The Sunday Edition

What rescued farm animals taught a photographer about aging and animal rights

Artist and photographer Isa Leshko’s book Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals on Farm Sanctuaries captures the enduring spirit of farm animals who have been given a rare change to age, and die, with dignity.
Isa Leshko is a photographer, artist and author of Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries. (Ron Cowie; Isa Leshko/University of Chicago Press)
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Isa Leshko met Gandalf the turkey on an "unseasonably hot day" in Sultan, Wash.

At Pasado's Safe Haven animal sanctuary, the blind bird stared blankly at her with his one remaining eye, breathing with his beak open in an effort to cool himself down.

As Leshko stared back at the bird, all she could picture was her mother, who Leshko cared for as her Alzheimer's disease progressed.

"I was seeing Gandalf with this blank stare, and it took me right to that moment of being at my mom's bedside, and her final days when she was catatonic and had that blind expression on her face," the photographer, artist and writer told The Sunday Edition's host, Michael Enright.

"I had to leave the enclosure, and it took me a few additional visits before I was really able to put that aside and focus on seeing Gandalf as an individual, and not my mom."

Ash, a broad-breasted turkey, pictured in Isa Leshko's book Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries. She was saved from a factory farm. (Isa Leshko)

Through photographs and the written word, Leshko shares the stories of aging animals like Gandalf in her book Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals on Farm Sanctuaries, which was published by the University of Chicago Press in April 2019.

The artist began the project as a way to come to grips with her fear of aging. But what she discovered was the incredible spirit of farm animals who have been given the rare opportunity to age with dignity.

Traumatic upbringing

"Pretty much all of the animals that I met endured some sort of trauma before they had been rescued," Leshko said.

Zebulon, a 12-year-old Finnsheep, developed severe arthritis after being confined to a cage for the first eight months of his life. Melvin, an angora goat, spent the first six years of his life tethered to a tire, at the mercy of the rain and wind. And Buddy, a 28-year-old Appaloosa horse, had his eyes removed after going blind.

Zebulon the Finnsheep was rescued due to a cruelty investigation. He's seen in this portrait from Isa Leshko's book Allowed To Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2019. (Isa Leshko)

Most farm animals die before they're six months old, Leshko explained.

But in photographing those who have lived, Leshko observed unique personalities and deep connections between the animals, like the one between 13-year-old Yorkshire pig Teresa and her friend Howard, who stayed by Teresa's side until her final moments of life.

"Being on these sanctuaries, seeing the relationships between these animals and the workers who care for them, the fact that these animals had been abused by people and still managed to open their hearts again to form these close friendships with the people who were involved in their day-to-day care, it just showed me the power of empathy and forgiveness," said Leshko.

"Their bodies definitely showed scars of their past abuse, but their spirits did not, and that was remarkable."

Teresa, a 13-year-old Yorkshire pig who was saved from the slaughterhouse, as seen in Isa Leshko's book Allowed To Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries, published by the University of Chicago Press. (Isa Leshko)

As part of the process of photographing the animals, Leshko spent a great deal of time simply lying on the ground next to her subjects, getting herself comfortable being around them, and them with her.

It was important she capture their portraits at eye-level, so viewers would "look at these animals in their eyes and have a one-on-one, intimate experience with them," she said.

"I also thought, from a power dynamic standpoint, it was important to meet them on their terms."

I really hope that people will recognize that these animals are sentient, that they think, and that they feel.- Isa Leshko

As a result of her time around them, Leshko came to realize that "aging is a luxury, and not a curse."

She hopes her work will change the way people see farm animals.

"I really hope that people will recognize that these animals are sentient, that they think, and that they feel, and they have unique personalities," she said. "And I hope that that will raise questions in how we treat them."

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