I recently met Jenny Brown at Vegetarian Summerfest and I’m so excited to share this dedicated woman with you! First, she was a cancer survivor, next a director and producer in the film and television industry, then she put those talents to work for animals as an undercover videographer exposing abuses on factory farms and in stockyards. After all that, this amazing woman, Jenny Brown, started her own farm animal sanctuary, and recently wrote a book about her transformation from conservative Southern baptist to ardent animal activist. Her book, The Lucky Ones, was just released yesterday!
Allison Rivers Samson: What started you on your journey of veganism and animal activism?
Jenny Brown: I was 18 years old when a picked up some literature on campus about the various ways we mistreat animals including how we treat the animals we eat. I went vegetarian that very day and began looking further into fur, animal testing, animals used in entertainment and animals used for food. It was an awakening for me. Later on during college, after I moved to Chicago, I met a woman from PETA while I was waiting tables at the Chicago Diner. She was in town managing a fur protest in front of one of the major department stores. I asked if I could videotape it for a documentary production class. The event rocked my world and I told her I wanted to become more involved. That’s how it started. From there on I did several undercover assignments for them – not actually obtaining a job at a facility that was abusing animals but getting in however possible and obtaining footage. The most notable accomplish was getting inside a PMU farm in North Dakota where pregnant horses are kept in a factory farm environment to collect their urine which is used in a drug called Premarin. Millions of women take Premarin as an estrogen supplement during menopause. The foals from these farms are typically sold to Asian countries for slaughter for meat. That footage aired in 3 countries and helped expose the miserable lives the horses endure for Premarin. That was in 1993. After graduation I started working in film and television. My schedule became more hectic so my time was limited in terms of being ready and able to go out on assignment but I stayed involved in animal rights.
ARS: Later, you went undercover to expose animal abuse in Texas stockyards. Can you tell us about that experience?
JB: It wasn’t until 2002 that I learned about Farm Sanctuary and became increasingly interested in farmed animal issues specifically. It was a visit to Farm Sanctuary and meeting founder Gene Baur that led to an undercover assignment to film downed animals (animals too sick or injured to walk who are often left to linger for days until a slaughter-bound truck arrives) at various “livestock” stockyards in Texas. The things I saw during that week sickened and angered me tremendously. That week changed my life and left me wanting to do more to help farmed animals–and I became a vegan.
ARS: What prompted you to start your own animal sanctuary, Woodstock, rather than working for one of the existing ones? Where do you even begin with a project of that magnitude?
JB: Weeks after the Texas trip I started the biggest job of my career, Co-Producing and Directing an hour-long documentary for Discovery Channel. During the job, I realized that my heart was no longer in the work. I was engulfed by my despair about the abuse of farmed animals so when that production ended, I packed up my bags and went to work for Farm Sanctuary – learning all that I could about the care of rescued farmed animals and what it takes to operate a sanctuary. I worked there for almost a year and left with a heap of knowledge under my belt and the ambition to start a sanctuary of my own. Months later, Doug and I bought the property in Woodstock and built the entire place from the ground up.
ARS: You are a passionate advocate for animals and an eloquent speaker on their behalf. I have heard you say that your childhood experience of losing part of your leg to bone cancer has given you a particular sensitivity and connection with animals who have suffered. Can you share more about that?
JB: As a sick, bald, one-legged kid I longed for an animal to keep me company. I couldn’t go to school so I spent a lot of time at home between hospital visits and chemo treatments. I was allowed, for the first time in my life, to adopt an animal companion. She was a tiny kitten who I named Boogie and who I spent a tremendous amount of time with. She awakened my compassion for animals and made it clear to me that my church had gotten it wrong – that animals DO have souls. Her personality, intelligence, her bond to me and varying moods led me to feel that animals should not be considered inferior beings and that everything I had been brought up to believe in terms of our relationship to animals required some reconsidering. Eventually that led to my interest in wanting to help stop the suffering of animals. I suffered almost 3 awful years undergoing chemotherapy and an amputation. Animals, like children, are the innocent among us. Both need protection and compassion.
