Ireland is not a very vegan-friendly country, and not yet a great place for non-human animals to live. Its rural history and culture are still very present, and dairy and meat farms are among the pillars of the Irish economy.
Therefore, it comes as a surprise for many that Ireland has a farm animal sanctuary. Eden Farm Animal Sanctuary opened in 2011. Currently, the sanctuary is not open to visitors, and its exact location is not disclosed so that the residents can live in peace and security.
Global Looking Glass spoke with Sandra Higgins, owner and founder of the sanctuary, about the animals they take in, and the work that is done there.
When was Eden Farm Animal Sanctuary conceived?
Eden developed gradually as part of a larger organization, The Compassion Foundation of Ireland, a trans-species psychology center that facilitates human and non-human healing via ecopsychological reconnection with the natural environment, with each other, and within ourselves. The first farmed animals arrived at Eden in 2008. The development of Matilda’s Promise, the associated Vegan Animal Education Centre, was also gradual. It was given its official name in October 2011 following the death of Matilda, one of Eden’s resident hens.
When did you rescue the first animal and what species was it?
Rescued cats have lived at Eden for approximately 17 years. The first farmed animals to arrive here were sheep.
How many animals are you currently able to help today?
Today there are 104 residents living here.
How do the animals come to you?
They come from a variety of sources. We are often informed of situations where animals have been abandoned and are neglected or homeless. On occasion, we discover cases of abuse and are able to persuade people to allow us to take the animals to Eden. Some come to us as the result of our public advertisements, pleading with people not to abandon or kill unwanted farmed animals who could live out their lives at a sanctuary. Some residents have arrived after being rescued by a third party. Others have been left at our gate.
Do all the animals you help have names?
Although we have named a lot of the residents, we have not named them all. That does not detract from the fact that they are individuals with their own identities, and we treat them as such. It is more a reflection of the capacity of our memories, and perhaps the fact that our facial recognition is not as good as that of sheep! They have ways of ‘‘naming’’ or identifying each other that may involve visual, auditory, olfactory, or other systems of recognition and categorization that we as humans do not understand yet.
Which species of animal is the most numerous at Eden?
The largest group of farmed animal residents is hens, who have been rescued from the egg production industry. There are also quite a few roosters who were abandoned in the countryside. My sister discovered one rooster, Fitz, just 100 meters off the motorway. Some of the roosters may have been bred for cockfighting, and others are probably the unwanted result of backyard chicken keeping.
Has the organization ever been faced with the situation where there were more animals to shelter than you were able to accommodate? In cases like that, what is the solution?
According to the Irish Agricultural and Food Development Authority (Teagasc) there are more than 2.2 million egg-laying hens in Ireland. Sixty-eight million broiler chickens are slaughtered here annually by the meat industry. There are 4.8 million sheep, 1.56 million pigs, and 6.5 million cows in Ireland. The human population is less than five million. The number of farmed animals who need rescuing is infinite. Eden cannot be a repository for mopping up the messy horror of the farming industry; however, when faced with the knowledge of such vast numbers of tortured animals, it takes careful management to ensure that it does not become one. I have had the benefit of learning from sanctuaries that have gone before me with the best of intentions to save animal beings from the exploitation of farming and other human uses, only to become overcrowded and have the animals’ needs exceed available funding. That’s where Matilda’s Promise comes in. While Eden is a sanctuary for the victims of farming, Matilda’s Promise attempts to stem the problem at its source, and the source of the problem is breeding animals for food in the first place.
I accept only the number of residents that I have the resources to care for. Animals who arrive here are given the promise of a stable, lifelong home. We have a policy of not rehoming anyone. There are occasions when new residents arrive in emergency situations. They are often highly traumatized and need to be alone. We do our best to make them safe and comfortable until we can accommodate them more appropriately. We also try to keep a “hospital” area for those who become ill or injured. However, in practice, we are constantly juggling our land and housing resources as the needs of the residents emerge and change.
By keeping the number of animals at a manageable level, I know each one individually, and can spend time with all of them. Mindful observation has taught me that other animals experience pleasure with an intensity that humans would do well to learn from. I feel immensely privileged that they invite me into an interspecies relationship that is meaningful, enlightening, and profound.
Who helps you with the organization?
We make liberal and grateful use of my partner Ronnie’s farm machinery and his help in moving houses, digging trenches for water pipes, and installing fencing posts. He also helps out when the sheep need attention such as foot trimming or parasite control.
My friend and colleague, Sany, runs the sanctuary with me. We do all the daily cleaning and feeding chores together. While I take care of some of the management issues and the work of Matilda’s Promise, Sany takes care of the heavy work. We also take care of injured or ill residents together, and take joint responsibility for transporting them for veterinary care and for decisions that we hope alleviate end of life distress or pain.
