Book Review: Animal Camp (Revised and Expanded Edition)

"Animal Camp" by Kathy Stevens Photo taken from CAS website

“Animal Camp” by Kathy Stevens
Photo taken from CAS website

I wish I could fly up to New York right now and give Kathy Stevens a big ol’ hug. After reading her newly revised “Animal Camp” I feel like I’ve met an angel on Earth. I can’t think of any other way to explain the work that she does day-in and day-out than her having wings hidden under her clothing.

I’ve been reading many amazing non-fiction books for my vegan book club this past year, and I can honestly say that “Animal Camp” isn’t like any other I’ve read before. The stories that Stevens so eloquently recalls from her time at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary (CAS) are unique and extraordinary. Kathy captures the essence of the animals and makes the reader feel like they are right there on the farm with her. I cried (OK, it was more like hysterical sobbing) at the gut-wrenching abuse the animals have endured with the animal hoarder stories being the absolute worst. But I also laughed at the delightful little adventures of the animals on the farm. I learned so much about the different animals CAS has rescued – more than I ever would have by reading a textbook on farm animals. Kathy let the reader get a glimpse of the personalities these beautiful creatures hold through her powerful, heart-warming words.

When describing a horse rescue and the near-death condition they arrived in, Kathy explained her visitors’ reactions:

“Many cry; many ask, ‘Aren’t you angry?’ In fact, judging by how often we’re asked the question, many people struggle with why we don’t walk around wanting to punch people. But we don’t. On most days, in fact, I walk around with a heart so filled with joy that I feel it could burst at any moment. Anger serves neither us nor the animals we are here to help. Joy does. Joy works.”

I just got a chill typing that quote. Her words are so powerful, and they hold so much truth, too. As an animal rights activist and a vegan, it’s so easy to be negative and upset at the world. But, to me, that isn’t what living a compassionate lifestyle is about; it’s about spreading love, kindness and warmth around us to make this world a better place. I love how Kathy explains it here:

“…[C]hallenging the status quo ain’t always a walk in the park. I love speaking about the work of Catskill Animal Sanctuary and the imperative of veganism. But living in a world that reveres ‘companion animals’ and disregards all the rest is tough for people who know that all animals want their lives as much as we want ours, and that suffering feels the same to them as it would to us. To constantly consider how to hone our message so that good people with mainstream beliefs will open their minds and hearts is work that matters, but hell yeah….it’s tough.”

When Kathy talks about animal rights and veganism, she does it in a matter-of-fact way. She doesn’t get preachy on the non-vegan reader; she just pleas for people to make ethical, cruel-free choices. Her passion for the animals and her line of work pours out onto the pages of “Animal Camp,” and that in itself, made me want to be a more compassionate person.

One of my favorite stories was about the three misfits going to Kathy’s friend’s farm called Animal Camp. A pig, a cow and a horse were all ostracized by their own species, so the experiment was designed to see if personalities fit better together than the type of animal. I loved reading about their bond that they formed together at summer camp and how they thrived once they were back on the farm with the other animals. The story of this trio is one of perseverance from the humans to find the animals a good home, as well as triumph from the animals when they found a group where they could flourish.

One of the hardest stories to read was about Kathy’s trip home where she took the highway that happened to be swarmed with trucks that were on their way to the slaughterhouse. I felt like I was right there in her passenger’s seat, seeing what she was experiencing. Kathy explains:

“So as I passed this truck carrying animals I know to be uncannily ‘human,’ one pig caught my eye. He looked at me through the oval hole; the look shared more than words ever could. In that moment, he was every animal ever grown to feed humans, and in this helpless, hopeless moment, he was asking a simple question: Why?

A wail emerged from my body. Not just tears. An uncontrollable wail – I couldn’t stop it – coming from a deeper part of me than tears ever have, and an apology to that pig, and to all animals on behalf of my species.”

Kathy’s connection to all animals is undeniable, but she had a special bond with a sheep named Rambo. Their stories together remind me of my relationship with my dog and cat, and I couldn’t help but think of Mercy For Animals’ slogan, “Why love one, but eat the other?” When it was time for Rambo to pass on, Kathy wrote an incredibly moving good-bye to him that is wonderfully sweet and touching. Kathy’s words are something I will remember when attempting to live more compassionately in a more loving manner:

“So here’s to you, my boy. May you live forever in the hearts and spirits of all who pass through these sacred grounds. May you live forever in every blade of grass, every willow leaf, and in the gift and promise of each new day. And may your noble life, spent watching over all creatures great and small, human and animal, remind us all to make our lives matter.”

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