Susie Coston paused last Wednesday before stepping into one of Farm Sanctuary’s isolation rooms, where she keeps 11 chickens and a turkey.
“Did you have a radio this morning and hear?” Coston asked Abbie Rogers.
Rogers, a caregiver at the sanctuary near Watkins Glen, shook her head.
“We got custody of everybody,” Coston said.
“No,” Rogers responded. “That’s awesome!”
“Daffodil will never have to go back,” Coston said.
Mr. Daffodil, a blind turkey in the next room, was one of nearly 600 animals seized in February from Painted Meadows Farm in Cattaraugus County after authorities discovered the animals living in deplorable conditions.
The animals – horses, sheep, goats, cows, chickens, ducks, guinea fowls, chukar partridges and turkeys – were starving and living in filth. Many were barely alive.
The farm couple who owned the animals, Donald and Bonnie George, was charged with animal cruelty. The case was settled last week when the couple reached a plea agreement with prosecutors.
In the days after the discovery, volunteers sprang to action, finding foster and permanent homes for the animals. One person took a rabbit; another took five ducks. Farm Sanctuary, though, had the biggest task, taking the largest number of animals – 186.
Accommodating nearly 200 animals at once was no simple task. But Farm Sanctuary, which has been around for 30 years, was prepared and willing.
And providing food and shelter was just the first, and perhaps easiest, of the chores ahead. Nursing the sick animals back to health during the four months it took the case to wind its way through court was a bigger job. The animals were ill, skinny and scared and required extensive medical attention. To make matters worse, the sanctuary had taken in some of the sickest of the animals.
Staff provided the goats with antibiotics, kept the chickens quarantined and gave the chukar partridges eye drops every two hours.
All the while, they were unsure if they would be required to return the animals to the Georges. Coston, the national shelter director, was so worried she couldn’t sleep.
Then, on the night of June 21, their fears were laid to rest. The Georges accepted a plea bargain that included relinquishing control of the animals on their former property and pleading guilty to four counts of animal cruelty.
Palmer, a white and orange Silkie rooster, catches up to Coston as she walks through the farm.
While Palmer keeps pace behind her, other chickens of various shades and sizes join in.
“Hi, Milo,” Coston says. “Hi, Cameo.”
“If you treat chickens nice, this is what they do,” she says, laughing.
Coston and the animals greet each other like this all over the sanctuary’s 175 acres.
The sanctuary was opened by Gene Baur and Lorri Houston after they toured factory farms in the 1980s, documenting the conditions with a camera. At the Lancaster Stockyards, they rescued a sheep that lifted its head from a pile of dead animals. The two took the sheep and named her Hilda.
Since then, Baur and others rescued thousands more farm animals and, in the process, created Farm Sanctuary near Watkins Glen as the permanent home for their rescues.
That home was the first of a network of sanctuaries to house abused farm animals and care for them as if they were pets.
There are now two more sanctuaries in California, and the couple is opening a fourth in New Jersey with Tracey Stewart and her husband, former host of “The Daily Show” Jon Stewart. Gene Baur wrote a bestselling book about the sanctuary called “Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food” and was deemed the “conscience of the food movement” by Time Magazine. The sanctuary network, a nonprofit, received almost $11 million last year in support and revenue. Its board of directors includes celebrities like actress Emily Deschanel.
The sanctuary’s goal is to show people there’s a different way of treating animals and to educate them about where their food comes from.
Here, the animals have names. They’re set up with homes. Staffers know everything about them. The farm animals at Farm Sanctuary are just as important to Coston as her two dogs and six cats at home. The animals are not meat.
“I wish people could see them the way I see them,” she said.
Those who work at Farm Sanctuary do. One staff member giving a tour shouts, “Yay, turkeys,” while another sits against a tree and plays with weeks-old lambs.
Nowadays, memorial placards showing photos of pigs, cows, sheep and chickens cover the lobby of the animal hospital building in the New York sanctuary. There is Amigo the cow, Andy the pig and, of course, Hilda.
The sanctuary cares for upward of 500 animals and employs 38 people, including four caregivers, four to five interns and four barn assistants. Employees say they have saved thousands of animals over the years.
Coston joined the team in 2000. She’s worked in schools and a veterinarian’s office but feels she belonged on the farm.
Using the same tone a parent would with a baby, Coston greets each animal by name and asks what they’re up to. The large pigs respond with grunts from their mud baths, and twin goats stick their heads through a section of fence cut out to make room for interactions with humans.
Coston said they’re not preaching about veganism, but they want people to make educated choices.
“We want cheap meat, cheap eggs, cheap milk – cheap, cheap, cheap,” she said. “Someone has to pay the price. Often, it’s the animals.”
Ginger Schröder was one of the locals who responded to the rescue effort at the Georges’ Painted Meadows Farm in February.
She knew the farm, about five minutes from her home, because she had been there once a couple of years earlier. She was having problems with a duck and heard Bonnie George might have some advice. When she went to the farm, she saw junk scattered around, including mayonnaise jars and expired MoonPie cookies. Most of the Georges’ animals were tucked in barns, except for some poultry and horses – which, from a distance, looked healthy.
Then, in February, she responded to a call for help at the farm.
A horse was down in a field – a medical emergency because horses can’t be down for more than three hours without doing considerable damage to their internal organs.
Schröder just wanted to help the animal up. She wasn’t looking to invest four months of her life.
