Low-emission cars line the entrance to Farm Sanctuary when I show up to meet the gang behind the farm’s twilight tour. These animal lovers are punctual — and with pretty good reason, since we have only about two hours to ogle the donkey, cows, llama, goats, pigs, chickens and sheep who seem pretty happy to call this Acton farm home.
My guide today is Moby, the longtime animal-rights activist, recent restaurateur and perennial music-maker. Although he inspires the occasional surreptitious cellphone shot from the assembled vegan faithful, it is overwhelmingly chill walking around the farm with him and Breezy Rondilone, the farm's program coordinator.
“The story I know is that Gene Baur started Farm Sanctuary decades ago in New York state, and he paid for it by selling tofu pups at Grateful Dead concerts,” Moby offers, before we start to walk around the farm. Breezy confirms this, noting that today the Acton farm has just over 100 animals, and the organization cares for more than 1,000 animals between its two California farms (the other is up in Orland), and one in Watkins Glen, New York. Soon Farm Sanctuary will open in New Jersey at a new site with the support of Tracey and Jon Stewart, who hosted Gene Baur on The Daily Show back in April 2015.
As we head out, I ask Moby if he has a favorite on the farm. “Well, there’s one particular cow, his name is Paolo. I’m probably anthropomorphizing him, but I just feel like he and I have a connection,” he says a bit sheepishly. “Oh, you do, for sure!” Breezy says cheerfully.
The goats and sheep have undeniable charisma, “like smarter, more adventurous, more curious dogs, with devil horns,” Moby says. Though many of the animals bear the physical scars of their horrendous treatment in service of animal agriculture, the vibe is peaceful and playful in the goat pen. But Moby is ready to tread on, the pull of Paolo too strong to resist.
“One of the first times I came here, Paolo was showing off — like showing off that he knew how to use his scratcher,” Moby says as we near the pasture where visitors are surrounding the cows and donkey. “I looked in his eyes and there was an almost beatific calm and … the only way I can describe it is just existence. He just exuded life and autonomy and independence,” he says, sidling up to the giant beast. “I was reminded that there are the statistics — 20 to 30 billion animals killed by and for humans every year — but in the enormity of that, you forget that each of those creatures had a life, suffered greatly and didn’t want to be killed. Paolo reminded me of that and really helped me connect the academic with the honest and the emotional.”
Moby moves over to a fence next to a giant steer, joined by a young child and his mom. The boy eagerly pets the 2,000-pound animal, and except for the occasional and sometimes urgent reminder from mom not to touch the animal’s eyeball, it’s another quiet and peaceful moment on the farm. Breezy tells me they have had some trouble with the new donkey, Honky Tonk, lately on tour days. “He likes people so much that he comes over to the gate and pushes against it, and it makes it hard to open so we can come into the pasture,” she laughs.
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We see Jimmy the pig, who snores really loudly, likes to blow bubbles in his water and grunts happily when you pat his belly. We pet the matriarch of the goats, whose massive midsection, distended from dangerous overbreeding, doesn’t quell her enthusiasm for greeting visitors either. And then there are the chickens: beautiful, odd, noisy.
Of course Farm Sanctuary isn’t trying to adopt every farm animal but rather to preach the evils of factory farming, and more importantly to inspire empathy in the people who can visit one of their sites.
“To be in the presence of these animals just reaffirms why animal rights activism is my life’s work,” Moby tells the crowd as an evening chill rises out of the desert. “I love working on music and I love doing other things but, ultimately, I can think of no more noble purpose for my life than being an animal rights activist.”
Farm Sanctuary’s Acton farm is about 50 miles from downtown Los Angeles, and is open Saturdays and Sundays for visitors. farmsanctuary.org.