We have recently arranged volunteer working weekends, which enable us to accomplish enormous amounts of work and have great fun too. These weekends are, in my opinion, a lovely opportunity for very passionate and hard-working activists to connect in a positive environment with the representatives of those animals whose liberation they devote their lives to.
Is the sanctuary open to visitors aside from the working volunteers?
The sanctuary is not open to the public. The primary purpose of Eden is to provide a safe home for the residents. We believe that being open to the public would compromise their safety and the tranquility of their home. We offer trans-species psychology internships and the Compassion Foundation and Matilda’s Promise are open to the public. In addition, the public can connect with the residents in the light in which I have come to know them through the website, movies and books produced and through our newsletter Somebodies, Not Somethings.
Tell us more about Matilda’s Promise.
Through this venture, I produce educational material to promote the liberation of non-human animals from human exploitation. I am currently working on a children’s educational movie, and in November the movie You Haven’t Lived Until You’ve Hugged a Turkey will be released. Matilda’s Promise offers courses and mentoring that facilitate human connection with other animals, and promotes veganism as the moral baseline from which our respect for them should begin.
Besides rescuing and taking care of the animals, is the organization involved in other campaigns?
As an animal rights activist, I campaign against the exploitation of other sentient beings for any human purpose – for food, clothing, entertainment, in vivisection, or for any other use. Although most of the sanctuary residents are farmed animals, our activism is not limited to animals used for food. I believe that humans’ use of other animals is the greatest social injustice issue of our time, and that it is inextricably linked with other social injustices. I have a strong interest in protecting the environment that all living beings share and depend on. I am also interested in human rights, and in the interconnection between our exploitation of non-humans and humans.
I can imagine that it’s not cheap to maintain the sanctuary. What is the biggest challenge when it comes to keeping the sanctuary running?
Food costs are high and rising. We use organic food, which is kinder to everyone, and helps avoid genetically-modified ingredients and other unwanted substances. This is more expensive than non-organic food. We also use a variety of supplements to offset health problems. In addition, there are high costs associated health issues such as parasite control. Although we use recycled materials for housing and fencing, we are frequently faced with very high costs when we need to erect new fencing, or when houses need to be repaired or replaced.
The biggest drain on our resources is veterinary bills. The health of farm animals is severely compromised by the very fact that they are bred through genetic selection to produce food for humans. This impacts enormously on their quality of life and is a gross violation of their natural health status.
Ireland is still a very rural country, with many jobs relating to the meat, dairy, and egg industries. What kind of support do you get from the Irish people? How do you think the Irish perceive farm animals?
Most of our funding and interest in the residents at Eden and the work of Matilda’s Promise come from people outside Ireland. Aside from the vegan and animal rights movements in Ireland, there is very little interest, as yet. We hope that in time that will change. I think that Irish people, particularly those involved in farming and the animal agricultural food industry, regard themselves as dependent on other animals for their livelihoods. Viable alternatives such as hemp and vegan food production are not adequately considered. They see farmed animals as commodities and are blind to them as individual, feeling beings whose lives matter to them. Many people are reluctant to face the fact that it is unsustainable economically and environmentally to continue recycling plant foods through animals in order to feed a small percentage of the earth’s human population. I believe that some of the Irish reluctance to support animal rights is because it conjures up ludicrous images of geese carrying their identity cards to the polling station on election days, rather than the right not to be bred into an exploitative existence, and the right to live free from unnecessary harm. A further obstacle is that the movement is predicated on veganism, and people lack the information to be able to translate this knowledge into a practical lifestyle. That is where organizations like Matilda’s Promise and Vegan Ireland can play an important mentoring and facilitative role.
I am confident that Irish people, whose own individual and/or collective, personal and social histories have been tainted by so much exploitation and rights violations, will eventually accept that other animals are not our property, and that our use of them hurts them unnecessarily.
How would you describe the mission of Eden Sanctuary and Matilda’s Promise?
My experience over the years at Eden has taught me that, just as in my clinical work with humans, we merely provide the conditions at Eden that facilitate the residents’ self healing from the trauma of their existence as farmed animals. Our role is to constantly update our knowledge of the conditions that best help them to recover. It is their own resilience, and not any intervention by us, that enables them to overcome the fact that we, as humans, have violated their autonomy and sovereignty by our historical domestication and breeding of them. Sadly, all too often this is a violation that cannot be overcome.
It is very heartening to be able to help enable the survivors to become such heroic ambassadors for their species. However, we help a much greater number of animals simply by living a vegan lifestyle than by offering a home at Eden. The mission of Matilda’s Promise is to facilitate people in extending their compassion to other animals by ceasing to personally cause their exploitation. It costs so little for a human to do this, but it means the whole world to the animals that are liberated as a result.
Where can people find out more about your work and make a donation?
Our website is www.edenfarmanimalsanctuary.com. Donations can be made through the site or by contacting us by e-mail.