Mike McGregor for Reader's Digest
Shortly after doctors diagnosed ten-year-old Jenny Brown with bone cancer, they had to amputate her right leg below the knee to save her life. Facing a year of chemotherapy after the surgery, Jenny begged her mother for a kitten. The orange calico Jenny named Boogie rarely left her side, licking tears from her cheeks after hospital visits and curling up in her lap as she adjusted to life with a prosthetic leg.
“My relationship with Boogie showed me that animals think, feel, and suffer as much as we do,” says Jenny, now 44.
In 1994, Jenny graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a concentration in film and video, and began a career in television and documentary production, eventually working for ABC, PBS, and the Discovery Channel. On the side, she volunteered as a videographer for animal rights groups, and in 2002, she shot undercover footage of gruesome animal mistreatment at several Texas farm animal stockyards. “After seeing that, I knew I needed to help animals,” says Jenny.
A year later, she gave up her film career to work as an animal caregiver at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York.
“Farm animals are typically very timid,” says Jenny. “But in a loving environment, you begin to see their personalities.”
Jenny learned the ropes of farm life and, with her fiancé, Doug Abel, a film editor, opened the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating farm animals, on a 22-acre property they bought in the rolling hills of Woodstock, New York, the next year.
Her earliest tenants were six hens rescued from an Ohio egg factory. The sanctuary’s first goat, Olivia, had been abandoned in a backyard after her owner’s house burned down. When Jenny rescued a calf she named Dylan, Olivia quickly became his caretaker. “The animals form serious bonds with the creatures around them,” says Jenny.
In August 2007, she received a call from Animal Care and Control of NYC about a small goat it had found hobbling around Prospect Park. Jenny guessed it had run away from one of the city’s slaughterhouses. The goat’s legs were severely injured, probably from being bound together with wire, and its mouth was covered in sores.
Jenny and her team brought the goat, which they named Albie, to the sanctuary, but they soon realized that Albie’s left front leg was injured beyond repair. After a veterinarian amputated the leg, Jenny asked Erik Tomkins, the doctor who makes Jenny’s prostheses, to fashion a leg for Albie. To date, seven of the sanctuary’s animals have received prosthetic limbs or braces. “On most farms, animals with these ailments would be immediately killed,” says Jenny.
The Woodstock Farm Sanctuary team gives tours of the farm from April to October and solicits volunteers and donations through woodstockfarmsanctuary.org. The website describes the backstory and personality of each of the more than 350 animals living at the farm, from Andy the pig to Picasso the chicken.
Last September, Jenny and Doug moved the sanctuary to a 150-acre farm in High Falls, New York, which has a commercially equipped kitchen and a dining hall in addition to several lodges, a barn, and other buildings. The new space has allowed their team of 17, including five full-time animal caretakers and a shelter director, to host vegan cooking classes and a kids’ camp.
“People love spending time with the animals. It’s therapy for them,” says Jenny. “We have a 2,000-pound steer who loves to cuddle. There’s a magic that happens here.”