Rescue for tortured creatures: the ex-farmer and the animal liberator

Jan Gerdes and Karin Muck have set up a retirement home for surrendered and liberated farm animals in Butjadingen in the Wesermarsch region of Germany. The residents come from animal factories and laboratories,

Giving asylum to the distressed creature: Jan Gerdes, the farm owner, and animal welfare activist Karin Muck. Picture: dapd

Jan Gerdes slept badly last night. Again and again he woke up, immediately thought of Gisela. How do they manage to get Gisela back on her own two feet? And what do they do if it doesn’t work out? But early in the morning, Gisela is back in the pasture, a little rickety, but doing well. And Jan has breakfast a second time, drinks a second coffee and then another. Now he feels the caffeine in his body. "Man, what’s wrong with me?" he asks.

Jan Gerdes grew up here on Hof Butenland, in Butjadingen, in the "Wesermarsch dairy stronghold," as the area is also known. He doesn’t want to be a farmer by any means: "I wanted to get out into the world, I wanted to travel. I wanted to do something completely different."

When his father falls seriously ill and his siblings gratefully decline to take over the farm, he drops out of teacher training and switches to farming. He tries to do everything differently: converts the farm to organic. For 20 years this goes reasonably well. But in the end he doesn’t like to drive the animals to the slaughterhouse, nor does he like to stop the cows to produce milk, organic or not.

Two experiences come to mind: the French trainee who accompanied one of the cattle, playing the flute, into the slaughter room and to the point of applying the bolt gun: "At the time, I was totally embarrassed. I thought they wouldn’t take me seriously now."

And then there is the story of Jan’s godchild and his favorite cow: When the child comes to visit once again, he looks in vain for his cow. "I didn’t think anything of it and said: ‘Oh, we slaughtered it.’" Jan looks into his coffee cup. Then he says, "When you start thinking about what you’re doing as a farmer, you’re lost." And he adds, "For me, that farm ended up being a nightmare."

"And for me, this farm was a dream when I first came here," says Karin Muck. It was ten years ago when they came together: the then desperate farmer and the former nurse, the animal rights activist and animal liberator, who at the time had to cope with a lengthy solitary confinement – on suspicion of forming a criminal organization: "That was still under Attorney General Rebmann."

The two found the "Tierschutz Stiftung Hof Butenland" – a cow retirement home, a sanctuary for laboratory animals and other creatures to which humans have not been kind for a long time. The farm survives on donations from like-minded people and income from two vacation apartments under the roof. "The animals no longer belong to me, they belong to the foundation," Jan explains. You can tell he’s very happy about that.

A lot has happened in recent weeks: Kalle from the distant Black Forest is now their apprentice. He is going to be an animal keeper, is working all day and now plays on his smartphone. Anna, who completed an internship here twice and is now studying agriculture, looks over his shoulder. The food arrives: potatoes, kohlrabi and lupine sausage. Kalle thinks it’s okay, Anna too – Karin would rather have eaten a seitan schnitzel.

About 120 animals live on the farm, and each has its own story. Eberhard, for example, the drake, ran over the feet of a television crew as a chick when it was packing up its equipment again after a shoot in a poultry factory outside. "The chicks are delivered to the fattening farms in big boxes. If one falls out of there, they don’t bend over to pick it up," Karin says.

A batch of ducks also came to Hof Butenland with Eberhard: "But the chicks are all dead already." Which is due to the fact that the animals are completely overbred, she says: "They are supposed to grow overnight to quickly have the slaughter weight. Their bodies can hardly withstand that if things turn out differently."

Karen Duve’s chickens don’t have too good a prognosis either: "They’re totally gaga, no flight reflex, nothing." The writer took part in an animal liberation campaign as part of the research for her book "Anstandig essen" (Eat Decently) and subsequently housed some of the liberated at Butenland Farm.

Hope, the gander, on the other hand, owes his continued life to a walker who picked him up next to a fattening facility: "We thought, of course, that he would join the other geese, but he probably thinks he’s a duck, or he feels more comfortable with the ducks."

Jan arrives, eager to check on the cows, and trudges across the damp pasture at the end of the farm road. Walks up to Manuela, who is lying in the grass, digesting away. A small hole can be seen at the end of her back, with a dark liquid pulsing out of it now and then. Manuela was a lab cow at a local university. A hole had been cut in her rumen, a cuff placed so that it was possible to reach in from the outside at any time to see how she digested various types of fast feed.

When the series of experiments was completed, she was to be slaughtered, as is customary with laboratory animals. An employee of the laboratory objected, informed the ethics council of the university and managed to get Manuela to Hof Butenland: "The cuff is gone, of course, the rumen has been largely sewn up, with the small hole she can live with us for another good twenty years."

How old do cows get? It can be as long as 30 years. "Statistically, a cow is slaughtered when it is five or six years old," says Jan. And it covers a distance of 13 kilometers a day on the pasture: "That’s when you know what stabling means for cows," says Karin.

Jan looks up at the sky, which is moving in from the west. The wind is freshening. "Below 20 degrees, rain every now and then so that everything grows, it’s an optimal summer for the animals," says Jan with satisfaction.