Jenny Brown: Cancer Survivor, Amputee, Abused Farm Animal Rehabilitator

Takepart.comJuly 25, 2012

As a child, Kentucky native Jenny Brown was in love with dancing and gymnastics. But her life took a dramatic turn at age 10 when she was diagnosed with bone cancer, a disease that necessitated the amputation of her right leg. With most of her time spent lying in hospital beds or undergoing chemotherapy, Brown wanted a companion, specifically an animal friend to keep her company as she recovered.

She adopted a little kitten named Boogie, who became one of Brown’s close companions. Brown, whose obvious love for animals grew at a young age, now runs the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in Willow, New York, where more than 200 rescued animals reside.

MORE: James Cromwell: You Don't Own Another Creature

In her new book, The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals, Brown talks about her journey in becoming an advocate for abused and neglected farm animals, including everything from flipping patties at a local McDonald’s at age 16, to working in the film industry, to creating the sanctuary with her husband, Doug. Brown describes the book as a “memoir with a mission.”

Brown took some time to talk with TakePart about Boogie the cat, undercover filming in animal facilities, and even tips for a vegan lifestyle. Published by the Penguin Group, The Lucky Ones will be in bookstores Aug. 2.

TakePart: From your book, it sounds like animals played a big role in helping you recover and cope with bone cancer and chemotherapy as a child.

Jenny Brown: I could not go to school, my immune system was too weak...I was all alone in the house and so [my mother] finally let me adopt a kitten and I named her Boogie....You know, I grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist family and I was really taught to believe that animals are different than us, and we are the only ones that have souls. This was my upbringing.

With my relationship and my time spent with Boogie, it became very clear to me that someone had gotten it wrong because she’s capable of all kinds of emotions, and she was different than other cats I had met. She was an individual with thoughts and emotions and a bond to me. It really opened my eyes, and I started to look at animals in my very young mind as being oppressed.

TakePart: Where do most of the animals that live on your sanctuary come from?

Jenny Brown: The space we have here is very precious, and is saved for those coming from abusive situations or have been picked up off the streets of New York City. So many animals arrive here because people don’t realize New York City is home to around 100 live-kill markets, where…you can walk in there and choose a lamb or a goat and [a butcher] will slaughter them right there for you. Because these animals are brought into the city and not really set up with lots of gates and fencing and proper security, animals sometimes bolt for their lives. So many of our animals come from the streets of New York City, and that’s always astonishing to people.  

TakePart: You’ve mentioned you get a lot of visitors at Woodstock, including groups of schoolchildren who don’t necessarily understand the connection between their food and animals on the farm. What do kids come away with after leaving the sanctuary?

Jenny Brown: The kids are truly amazed. There was a girl here the other day who was terrified of Timmy the turkey running around...He’s got his feathers poofed up, making a chirping sound and vibrating his feathers. You could see the kids were terrified, and I knelt down and gave Timmy a hug and they slowly, one by one, came over and started smoothing down his feathers and realizing he was not to fear....Kids are just not used to seeing these animals. A turkey is something they get on a sub or that sits on the table during Thanksgiving, so for them to see that they can be as affectionate and attention-seeking and as loving and personable as animals they know, like cats and dogs, it’s a real eye-opener for kids.

TakePart: You worked in the film and television industry for quite a while, and even did undercover filming for PETA. Can you tell us about that?

Jenny Brown: One big job I was successful at [for PETA] was getting inside a Premarin facility. Premarin is a drug that millions of women take; it’s an estrogen replacement drug, and it’s a new form of factory farming. Horses are lined up in windowless sheds, standing in their own feces, and basically they’re kept impregnated ...The mares are impregnated over and over again and [workers] collect their urine, because the urine has really high levels of estrogen levels, and that’s what they put in this pill. Millions of women who are menopausal are taking this pill that’s made from the urine of pregnant horses and have no idea where it comes from.

TakePart: What would you say to someone who wants to be more ethical about the food they eat or someone who’s a big meat-eater?

Jenny Brown: Here’s what it comes down for me: I don’t think meat eating is a personal choice. I think what we’re forgetting is that there’s someone else involved. The fact of the matter is that [animals] are far more like us than they are different, with their capabilities of fear and joy, wanting to stay with their families, close friendships. In all the ways that matter, they are truly like us....Change is spreading, people are becoming more aware of the suffering of farm animals, especially those in factory farms.

TakePart: That being said, what are some simple ways people can change their habits to help improve their lives and the lives of farm animals?

Jenny Brown: To start, discovering some of the amazing meat and dairy alternatives that are out there. Gone are the days of carob chips and tofu with brown rice; there are amazing foods out there. All milks are better than cow’s milk, which our bodies are not even made for. So try coconut, almond, hemp, rice, or soy milk. So many people are lactose-intolerant and they still drink cow’s milk…there are much healthier, cruelty-free versions of nut milks that are out there that do our bodies much better than milk does.

Also, even just saying, “This is going to be my vegetarian day,” like what the U.K. is doing with Meatless Mondays, gives you the try new foods. And once you begin to incorporate these new foods into your diet, it’s really easy to see they taste so much better, like Vegenaise instead of mayonnaise.

Could you lead a vegan lifestyle? Let us know in the comments.

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Kelly Zhou hails from the Bay Area and is currently a student in Los Angeles. She has written on a variety of topics, predominantly focusing on politics and education. Email Kelly | @kelllyzhou |