards in Texas for an animal advocacy group. I had done some undercover video work in the early 90′s but left that world behind when I started to freelance regularly in film and television. That week in Texas showed me humans at their worst. The day I arrived I saw a truck load of veal calves being unloaded into a pen at the stockyard from a local dairy farm–some with their umbilical cords still attached, some still slick from birth fluids–all being whipped, dragged and kicked into their pen. During that week I saw crippled and badly injured animals, goat mothers crying to their newly separated kids that they would never see again, animals being beaten, animals with the sides of their face eaten away from cancer, downed animals who lingered in pens unable to reach water..and I could go on. It was heartbreaking to say the least, and I left Texas forever changed.
Do you think things like that happen at every farm?
I think there are a lot of misleading labels out there such as “animal care certified” “free-range” “animal welfare approved” and so on – that are intended to make people feel better about supporting what they believe is more humane animal agriculture–but those labels are often completely bogus and unregulated. I can’t speak for every farm out there and i know there are some farmers that truly try to let their animals live a good life but ultimately I’ve come to think that we should evolve beyond “farming” sentient beings–for the animals, the planet and our health!
So did you immediately go from eating meat to vegan?
No way. I only knew one vegetarian when I started college and became a pescetarian. About a year later I stopped eating fish – I think I was 19 years old. It wasn’t until I was 32 that I became vegan after learning that there is actually more suffering involved in dairy and egg production than there is eating beef & chicken. I talk more about that in my book!
You say that free range animals products are still cruel…why is that?
Because (1) the animals are still castrated, tail-docked, dehorned and other mutilations without anesthesia or painkillers (2) every dairy cow has her calf torn from her heartbreaking bellows year after year in order for people to drink the milk that was made for her calves (and the males become veal) (3) at the hatcheries that provide the female laying hens to small farms and big farms alike they grind up or suffocate all the male chicks and (4) humane slaughter is an oxymoron!
Do you think groups like PETA sometimes go too far with their vegan messages?
Lately, yes I do, but I don’t spend my time pointing fingers at other orgs who are trying to help animals in their own way. It was PETA who made the literature that I first picked up and read and turned me into the person I am today. They have done a lot of good for animals over the past several decades and for that I appreciate them.
What is the one thing you want everyone to know about factory farms? What about slaughterhouses?
That we have lost our morality when it comes to how we treat these animals. For veal calves, egg-laying hens and female pigs used to impregnate and give birth to more pigs, we deny them everything that makes life worth living. Our consumer dollars support these industries and keep them going. If we say we love animals and are against animal cruelty then we should take a close look at how animals live and die before making their way onto our plates.
In your opinion, is it possible to be a humane meat eater?
For me, no. I don’t believe in eating chickens, pigs or cows anymore than I believe in eating dogs or cats. They are all the same. When animals kill other animals for food, they do as they must in order to survive. They don’t have a choice. Most humans do have a choice, and for those who do, choosing to eat animals is choosing to harm and kill animals for pleasure.
How is your life different now? Do you feel like you’ve come full-circle since losing your leg?
I feel blessed that I am able to dedicate my life to the issue that is most important to me. Mine is a cause-driven life because I have such a deep reverence for animals. Weird as it may be, I’m happy to be an amputee because that is what brought the attention to my mission and the work of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary–and brought in the book offer! Many good things have come of it and it’s really not that big of a deal to me. As I’ve said lately, I didn’t realize that in order to be successful with my mission, work and charitable org, I just needed to show a little leg!