There are plenty of Detroiters who remember how their jaws dropped one day just before Christmas, at the sight of a giant red-and-white Hereford steer running down Jefferson Avenue in broad daylight, gloriously free. He had good reason to run.
By Jack Lessenberry
Jefferson, as he came to be named, was going to be killed. He was being taken to a slaughterhouse in Detroit, where he would have met a frightening and painful end, just as thousands and thousands of cattle do every month. Yet he had managed to break free, and ran for more than a mile, careening down city streets, calling forth news crews, exciting reporters and residents.
Eventually, they got him, of course, with the help of a tranquilizer dart. Normally, he would have just been led back to the slaughter. But he was now a celebrity, and we don’t kill celebrities.
Well, not bovine ones, anyway. To his owner, he was no more than $1,500 worth of meat. To animal-rights activists, he was a living being. They sent in donations and paid his ransom. But now what? Where was he to go?
“Well, there was only one place,” says Jennifer Sullivan, a 33-year-old writer, rock ’n’ roll drummer, and supporter of animals.
The first time you visit Sasha Farm, you may get the idea that you are in something like an animal version of paradise. Finding it can be a challenge; you need to navigate a series of rural roads, not always well-marked, right outside Manchester, in rural Washtenaw County.
But when you get there, you are in another world. Sixty-five acres of gently rolling pasture land, meadows, and paddocks, home to burros, horses, chickens, goats, and several other animals. It’s pretty much a whole Noah’s Ark of domesticated animals, and a few others.
There’s Boris, for example, a large wild boar. A hunter near Escanaba found him a few years ago, a dying newborn. He put him in his pocket, and Boris (what else would you name a wild boar?) ended up here.
“We have a simple mission,” says Dorothy Davies, the benevolent Eve who founded this animal preserve back in the early 1980s. “To provide a safe and secure environment for these animals, for life. Not exotic animals, but domestic and farm animals, especially if they have been neglected or abused.”
For a while, you might have a hard time imagining any of the Sasha animals having been neglected or abused. But when you look closer, you see that some of these animals show signs of the nightmare world they have narrowly escaped. For years, Samson, a magnificent red Chow, patrolled the grounds, presiding over everything, gazing out benevolently from wherever he lay.
Only when you got close to him did you see the scars. He had been rescued from a vivisection lab at a major university. Other animals are getting over the effects of psychological abuse and neglect. Or worse.
Sometimes, they have chickens without beaks; those who run vast poultry “factory farms” cut them off (without painkillers) so they won’t peck one another, and damage valuable meat. Chickens, in fact, are how all this got started.
Dorothy, a 59-year-old Garden City native, and her husband, Monte Jackson, 61, moved out here from the Westland area in 1981. They wanted to fit in. Manchester has an annual “famous chicken broil” tradition, and they decided to raise chickens. The idea, naturally, was to eat them. Monte and Dorothy managed to kill and eat just one chicken. The psychological toll was too much. “That was it,” she says.
Then they got involved, with their son Darian, in the local 4-H club; what could be more American? That is, until they learned that after kids raise little farm animals from infancy, they send them off to be killed.
“Nothing is more awful than the day they come to get the animals. The kids are crying, the parents are upset, [and] sometimes they have to tear the animals out of the kids’ arms.” So they kept their goat. And saved some more goats.
Then there was a pig or two, and a few cows. They found out what slaughterhouses are really like, and factory farms. “For many animals, Sasha Farm is their last hope,” says Sullivan, who is particularly fond of cows and rabbits, and works for the animals between gigs with her band, Ask Alice.
“I don’t think many people realize that farm animals, or animals used as food, do not receive the same protection under the law as dogs and cats. These animals are tortured and sentenced to death simply so you can enjoy a cheap burger. This place lets a lucky few simply live out their lives in peace.”
People in the area started hearing about the farm that saved animals. One day the couple received a puppy that wasn’t being taken care of.
Sasha was part border collie, part spaniel, and a ball of fire. She ran after the cows and kept everyone in line for more than 17 years, and it seemed appropriate to name the farm after her. Long before, Monte, a long-haul truck driver, and Dorothy, Manchester’s town librarian, had determined running Sasha was their mission in life.
Other animals arrived. Pot-bellied pigs, the fad pet of the ’80s and ’90s, whose owners eventually tired of them. Abandoned cats. Huge farm pigs, bred for their meat, that can barely walk. The census grew.
People started hearing about Sasha Farm. Vegans and animal lovers came to visit, and some came to volunteer to help. Finally, six years ago, Dorothy quit her job; running the animal sanctuary had become a full-time operation.
By that time, there were three wild burros from the Southwest that were due to be executed by the federal government, after ranchers complained they got in the way of their cattle. There are horses, including a magnificent race animal named Persian Brave, whose owner was ready to send him to the slaughterhouse when a minor injury meant he couldn’t race anymore.
Besides rescued chickens, there are 11 turkeys, which Dorothy insists “really aren’t stupid at all, and a goat population that ranges from BamBam, a long-horned creature who was found wandering the streets, to a baby pygmy goat now named Stephen Colbert — a friend of Dorothy’s saved the creature from a stew pot.
Dorothy and company know they can’t rescue every animal, but exraordinary times require extraordinary effort. She was off in the van for the Gulf Coast to rescue Katrina dogs after the 2005 hurricanes.
Three of them are now permanent residents at Sasha: Miles Davis, Bella Abzug, and a tiny spaniel called Toto, now Monte’s constant companion.
For years, Dorothy mainly ran this place on elbow grease and the kindness of strangers. The couple incorporated the farm in 2002 as a 501 (c) (3) corporation, so that donations were fully tax deductible. They put its management in the hands of a board of directors. “We want to ensure this goes on,” Dorothy says.
“We knew, you never know, and accidents can happen.”
Then one did happen. On a winter night in early 2007, Monte was nearly killed in a trucking accident just outside Toledo. His neck and many other bones were broken. Miraculously, he survived, and is now able to drive and get around. But enough damage was done that his trucking days were definitely through.
Fortunately, Sasha had just hired its first full-time employee, Amanda Hitt, 32, who had been working in wetlands management for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “This is an amazing place,” she says.
“You couldn’t dream of another job like this one.”
Thanks to Dorothy, Sasha Farm has gotten Internet savvy. The operation now has an attractive, and interactive, Web site.
You can meet the animals, learn details about how the farm works, sponsor an animal, or sign up to volunteer. Money is still tight. Dorothy and Monte say it costs about $100,000 a year to feed and take care of everyone.
But they have gotten almost as good at fundraising as they have at nursing starving, sick abandoned puppies back to health. (One of these, Veggie, who was found in a Dumpster in Chicago, let me know immediately that he was the real boss of Sasha Farm.) When somebody stupidly sent a bunch of baby chicks as a Valentine’s Day prank, the survivors were brought to Sasha.
Quickly, they set up a blog so people could “buy dinner for a Hot Vegan chick.” The surviving birds were all sponsored in no time.
Dorothy and Monte intend to keep at it. Eventually, they hope the board will set up a foundation so the animals will still be cared for when they are no longer able to muck out stalls and clean up after 1,000-pound pigs.
They welcome visitors, and all the help they can get.
Driving back, I tried to put in words what is most special about Sasha Farm. I remember something that Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote about our treatment of animals: “What do they know — all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world … They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation.
“All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”
But not here, I thought. No, not here. h
For more information, go to sashafarm.org, or contact Sasha Farm, P.O. Box 222, Manchester, MI 48158; 734-428-9617.