Potential. That’s what Lenore Braford, founder of Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge, sees when she looks at the 16 acres of pine-dotted fields off Highway 87 in Pittsboro.
The 28-year-old entrepreneur, a vegan since taking an environmental ethics course in college, has decided factory farm animals deserve better homes.
With a growing group of volunteers, Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge is moving closer to reality as a haven for factory farm animals and a place to educate the public on the industry that feeds it.
Already home to havens like Carolina Tiger Rescue and the Goathouse Refuge, Pittsboro attracted Braford through its community college and its reputation as a farming community rich with young people.
“[They are] starting to think about what choices they make in both food and the way that they farm,” she said. “I really wanted to be part of this community and make sure the animal side is included in these ethical discussions.”
Braford has spent the past three years volunteering at similar refuges in preparation for opening her own.
“I’ve had a lot of experience working with children with developmental disabilities,” Braford said. “Helping others is something I’ve always enjoyed doing and had an interest in. So for me, right now, ‘others’ are farm animals because there’s not a lot of people advocating for them.”
With a diverse group of board members and more than 30 other volunteers to manage things here in the Triangle, Braford and fellow board member Tom Griffen spent April and May interning at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y., whose 175 acres, bed and breakfast, and well-established community roots are giving them a feel for their new roles in North Carolina.
They’ll need that experience, too. They couldn’t have picked many states with more factory farming.
North Carolina ranks third in total poultry production, and Smithfield Foods operates the world’s largest pork-processing plant in Tar Heel.
North Carolina’s 8.8 million hogs, which produce four times as much waste as humans, are part of what led American Rivers to name the Neuse as the eighth-most-polluted river in the United States in 2007.
The kinds of living conditions Braford and her allies decry come from a lack of regulation and a view of the animals as “cash crops” and nothing more.
Thousands to tens of thousands are crammed into tight quarters, and current industry standards only require 67 square inches for egg-laying hens -— a square foot is 144 inches.
Farmers shear off beaks or tails of chickens and pigs without anesthesia so they won’t injure each other. “[For chickens], it’s like de-clawing a cat and then putting that cat in a situation where he or she has to fend for himself with no claws,” Braford said. “One of the ways that it is OK to kill baby piglets is by slamming their heads on the concrete.”
Factory pig farming still widely uses a controversial “gestation crate” system in which sows spend almost their entire lives pregnant and are unable to turn in their stalls.
“They are actually smarter than dogs,” Braford said. “You’ll see a lot of biting of bars and biting of the cage with these pigs and just obsessively chewing and chewing and chewing because they are kind of going crazy because they have nothing to do or think about.”
Dairy cows can be kept in stalls with concrete floors with milking machines on timers that can over-milk and cause infection.
“That’s one of the reasons so many antibiotics have to be used, because they chronically have these infections and huge amounts of blood and pus and really disgusting things are actually in milk, but it is in certain quantities that are allowable by the USDA,” Braford said.
The only federal protections for farm animals are for research animals or optional quality assurance programs and certifications.
On their own
For a refuge, the lack of regulation leaves quality of care up solely to the operators, as they are not held to a higher standard than the factory farms they protest against.
The N.C. Animal Welfare Act makes traditional animal shelters register, follow space and care guidelines, and be subject to inspection accordingly. But that only applies to cats and dogs. No such regulations exist for farm animals at the state or federal levels.
“The only thing I think that we would watch over is if they’re importing animals from out of state,” said Sarah Mason, director of animal health programs in the poultry division of the veterinary division of the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
This can lead to problems with refuges when their owners’ hearts are bigger than their wallets, said Daphna Nachminovitch, vice president for the PETA cruelty investigations department.
“People tend to take on more than they can reasonably care for if they’re not careful,” Nachminovitch said.
Having witnessed such situations firsthand in her time at Carolina Tiger Rescue, Braford said she is moving forward conscientiously.
“If I do have animals, I don’t want to negatively impact their lives by bringing in more when we can’t really fit more… when we really don’t have the funding for that,” she said. “This is something I have said from the very beginning to everyone who is involved.”
Nachminovitch said Farm Sanctuary’s glowing reputation and Piedmont’s mission statement makes her optimistic Braford and her team will be prepared.
“It absolutely does appear to be something that could mean a real haven for animals who would otherwise be subjected to horrific fates — not just on factory farms but also in slaughterhouses,” she said.
As Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge gains momentum, Braford said an active rescue program is still two to three years away. Fencing and barns must go up and, since many farm animals have undergone genetic engineering that impairs their ability to live normal lives, veterinary care must be secured.
Pigs, turkeys and chickens are bred to be grossly obese for their meat, according to Nachminovitch. Arthritis and even heart attacks are common, forcing many animals on medication for survival.
“[I]t’s important for sanctuaries to have a veterinarian who is familiar with farmed animals and animals who may be subjected to industry practices to advise a sanctuary,” Nachminovitch said.
Once everything is in place, Piedmont plans to start with small animals -— including strays housed at dog shelters and disabled factory animals — and work its way up as larger animals.
The hope is that one day Piedmont will be able to open up for tours like Carolina Tiger Rescue, where Braford currently works full-time.
“It is important that people learn where their food comes from and then make an educated decision as to whether or not that works for them,” Griffen said.
That education is already well under way. Piedmont’s Facebook page features Meatless Mondays and Thirsty Thursdays for vegan food and drink recipes. Vegan food may also become a hands-on part of the future Piedmont complex.
“One of the things we would love to have is a kitchen out there so we can actually hold cooking classes and other events that involve delicious and healthy food for people just to really be able to make those connections,” Braford said.
The dream is not to just educate, Braford said, but provide people with tools for change.
But before all that happens, Piedmont will continue to take small steps, Braford said. She married her husband, Paul Drake, Aug. 25. They are building a house on the land.
“We’re going to begin tilling part of the land to add nutrients and plant grasses in preparation for future rescued animal pasture,” she said. “We have other new and exciting things coming up that I can’t talk about yet. … It’s pretty challenging to say you want to start an organization like this, but I think it’s easy — I think because I believe in it so much.”