MANCHESTER TOWNSHIP – The Sanctuary and Safe Haven for Animals seems out of place in this town known for its massive community barbecue, the annual “Famous Chicken Broil.”
The farm, which shelters about 225 animals, has become a mecca for Midwestern vegans.
Pilgrims concerned with animal rights – from University volunteers to activists from Indiana – regularly visit this 65-acre piece of land.
SASHA – named for a rescued Border Collie – houses mostly livestock rescued from “unhappy circumstances.” Often, this means slaughterhouses.
The husband-and-wife team of Dorothy Davies and Monte Jackson have owned and run the farm since 1981, when they moved from Westland to escape the suburbs of Detroit. In 2002, Davies left her job as a librarian and began to devote herself to rescuing animals full-time.
Like many vegans, the couple started as vegetarians.
“We were thinking about our health,” Dorothy said.
As they learned more, she said, they developed an aversion to the way mainstream food companies treat animals.
“I thought, ‘I can’t be part of that,'” she said. “You don’t realize when you’re a vegetarian that you still support that. When you drink milk, you’re supporting the veal industry.”
She said Boris – a wild boar rescued from a hunting ground – illustrates her point.
The lean, muscular animal stood out in a pen full of gelatinous pigs whose arthritic legs could barely support their weight.
They are the products of decades of corporate genetic tweaking – fine-tuning to ensure that they grow as fat as possible, as fast as possible.
Seeing this kind of misery, Davies and Jackson became vegans. Their convictions and beliefs expanded along with their collection of animals.
They began raising goats for their son’s 4-H Club. The goats began breeding. They grew attached. Because of their convictions, they couldn’t sell them.
“We had some people say ‘I’d like to buy a goat – could we slaughter it in your yard?'” Davies said.
Eventually, they began rescuing more animals, like Gulliver, a coffee-colored horse that was used for veterinary research at Ohio State University.
Or Tiberius, one of several cats that came from a Virginia prison.
Several years ago, inmates rioted over the warden’s attempt to trap and kill about 300 overbred tabbies.
They even considered taking two cougars from Detroit, but decided against it to avoid angering their community.
Jackson – the self-described “maintenance man” – still works his old job, driving trucks from Rockford, Mich. to Appleton, Wisc.
But the farm is what’s important to him.
“We’ve poured our whole lives into this,” he said.
The result of their efforts could be an Andrew Wyeth painting, a relic of pre-highway Middle America.
Vintage farm equipment rusts on the hills. The air is filled with the excited chirps of turkeys and the low keening gurgle of pigs.
It has become one of about 10 major farm animal sanctuaries in the country, and the largest in the Midwest.
In rural Michigan – where hunting and barnyard slaughter are cultural norms – it can be hard to maintain such beliefs. But vegans make up only 0.2 percent of Americans and are generally used to being a tiny minority.
In front of a wall full of posters proclaiming “Pigs are Beautiful” and defaced images of Ted Nugent, visitors gather, eat dairy-free cheese and potatoes, sip cider and chat. During the Fall Festival this past weekend, they went on mushroom hunts and listened to live Celtic music around a bonfire.
They are drawn together by a common set of beliefs that separate them from many of their communities.
One common factor is their tendency to humanize the animals. Many discussions at SASHA about turkeys or cows could easily be about a nieces or nephews.
“They’re just like people,” said Davies, describing the sight of cuddling pigs. “Their eyes look just like ours.”
Each member has a different approach to living as a vegan in the Midwest.
Volunteer Sunday Harvey drives an hour from Milford to the farm every Friday. She wears a pin urging others to vote “no” on a November ballot proposal that would allow dove hunting in Michigan.
Being vegan in a hunting state like Michigan can be frustrating, she said, but is ultimately rewarding.
“It’s a struggle, just like anything else,” Harvey said.
Jenny Gordon used to carpool with friends from Royal Oak to volunteer. She now comes from Ann Arbor, where she teaches baton-twirling courses.
“Every time it was like I never wanted to leave,” she said.
Her experiences on the farm have a particular significance.
“I’m not a religious person, but I feel spiritually high,” she said as she pantomimed holding a baby pig in her arms.
SASHA will continue to grow, rescuing animals and encouraging others to come “meet their meat.”
They’re hoping to see more to young people – like those from the University – with similar interests.
“We’ve got a lot of potential,” Davies said. “But I’m trying to be realistic, given our age.”
The challenge now is to convey their values to a new generation.
“You can’t preach it to people,” she said. “They have to come to it themselves.”
Like everything at SASHA, the process will have to be organic.