As It Happens·Q&A

How a Sandy Hook mom honours her daughter's deep love for animals

Catherine Hubbard loved animals with all her heart. So her mother runs a sanctuary in her name. Jennifer Hubbard talks to As It Happens host Nil Köksal on the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting.

Catherine Hubbard loved animals with all her heart. So her mother runs a sanctuary in her name

A little girl with red hair and freckles wraps her arm around a woman with a short brown bob. Both are smiling at the camera.
Catherine Hubbard, left, one of the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, is pictured with her mother, Jennifer Hubbard. (Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary)

Whenever Catherine Hubbard, 6, met a new animal, she would whisper in its ear: "Tell all your friends that I am kind."

The little girl loved animals deeply, says her mother, and she believed that any creature that knew she was kind would trust her and be her friend.

Catherine was one of 26 people killed on Dec. 14, 2012, when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

To honour her daughter's memory, Jennifer Hubbard opened the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary in 2013. The non-profit has transformed more than 34 acres of Connecticut state-owned farmland into a sanctuary for animals, and a migration space for critical pollinators.

Now, on the 10th anniversary of the shooting, the sanctuary is expanding. On Wednesday, it broke ground on new permanent facilities, including a library and multifunctional space for educational and event programming, staff offices, a veterinary clinic and caretakers quarters.

"It felt amazing to be able to reclaim a day that was just horrific in my life, and I think for our community," Hubbard told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. Here is part of their conversation.

So many of us, I think, marvel when we hear you and other survivors of shootings and family members of people have lost their lives, [and their] ability to speak about what has happened and what they've gone through, but also to do it over and over and over again. I wonder, does that make the healing harder? Or does that help, for you?

For me, it's helpful. I think that as a person that has been afforded so much and has been surrounded by so much love and compassion and encouragement, I know that so much of what's been accomplished, both in my own healing and in the work that we do at the sanctuary, is because of all that.

A little girl with bright red hair, rosy cheeks, a loose pink T-shirt and khakis stands outside an animal pen while petting a ram and smiling at the camera.
Catherine loved animals deeply, says her mother. (Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary)

What was it about Catherine that made you want to open an animal sanctuary?

Let's not forget that Catherine was six. And so as a six-year-old, you sort of find your love. And as any six-year-old does, they love hard and deep and passionately. 

From the moment that she was kind of on her own, crawling around on the floor, [her] passion was animals. They were her life and her commitment. And her sole purpose was to make sure that any creature that she encountered or crossed her path knew that she was kind. 

And at the end of the day, her belief was that if that animal knew that she was kind — and, in fact, she would ask them many times to tell their friends that that she was kind — if they went back to their people and explained to them that Catherine Violet Hubbard was kind, and that they would be safe in her care, that they would all come back to her.

And so it's [in the spirit of] that gentle whisper and belief that kindness does bring people back in droves that we created the sanctuary. The work that we do in her honour is in honouring the human-animal bond. We believe that through the human-animal connection, true healing can take place.

A little girl in a black helmet and pink windbreaker smiles as she pets a deer in an orange collar.
Catherine wanted all animals to know she was kind, says her mother. (Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary)

When you talk about the work and the healing that can happen when you bring people and these animals together, who are you hoping to help?

There are those kids who are athletes, my son being one of them, who find their place on a field. Others in a dance studio or an art studio. And sometimes there's kids that are somewhat on the margins because they don't fit into one of those boxes.

And yet somehow at the sanctuary, they find through our programming a connection with either … like-minded folks to themselves, or the animals that we're either teaching about or caring for.

And in having that connection, we've seen their confidence grow. And [that] has translated into improved reading levels and school engagement and confidence level. Everybody needs a place, and the sanctuary is that place for wherever you are.

In other situations, we've heard that people have gone to the sanctuary and it has been a place where they found peace and serenity, and they found the resolve that they needed to get through suffering or grief that they were experiencing in their own personal life.

A trailer parked outside on the grass features a logo of a little girl silhouetted in profile and the words "Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary."
Jennifer Hubbard opened the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary to honour her daughter's memory. (Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary)

When I first read about the sanctuary, I thought it was to help animals. And then I read more, and thought maybe it is to help people deal with grief or challenges they're facing.

But then I also wondered if you think that it may help someone who is struggling, and then maybe even prevent something as horrific as what happened to you and so many others at Sandy Hook?

Often [I] thought that, potentially, if there is a person who is struggling emotionally or socially, and they have a place like the sanctuary, instead of being isolated in their homes or in their basements where they are left to wrestle with their own social or emotional health, that maybe having that place where they feel loved and accepted and they can encounter the compassion that's woven through everything that we do, it might deter a potential school shooting.

And listen, at the end of the day, I can't quantify it. I can't validate it. And it's probably a really huge claim to make. But if it's a statistic that I never see, I'm happy. Mission accomplished.

You mentioned your son a moment ago, and I wanted to know how he's doing?

Thank you for asking about him. He is an extraordinary human being and one that I am so proud to call my own. 

There's always something that I believe is put in any person who suffers some sort of traumatic loss to get them out of bed. And for me, it was him.

He's got amazing things to offer the world. And so my first days and months after Catherine died, I was getting out of bed so that he knew he had permission to get out of bed as well. And he faced his own battles and reconciled Catherine's loss in his own personal way and has come through as a resilient and beautiful young man.

A close-up of middle-aged woman with short light brown hair and bangs. She's standing outside in a black winter jacket, tilting her head and looking off camera with a serious expression.
Hubbard says the work she does at the sanctuary gives her hope that things can get better. (Cecilia Sanzhez/AFP/Getty Images)

I think a lot of people listening will certainly admire your strength through all these difficult years and your commitment to hope, which you've mentioned a couple of times in our conversation. But I think they might also ask some might ask ... how do you keep up that hope?

We've found homes for 700 animals. We have preserved and created hundreds and hundreds of square feet of natural habitat. And we've done so because of people that share a compassion and commitment to human kindness.

I believe that that's a part of who we are ... and if we can tap into that somehow, then perhaps after school shootings occur, we can focus on finding that compassion rather than focusing on the divisiveness and discourse that seems to always bubble up.

And at the heart of it, the purity of your daughter's kindness. "Tell your friends that I am kind."


Did she have a favourite animal?

She loved them. It didn't matter. If they crossed her path, they were her absolute favourite and she oohed and ahhed, and she loved it like it was the first and the last.

Interview produced by Devin Nguyen. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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