When she arrived, she saw a draft horse in “serious distress” from being down longer than 24 hours. The horse was frozen to the ground.
Donald George was pulling a tractor up to the horse so he could load it on a skid and drag it back to the barn, she said. Staff from the Cattaraugus County SPCA said it was too late. The horse had to be euthanized.
George didn’t have a cellphone to call his vet. So Schröder offered hers. Then, George’s vet was unavailable. Schröder called hers.
When George said he didn’t have the money to euthanize the horse, Schröder knew something was wrong.
“How can you have 50 horses and not have $300 to euthanize a horse?” she thought.
The rest unraveled over the next four months. The SPCA asked to investigate the farm, but the Georges wouldn’t allow investigators in without a warrant. A few days later, the SPCA got one.
By then, the Georges had moved more than 100 animals off the property and onto their new farm in Erie County. The animals left in Farmersville were in horrible conditions.
The horses had severe cases of thrush, which is caused by a buildup of urine and feces in the stall. Nine horses had been standing so long their muscles had atrophied.
Coston arrived at the farm March 3, while the animals were under a “seized in place” court order.
Dirty ducks were eating out of a trash pile. She later realized the ducks, vegetarian under normal circumstances, were feeding on the carcass of another animal.
She went into a barn and saw skinny horses with untreated hooves. Cows stood in feces up to Coston’s shoulder. When she got to the bird barn, the smell of ammonia burned her eyes. She could barely breathe.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she thought.
Coston hadn’t planned to take any animals that day, but three were in such bad condition she took them for medical attention.
One was a chicken gasping for air, with eyes swollen shut. Another was a chicken that couldn’t walk, with toes that looked like twigs. The third was a sheep that had just given birth. It was so bloated it couldn’t move.
Coston put the seats down in her new Nissan Rogue, loaded in the two chickens, the sheep and its lamb and headed for the animal hospital.
A white lamb nibbles on Coston’s hair. Like the other four lambs, it nibbles on whatever is available: backpacks, clothes or fingers.
A brown lamb runs up, nibbles and backs away a bit. It returns to nibble some more. The ewe, Stepha, stands about 4 feet away, watching. She hasn’t come around to humans yet.
Before Farm Sanctuary, Stepha’s lambs were always taken away to be butchered for meat.
When three pregnant ewes were moved to the sanctuary about two months ago, staff put them in a large room connected to an outdoor pasture. They didn’t want the ewes giving birth in a field, alone, where the lambs were likely to die.
The staff did plenty of other things, too. They learned about chukar partridges because they had never had them before. They put coats on the Georges’ goats because they were skinny and cold.
They treated the 10 chukar partridges for upper respiratory infections and eye damage. They nursed two quail with sinus infections and parasites and the 13 ducks for leg problems. The 11 geese had gizzard worm, a parasite the sanctuary had never dealt with before. The 87 chickens were treated for lice infestations, mycoplasma, leg mites and injured toes. The sanctuary treated 13 goats for pneumonia and mange and cut their horns because some were improperly cut and would have grown into their heads. They treated the 28 sheep for abscesses and pneumonia.
Not all the animals on the farm were as lucky.
One chicken died. The ewe Coston rushed to the animal hospital died after two surgeries at Cornell University. Her lamb was placed in a home in New Jersey.
The three ewes that made it to the farm gave birth to five lambs within weeks of each other.
The staff held off on naming the lambs. They weren’t sure if they would have to return the animals to the Georges.
“It would feel like such a betrayal,” Coston said. “When they go to those farms, no one knows who they are. Here, they get to become someone.”
The Georges accepted a deal last week that included surrendering ownership of the more than 600 animals from Painted Meadows and the approximately 100 others on their new property in Erie County. The couple will also be assessed by a health professional, take a class on animal abuse and be added to Cattaraugus County’s animal abuser registry.
For now, rescues will continue.
The SPCA will receive almost $20,000 in restitution from the Georges, but that won’t cover the nine stallions surrendered prior to the deal.
Coston said Farm Sanctuary has already spent about $14,000 to treat the animals. But the organization could not officially confirm that estimate.
Ginger Schröder, the Georges’ former neighbor, volunteered her time as an attorney for the SPCA and has helped find new homes for the other seized animals.
Homes, both permanent and foster, have been found for almost all the Georges’ animals. A Facebook page run by Schröder details the success stories of rescued horses bonding with their new owners.
There are still six to seven mares that need homes where more intense training, socialization and medical attention will be provided.
Farm Sanctuary plans to keep most of the sickest and elderly animals.
The ducks and geese will stay, too.
The Georges own a new farm in Brant. They love animals, defense attorney John Gilmour said, adding he is confident they will comply with the agreement.
But not all are so optimistic the Georges won’t do this again.
“It’s definitely not only possible,” Schröder said.
She wants to be clear that she can’t say whether the Georges are hoarders because that is a psychological diagnosis she is not qualified to make. But she cited a Cornell University study that found hoarding has a 100 percent recidivism rate.
The day after the plea bargain, the Painted Meadows geese were allowed to go out with the ducks and geese who have been at Farm Sanctuary longer. While the more senior geese ran off into a pond, the new ones stood on a hill and watched, wondering if they should join.
“They’re trying to figure out their place,” Coston said. “They’ll be a permanent part of the flock within the week.”
“One full flock,” she said.