Woodstock Sanctuary’s Jenny Brown

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!

Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary Director Jenny Brown and Ralphie the steer. Photo by Derek Goodwin

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:

Cornmeal layer
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.

Bean layer
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.

“Meat” 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.

Tomato 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.  

  1. All animals are friends. <3 From my very first kitten "Smokey" to my beautiful boys Obi and Zaki. I will always be vegan. It is more than obvious that animals have souls.

  2. I don’t have a favorite companion animal and all of them have touched me in different ways. My little rat Ninja leaves an incredible impact on me though, especially because he passed away recently. Although I have thought animal testing was absolutely awful as soon as I learned what it was as a child, he helped me see it completely differently. He was loving. He was smart. He always cuddled with me and climbed up into my shoulder and napped in my hair as I worked around the house. As he got older, he started having respiratory problems (as most rats do). When it started getting bad, I got him medicine from the vet. I had to give him the antibiotic through a small eye dropper, and watching his terror of me just trying to give him medicine to make him better made me sick to my stomach when I pictured someone doing the same thing… but with chemicals– and not to help him. It made me so upset that I had to get my husband to give him the medicine.
    Unfortunately the medicine didn’t help much and he passed away a few weeks later. It was during my finals week and I was able to spend the one day I didn’t have any tests holding him, kissing him and letting him know I loved him. He passed away peacefully in my arms that evening and although it broke my heart, I was happy to see him out of his pain. Ninja showed me that although I already knew all beings felt emotion, that he truly loved me. He showed me that even the smallest creatures had very distinct personalities, desires and dislikes. He showed me how terrible animal testing is and made me more of an activist against it. I miss him everyday, but I am thankful for the great years we had together!

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  4. I had already been a vegetarian for a few years before my boyfriend (now husband) and I went on an adventure to teach english in rural South Korea for one year. While it was a great experience to travel and see so many different countries and cultures–it was a rude awakening into the treatment of animals.

    I was shocked to see starving dogs chained up outside houses where the people who are suppossed to care for them pass by them everyday. I was shocked to see dog meat farms, families keeping dogs in chicken cages to be used for the family meal. I used to see from the window of my apartment a cruel Korean boy beating his puppy for hours each day, swining it around by the ears and letting it fly– without an adult ever intervening.

    Being exposed to this abuse was a real shock for me. I had never been confronted with animal cruelty–let alone the cruelty of companion animals so cherished in the US. I could not understand how this behavior was socially acceptable and tolerated. As much as I wanted to ignore it, it was everywhere. From trips on the grocery store, to the cries of the puppy outside of my window. I was forced to get involved because it was inescapable.

    I eventually discoved KARR an animal rights group in Seoul, Korea and sent them a video of the boy’s abuse. I was shocked when a lawyer working for KARR came down personally to our rural town to talk to the boy and interview us. I learned later that our video was shown on the news.

    With with the help of some animal rights activists in Korea, I was able to rescue a dog destined for meat. An animal seen to be of no value (other than for her meat). She flew from Korea to Canada to New York and now lives a very content (and spoiled) life in Colorado. The man who put her in that cage and fed her every now and then probably will never be as well traveled as the dog that was so worthless to him!

    Our “meat” dog is an invidual with a personality and love to give. And I realized that this is the same for all animals. Whether it be the animals our culture designates as pets or the animals we designate as food.

    Was it a coincidence that I became a full vegan just a year later? Probably not. I have dreams of also having my own sanctuary one day where we might also be able to provide a home to animals who our culture doesn’t believe are worthy of value. I have been to Woodstock Farm Sanctuary years ago, and I would very much like to have this book to inspire our journey. I plan to visit next week on our yearly trip home to New York–but will definitly be looking at it the experience with through much different and more experienced eyes.

  5. My Compassionate Book Club will be reading “The Lucky Ones” and discussing it in September! Can’t wait to read it! I heard Jenny speak at Vegetarian Summerfest and was blown away.

    I do not have any pets because I work a lot, enjoy traveling, and have a very tiny apartment, but I am friends with my friends’ pets and I always look forward to spending time with them, too!

  6. Animal Author says:

    I’m enjoying Jenny’s book “The Lucky Ones” and always have a grand time with all of the rescued animals at the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. I’d urge everyone to keep up to date about which formerly cruelty-free companies are getting gobbled up by big conglomerates that test on animals: The Body Shop (L’Oreal, which continues to test on animals; Burt’s Bees (Clorox); Tom’s of Maine (Colgate), etc. In the words of the late great Henry Spira, “Keep on agitating and aggravating!”

  7. I grew up with many companion animals, dogs and cats. I was lucky to have done that. I was always compassionate to other companion animals but until I had some experience working with some farmed animals I didn’t make the food connection. I took care of a baby calf for awhile and then I really could not eat meat again. That impacted me a lot. I was 15 and it was hard to be the only vegetarian at home but finally many years later the family eats vegetarian most of the time too.

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  9. We have found joy in fostering Boston terriers from the Rescue programme. We have had the privilege of first having Bobby (our first boy), who was so shy! Poor fellow, had been in a cage on an Amish farm in Penn. his whole life, which was 6 years, he had never felt grass beneath his little paws. We adored him, he was just so cute, if there was company at our house, he would put himself in one of the doorways where he could see everyone, but didn’t have to “put up” with anyone petting him, and once they left he would relax and come to us. Then we were so privileged to have Patty. She came with so many health problems, the main one being an enormous cancerous tumor on her underside. When we got her she had had her surgery, and they told us they had to stop cutting, in order to have some dog left!! She lived happily with us, and yes had many health problems, but she had one huge heart and personality. Then it was our turn to have Angie. She was given up by a family who had been told by a “vet” that she needed a surgery on her leg, and since they had children they couldn’t afford it. We found out that she had nothing wrong with her, and when she became adoptable, guess who adopted her? She makes our life so much brighter, happier every day. She loves to sit on our laps, and give kisses. She loves to play and go for walks and isn’t too happy about this snow we have.
    Would love to read your book, looking forward to doing just that.

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