ARS: Absolutely! What is the story of your very first animal rescue for Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary?
JB: It was a rooster named Rio who came from the streets of New York City. He stayed in our house and at a friend’s house until we could build our first coop. Then we took some rescued commercial egg-layers hens from Farm Sanctuary – 6, I believe – to keep him company and provide a loving home for them as well.
ARS: Your brand new book, The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals, is being hailed as a hilarious, heartwarming and deeply moving memoir with a mission. What was your impetus for writing the book, and what do you hope most people take away from it?
JB: I was approached by several literary agents about doing a story about my life and passion for farmed animal rights after a big story appeared in the New York Times about myself and a little goat named Albie who was found in a park in NYC. A large photo showed me with my artificial leg and Albie whose leg had just be amputated. I was having a leg made for little Albie who had to have his leg amputated due to a terrible bone infection that could not be treated. That story sparked a lot of media attention and support from around the world as well as a book deal!
People are inspired by my personal story of growing up in Louisville, KY in a conservative Southern Baptist family that ate a lot of animals; my personal transformation; my leaving a lucrative and sought-after career; the undercover work and founding a sanctuary for farmed animals. That seems pretty cool, right? But The Lucky Ones is a memoir with a mission: writing the book with my friend and fellow activist Gretchen Primack allowed me to share my knowledge and first-hand interaction with farmed animals and to share my perspective on the morality of our eating habits. I really put myself out there personally – even including a photo of myself at 16 in my McDonald’s uniform! My hope is that my story of overcoming adversity as bald, skinny, one-legged cancer kid and finding my passion in helping the voiceless among us will hopefully inspire others to re-examine farmed animals and see them as the sentient beings they are. Of course the ultimate goal is turn everyone who reads it vegan. I’ll shamelessly just put that out there.
ARS: Way to be out there with your truth; that sounds like a great goal to me! Do you have a preferred quick-and-easy farmhouse recipe?
JB: Savory tamale pie – layered goodness in a casserole dish! It’s easy to make and always satisfies!
Here’s the recipe:
¾ cup white cornmeal grits
¼ cup yellow corn meal (plain, not cornbread mix)
7 cups of water
½ cup shredded vegan cheese
1 small can of diced green chilies.
1. Prepare the grits according to package direction. Bring salted water to a boil, add grits, and mix. Simmer and stir until tender and all of the water is absorbed and the grits are thick.
2. Mix in taco-style vegan cheese and can of diced green chilies.
3. Spread evenly in the bottom of a buttered oblong dish. Allow to firm up while preparing the remaining items.
1 can of whole black beans, drained and rinsed.
½ can of refried black beans
1. Mix the beans together and season to taste adding salt or cayenne.
2. Spread on top of the cornmeal layer.
1 package Yves Meatless Crumbles
1 package of taco seasoning mix – or make your own!
1 medium onion diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons water
1. Brown onion in the olive oil, and when clear, add the crumbles and thaw, then add seasoning mix and about 2-3-tablespoons of water. Stir well.
2. Cover the beans in the dish with this layer.
2 cans of diced tomatoes with green chilies
1. Drain very well, add to skillet, and simmer until all the moisture is evaporated.
2. Cover the “meat” crumbles with this layer.
1 can of sliced black olives, drained
1 cup of Mexican style grated vegan cheese
1 bunch of sliced green onions
(hot sauce as a condiment adds a nice zip)
1. Sprinkle on the top: olives, onions, and the shredded cheese.
2. Bake prepared casserole at 350 degrees until bubbly and cheese is lightly browned, about 30 minutes.
ARS: Looks delicious! Do you have a favorite Allison’s Gourmet product, or one you’d especially like to try?
JB: I’ve had your vegan brownies and Peanut Butter organic cookies and they are fabulous! I really want to try the Cinnamon Snickerdoodles & Coconut Key Lime cookies, too - yum!
Thanks so much, Jenny, for being an inspiring and heart-felt voice for animals!
Now, we want to hear from you! Tell us the name of your first or favorite companion animal and if/how they changed the way you think about animals.