Sanctuary owners face biases in vet care

by Cassie Douglas, CAA Volunteer

Owning a sanctuary for farm animals comes with struggles beyond having the means to feed and house the residents. What happens when an animal becomes injured or ill and vets refuse to help because the animal is considered food? Though this idea may seem silly, it is sadly something many sanctuary owners and staff have experienced. 

Chickens grazing at Little Acorn Sanctuary in Northfield, Minnesota

Robin Johnson, owner of Spring Farm Sanctuary in Long Lake, Minnesota, is all too familiar with denial of care for her rescues. In March of 2019, Pete, one of the steers at the sanctuary, slipped on ice and fell, unable to get up. Because of his splayed position, Pete was in quite a bit of pain. Pete’s brother Scruffy had died the previous year after a fall, so Robin felt this was an urgent matter. Spring Farm called their usual vet, asking for help, but were told that it was too far of a drive and that they weren’t comfortable treating farm animals that wouldn’t “feed people.” They also mentioned that they disapproved of the “advertisements” posted at Spring Farm; they were referring to the informational posters revealing the truth about big agriculture. 

Spring Farm’s vet suggested they reach out to another vet, but that vet also refused help. Their response was similar: if this steer isn’t being raised for slaughter, we don’t want to help.1 

As if refusal of care for the cattle wasn’t enough, Robin also dealt with unhelpful vets for her first resident, a pig named Libby. Prior to her rescue, Libby had lived at a backyard butcher, surrounded by raw sewage. Likely exacerbated by her previous living conditions, Libby developed a middle ear infection in 2018. An antibiotic called Baytril was Libby’s best bet, but this drug has tight FDA regulations for farm animals to prevent antibiotic resistance. Since Libby was not a “food” pig, Robin searched for a way around this regulation. No one was able to help her, so she had no choice but to begin a less effective antibiotic, which did not fully cure the infection, and it resurfaced a year later.

When Libby needed surgery to fix bone loss from the infection, a caring veterinarian in New York agreed to give the complex surgery a shot, even though it offered just a 50/50 chance of survival. Robin and her partner Buck hauled Libby across the country. The surgery went well and Libby survived, but her appetite never came back, and less than a month later, Robin and Buck decided to free Libby of her pain.2

Understanding and compassionate veterinarians of all animals do exist, however. Little Acorn Sanctuary in Northfield, Minnesota, has had many positive experiences with the care of their animals. The sanctuary uses four different vets, and all but one have been supportive. Usually explaining the sanctuary’s purpose is enough for the vet. Getting over seeing the animals as “food animals” seems to be the hardest part, but once that’s behind them, the vets are usually on board and happy to help. Asking questions and being direct has been the best tactic.3

Rooster Redemption in Center City, Minnesota, has also had very few issues. Owner Melanie Moonstone explains, “I have not had care refused, but I had one incident where I took one of my roosters to a local veterinarian and the vet tech loved him, thought he was really neat because she [had] never met one before. At one point she was joking around and said ‘Uh oh, you better not come after me or you will be leaving here as chicken nuggets.’”

Melanie didn’t say anything at that moment, but she later called the office to explain the situation and educate them. The vet tech called her back to apologize. “In the end,” Melanie says, “it was actually a really valuable opportunity to address speciesism.”

The sanctuary has had to try a few different vets; one of the first vets Melanie tried after starting Rooster Redemption suggested euthanasia without really talking to Melanie about the issues first. She did not go through with euthanasia, and the rooster lived another five months. Melanie explains, “This vet clinic and a few other places also made us sign something that we agreed to not eat this animal if he dies since he was put on antibiotics.” After these experiences, Melanie was able to find a primary vet clinic and emergency vet clinic that she loves and trusts. “They treat our roosters exactly like any other animal. They talk to them in cute voices, always give us several treatment options instead of just euthanasia. They truly look at them as companion and rescue animals, not just food,” she says.4

While there is still a long way to go before everyone views all animals as living, feeling beings that deserve happy lives free from pain, farm animal sanctuaries are paving the way and helping people to understand. A simple explanation is sometimes all it takes, but even in tougher scenarios, sanctuaries will keep fighting for equal care for their animals.


1 Two Minnesota vets refuse to treat an animal from a no-kill sanctuary

2 No Chemo for Pigs? Rescue Animals Face a Broken Veterinary System

3 Interview with Tara Lien

4 Interview with Melanie Moonstone

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