A new book, Allowed to Grow Old, reveals beautiful portraits of something we don't get to see very often: Elderly farm animals.
We are a species enchanted by the young – from kittens and puppies to nubile models and the soft shunning of older people. But there is a crack in our youth-obsessed culture and I think it is an important one: While we swoon for chicks and coals and cubs, we also love old animals.
The thing is, we don't have the opportunity to meet a lot of old animals. Pampered pets, sure. But farm animals, for example, don't generally get the chance to live for very long – maybe six months? A year? Their "purpose" – in the dystopian thing that is factory farming – is to be born and then slaughtered to feed the two-legged animals with opposable thumbs.
Which is why a new book of portraits showing the beauty and dignity of older animals from farm sanctuaries is such a poignant creation.
The book, Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries (University of Chicago Press, 2019) is by photographer Isa Leshko and is the culmination of a long-term project more than a decade in the making.
In the introduction to the book, Leshko explains how she stumbled into project, which started as a cathartic endeavor to help face the deeply tangled emotions of caring for one's aging parents. In her case, a father with cancer and a mother with advanced Alzheimer’s disease.
"When I began my project, I didn’t even know how to unlatch a farm gate," writes Leshko. "Thanks to the patience and guidance of many sanctuary staff members ... I adjusted to farm life and learned to see farm animals as individuals."
And this is one of the things that is so remarkable about the portraits – you can see each animal's personality; their singularity and distinction. Each is a beautiful, living individual, not some abstract "thing" produced en masse at a factory for the purpose of fueling humans. The animals who are liberated and find sanctuary are the outrageously lucky ones – the lottery winners. As Leshko writes, around 50 billion land animals are factory farmed globally each year. "It is nothing short of a miracle to be in the presence of a farm animal who has managed to reach old age."
Leshko explains that the animals at these sanctuaries come from a variety of situations. "Some are found wandering the streets after they’ve escaped from trucks en route to slaughterhouses. Others are rescued from hoarders or backyard butcher operations that got out of control," she writes in the introduction. "Many are abandoned during natural disasters or when farmers can no longer afford to feed them. On rare occasions, the animals are beloved pets whose humans can no longer care for them. Most animals, though, come from dire situations. They tend to arrive at sanctuaries gravely ill and require extensive veterinary care. Some do not survive, but the ones who do are given a home for the rest of their lives."
It's a profound thing to see these creatures living out their lives, as every animal should have the right to do. Some human animals may want to eat non-human animals, but factory farming is a barbaric way to go about it. Allowed to Grow Old opens a window into possibilities that most of don't think to imagine: What would that cheap, supermarket chicken have become if given the chance?
"By depicting the beauty and dignity of elderly farm animals, I invite reflection upon what is lost when these animals are not allowed to grow old," says Leshko. Maybe baby animals shouldn't be the poster children for animal rights – it is these elderly warriors, living out the lives they deserve, that really drive the point home.