October 26th, 2007 04:27 EST
Judyth Piazza chats with Kathy Stevens, Author of Where the Blind Horse Sings
I spent my childhood surrounded by animals on the rolling hills of a Virginia horse farm. At the height of his success, my father had close to 150 horses at a given time: mares with their foals frolicking in two enormous pastures, yearlings awaiting training, older horses either in training or rehabilitating from injuries, and big, flashy stallions in whose shiny coats I could virtually see my reflection. Two hundred acres and five barns filled with hay and horses and people caring for them made for a wondrous childhood. Add to that a collection of family dogs, goats given to us as Easter gifts, a sheep named Babbette who wore diapers in the house, a burro named Linda, an assortment of barn cats, George the mynah bird, and my own series of show ponies and horses, and you`ve got a sense of the magical menagerie that, on some level, I took for granted.
But lordie, lordie, I loved each and every critter.
It would have been enough to have a childhood in which every day was an adventure. But in addition, I was loved, smart, popular, and pretty. Such a scenario will do a number on a sensitive child who realizes she`s done nothing to earn it! From a very young age, wanting the same happiness for others that I`ve experienced has driven many of my decisions both large and small. I`ve always, for instance, stood up for the underdog. Sad for the one who felt excluded, I befriended the special needs child, or the shy child, or the child with Downs Syndrome. Even as a little girl, I had a knee-jerk intolerance for prejudice of any sort "particularly racism "and freely chided anyone, child or adult, who made racist remarks "even if they were made privately. Speak your truth, " I would instruct my students years later. It`s something I`ve always done. After all, if by virtue of birth I was given a loving family, intelligence, wealth, and beauty, then even as a pipsqueak I was going to make sure that those less lucky than I were at least respected.
I left the South in the 1983 and entered graduate school at Boston`s Tufts University the following year. After two years in a public policy program (my focus, naturally, was civil rights), the idea of making a difference " from behind a desk was utterly unappealing. Much to my own amazement, I wanted to teach. I wanted to impact young people`s lives through working directly with them. So I added a third year of graduate school and took my first English teaching job just north of Boston in 1987.
If the evaluations and awards and invitations to teach teachers were legitimate measures, for eleven years I was a good teacher. If nothing else, my students were better writers and thinkers when they left each June than they had been the previous September. But I always hoped that they had learned to believe in themselves, and in their ability to direct their own lives. I hoped that they were happier people...I suppose I was nothing if not predictable.
We`d like to invite you to be the head of our school, " said the voice on the end of the phone. It was the summer of 1999. After a decade in the classroom, I was being offered the principalship of a brand new high school scheduled to open in Boston in 2000. But to my own astonishment (again), I felt finished with public education. As much as I had enjoyed and grown from those years, I was ready for the next chapter of my life. So one warm June day, I made my final end of the year speech to my final group of graduating seniors, encouraging them to be bold, to have courage, to write their own stories. But what, I wondered, was mine to be?
I asked myself the big questions: What do you love? What do you believe in, Kathy? What do you do best? My next move had to be the real deal. In retrospect, it t is interesting that I didn`t consider writing. After all, I`d kept a journal my entire life, and had been told by teachers beginning in fifth grade that I should be a writer. " Writing, in many ways, grounded and centered me. But no, the idea of writing for a living wasn`t even a blip on the radar screen. Perhaps I needed more life under my belt.
So I talked with friends. I kept a journal. I cashed in my teacher`s retirement to live on while I waited for answers to come. Mostly, I took epic hikes through the woods with my yellow lab and best pal Murphy.
Murphy was no help at all. Whenever I asked him what I should do with the rest of my life, he grabbed a stick and crouched down into play stance.
So that`s it...play with you for the rest of my life? "
Ruff!! " he barked enthusiastically.
Three insights guided me through this important period of reflection:
1. I detested suffering and felt compelled to address it...in some fashion.
2. I loved teaching, and suspected I would miss the experience of guiding minds toward deeper understanding.
3. I loved and missed having animals in my life.
I considered vet school, but knew I`d miss the classroom. I considered charter schools whose missions were in sync with my educational philosophy, but this scenario lacked animals.
One spring morning, I woke up not to singing goldfinches and bluebirds, but to the faintest voice whispering in my ear: Find a way to combine them. "
What does that mean: teach children about animal suffering? Connect suffering children with happy animals? " I snapped back. Patience is not my long suit.
You`re getting warmer, " the voice encouraged.
Who are you talking to? " my partner Jesse, awakened from his reverie, asked me.
My invisible friend. "
I turned to the Internet and discovered animal sanctuaries: non-profit havens for discarded and abused animals of all sorts: dogs, iguanas, birds, turtles, tigers, cats, horses, pigs. It was also on the web that I first learned how we raise our food animals, and recoiled in horror and disbelief. Billions of animals each year raised in misery and terror. Their suffering was too much for me to bear. How could I not know about this? Why don`t people know about this? The answer was obvious: the meat industry doesn`t want us to know.
Overnight, I had my answer. Everything that spoke to the deepest and truest parts of myself "alleviating the suffering of others, speaking my truth toward that end, teaching, and surrounding myself with animals "would be represented in an organization that I, with lots of help, would create. I would create a teaching sanctuary " " a haven for abused animals that would also help people understand what we`re doing to the cows, chickens, pigs and others that share our planet. It was time to get to work.
A press release with the headline, The Animals Are Coming! " was submitted to regional papers, and over sixty people attended an informational session at which we introduced ourselves and our mission and announced that we were seeking land and volunteers. The animals, we knew, would come.
That very night, a woman who lived on the same road we did offered the use of her fifty acres, and thirty people signed on as volunteers. Our website was up, our legal ducks were in a row, and a ready-made farm was a mile from our home. Catskill Animal Sanctuary was officially born.
Six years after we took in our first animal, Catskill Animal Sanctuary has saved the lives of over 1,100 farm animals "nearly all of them victims of unspeakable suffering. We have accepted animals seized by police from failed or fraudulent sanctuaries, and from one whose directors simply ran out of gas. We have worked closely with State Police and the New York State Humane Association to prosecute serial abusers who keep scores or hundreds in filth and confinement. (Sadly, we often don`t learn of these situations until many animals have died of starvation.) On weekends, visitors come to meet our remarkable residents. How they laugh when Rambo the sheep demands to have his rear end scratched, and when Franklin, our young orphaned pig, trots up and says, Glad you`re here!!! Have anything to eat??! " And most are dead silent, as I was, when they learn what we do to the animals we eat.
Without question, the work is always challenging, sometimes exceptionally difficult. We certainly have our share of profoundly sad days. But CAS is a joy-driven place, a place where laughter and delight are routine. Right "that happiness theme again. It`s the underpinning of everything we do here, and it`s contagious. More than that, though, I think it actually heals.
With a loving family, meaningful relationships with one-of-a-kind friends, a wonderful partner, and my best pal Murphy still tagging along everywhere I go, I continue to live a blessed life. How puzzled I am when people refer to me as a hero ", a saint, " or some other such term. How many people are fortunate enough to work doing what they love, what they believe in? I`m the luckiest person I know, and Catskill Animal Sanctuary is simply my gift to the world "a thank you for a life filled with good fortune and opportunity. It`s also a place that embodies everything I believe in "and what I believe in, essentially, is love.
For More Information: http://www.blindhorsesings.com/index.htm