On a winter day in early 2018, Susie Coston approached the broken down and boarded up barn in New York State with trepidation. The animal rescuer had no idea of what she might find inside the shabby outhouse, but she feared the worst. Little could have prepared her, however, for the unbelievable scene within as she creaked open the door. And the first thing she was confronted with was the horrifying sight of countless pairs of desperate eyes staring out at her.
Originally from West Virginia, Coston lives in Ithaca, NY, and by anybody’s standards the 40-something is a thoroughly devoted animal lover. Her home, shared with two dogs and six cats, is situated close to her place of work – the not-for-profit organization Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen.
Farm Sanctuary came into being in 1986 as an agricultural animal advocacy, education and rescue charity. Coston first began working for the not-for-profit group at the turn of the century. Since then, she has helped extend Farm Sanctuary’s vision of ending animal cruelty through awareness and direct action. Coston is now its National Shelter Director, and while she is based in the East, she makes frequent journeys to the charity’s West Coast operations in L.A. and Orland, California.
As part of its mission, Farm Sanctuary is doing its best to end all cruelty on agricultural land and property. The organization also wants to educate the wider public and challenge the way they think about our fellow living creatures. That way, the charity’s members hope, more people might consider leaving animals off their plates.
An integral component of Farm Sanctuary’s work is its shelters, so in her capacity as the director responsible for them, Coston’s role is vital. The three facilities are host to almost 1,000 creatures between them, ranging from poultry through to pigs, horses and cattle and more exotic animals. What all the critters have in common is that Farm Sanctuary has rescued all of them from danger or neglect experienced in the farming industry.
In January 2018, then, a team from Farm Sanctuary was expecting to increase the animal roll call at its East Coast center. The charity had got word of a group of suffering critters in desperate need of the organization’s help. The creatures in question were said to be living in squalor at a property in Cattaraugus County, NY.
Among the rescue team that day was Coston. And she was unfortunately no stranger to the property under investigation. Back in 2003, Farm Sanctuary had saved 100 pigs that were living at the address with no shelter in freezing conditions. Unbelievably, some of the poor animals had even frozen to the ground. Consequently, Coston and the rescue crew were steeling themselves for what they would find this time. But what was waiting for them that day still took their breath away.
When Coston and her colleagues arrived at the scene, perhaps the first obvious place to look was a large ramshackle boarded-up barn. The experienced shelter director’s instincts presumably told her that something dreadful was being hidden within its beaten-up walls. But no matter how bad the situation inside the darkened outbuilding was, it was her job to investigate.
As a result, Coston took her flashlight and cautiously peeled open the creaking barn door. When she did, the woman was immediately hit by the most awful stench. The overwhelmingly acrid smell was from vast amounts of animal waste. And the odor was so strong that Coston’s eyes began to burn from the intensity.
Nevertheless, the rescue worker was still able to make out something horrific in the inky darkness of the interior of the windowless barn. Coston could see only too well the eerie sight of numerous terrified eyes peering towards her out of the gloom. However, it was only when she switched her flashlight on that she realized the full horror of the rescue.
The whole of the shabby outhouse was packed tight with countless pig prisoners. On closer inspection, Coston found that the animals were all in terrible condition. The unfortunate critters were so severely malnourished, in fact, that the rescue team could make out their bones beneath their scabby, mange-infested skin.
What’s more, many of the pigs had been forced into tiny cages made of metal wire. Some had suffered cuts, and others were deformed. With nowhere to move, the group had been forced to live up to their knees in great mounds of their own waste. Consequently, many of the pigs were obviously sick and some piglets could not stop coughing.
By all accounts, the farm in Cattaraugus County was the site of an animal atrocity. Coston recalled the harrowing scenes in the barn to animal interest website The Dodo in January 2018. “I couldn’t stand to be inside for even a few minutes,” she said. “I cannot imagine what it was like to live in there. They had spent their whole lives in total darkness.”
And it must have been with a shudder that Coston realized that the barn was just one of the outbuildings on the property. In various sheds and trailers, the Farm Sanctuary discovered over 85 pigs in distress. Many of them were so emaciated that they weighed half of what a healthy example of the species would be expected to weigh. Moreover, those suffering from injured hooves and deformed limbs were in even more pitiful states.
Most of the latter were piglets that had been crushed or trampled on by other pigs in the dark. But some of the other babies had no shelter and were showing signs of serious frostbite. Heartbreakingly, too, one litter was just a day old. And due to the animals’ dire living conditions, rescuers were too late to save eight of the 17 new babies.
Coston and her rescue team’s next move was to carry out some emergency triage work. They were able to take away 24 of the sickest pigs and piglets right there and then. They lifted most of these animals off to the nearby Watkins Glen shelter where they could be ministered to by expert hands. However, three of the pigs required intensive care courtesy of Cornell University’s animal hospital in Ithaca.
It turned out that all of the rescued pigs had contracted pneumonia in the severe winter weather. Some had the most severe skin infections that the experienced Coston had ever seen. “The mange on a large number of the pigs is so bad that the tissue in the ears is dead, smells rotten and is very painful and itchy,” she told The Dodo.
In addition to their physical impairments, many of the previously imprisoned animals were having problems adjusting to the normal world. “All are terrified,” Coston said of the starving, sick and dehydrated swine. “I have never seen pigs drink the way these did when we got them to safety. It was like they had never had any real access to water.”
Following Farm Sanctuary’s rescue mission, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stepped in to seize the remainder of the pigs on the property. Meanwhile, authorities arrested the land owner, Jerry Nason. This was the same individual who was involved the last time Coston had been forced to visit. In fact, the Farm Sanctuary investigation of 2003 led to Nason being placed under probation and banned from owning animals for three years.
But it obviously had not been long enough for Nason to learn his lesson. Nevertheless, Coston’s priority was now the sick pigs in her charge. Although some of the critters were among the sickest she says she has ever seen, Coston was hopeful for their future. “Our goal right now is to get these pigs healthy,” she told The Dodo. The long-term plan was guided by one of Farm Sanctuary’s core policies – saving agricultural animal suffering by simply not eating them. Coston said, “[The pigs] will be able to be adopted into vegan or vegetarian homes as companions.”