For the Animals p1

For the Animals p1

In early November 2021 we took a 5-day cycle journey to visit Friend Sanctuary, a haven for rescued animals and compassionate voice for animal rights, veganism and regenerative plant-based food systems. Along the way we met vibrant characters and experienced some major drops. This is Part I of a two part series. Part II chronicles a life-changing motorcycle accident in Steven’s past which nearly killed him and led him to this moment. Stay tuned.

“For the animals!” Our chants broke still air, ruptured further by an explosion in the sky. It was Guy Fawkes Night and all of England celebrated the rebel’s demise with fireworks. In 1605 he’d failed to blow up parliament, ending up on a hangman’s noose and forever burning as effigies in yearly bonfires.

What does it mean to believe in something so strongly, you’d die for it?

Rebellions begin with the slow rumble of voices rising to power with each new insult. They balance there in that heavy mass of energy until the weight becomes too wild to hold. A single spark and lightning crashes. Mother Nature rises her tides; it’s getting hotter, icecaps are melting, and the storms are brewing.

Yet Nature continues to sprout her delicate seeds, showering us with rainbows amid record wildfires and massive extinctions. She may not save us from the folly of stepping into her volcanoes, but she’ll nourish us with her fruits if only we learn to respect her. If only, if only, if only we listen.

We felt her cool breath cycling in Essex on the 5th of November, Guy Fawkes Night. Winter ruffled her feathers that night, reminding us that we needed to find our campsite soon.

We were on our way to Friend Sanctuary, the next day’s destination where a different kind fire was taking place. This visit was part of a 5-day test ride ahead of our world advocacy tour. The sanctuary for rescued animals was hosting an event to honor all the animals who’d lost their lives that year. We rode into the darkness, thinking of the animals, shouting chants we’d learned from Animal Rebellion in a protest march earlier that summer.

But in that moment we had a more immediate problem on our hands.

Twenty miles from home we realized our phones weren’t charging, meaning we’d soon lose navigation support. Part of the intention of this journey was to test our gear and we quickly learned our energy system wasn’t working. The front wheel hubs of our bikes are dynamos, clever inventions that generate energy when spinning, allowing us to charge our phones on the go. The chargers attached to them had failed.

With 1% battery left on one phone and the other at zero, we regretted not having a battery pack along. Ours was sitting at home in a bag of rice, fried from rain while cycling in London.

We pulled over to a grocery store as the world around erupted in fireworks. We felt utterly deflated by this turn of events and it was only getting colder by the minute. I ventured in to buy some guilty pleasure (chips and hummus) while Steven worked his magic. That’s when he met Muzaffar from Pakistan.

“Everything is always working out” a mantra we have on loop, yet sometimes forget in moments of desperation. Muzaffar was our reminder. His calm presence and insistence to help showed us what it means to be a light in darkness. It’s not every day you see two bikes packed for a world excursion at your local store. He probably sensed our low energy.

Muzaffar, who worked at the grocery store while earning his PhD in Philosophy, invited us to his nearby house for coffee and rest. We were enchanted by his kindness and trust.

His excitement ballooned after hearing about our greater mission to cycle around the world.“You’ll pass by my family’s home when you go to Pakistan!” He said it with confidence, declaring that there are few main roads and we’d inevitably pass his town. The world is tiny indeed.

We were determined to continue on that night. Fifty miles lay ahead before reaching Friend and we simply couldn’t let a failed navigation system prevent us from meeting the animals. Stars, guide us! Steven’s wizardry reassembled a few parts and we felt an inkling of hope. We decided to start riding back in the direction we’d come, bidding Muzaffar farewell to test the makeshift solution. The 1% lingered on for about a mile.

Then it flashed to 2%.

Yes! Whoops of celebration filled the empty street as we turned around and continued onwards. Onwards for the animals. Fireworks continued to explode.

Adrenaline led us through the night to another small miracle. Steven’s phone was barely hanging on to life when we noticed an Italian restaurant still open. It was nearly 10 PM and we had no idea where we’d camp that night, let alone if the charge would last. Seeing vegan pizza on the menu sealed the deal.

Our phones and bodies charged in the nurturing embrace of pizza and laughter. A nearby group buzzed with joy and we let our tiredness melt away in their presence.

Sometime later I noticed a couple exit the restaurant and pause at our laden bikes. The man stood transfixed, his face lighting up. Then he saw us and rushed back in.

“Where are you going and how can I help?”

Remember, everything is always working out.

We’d just met Connor and his partner Matilda, who would be our guardian angels that night. It turns out Connor is also a cyclist who toured in Australia and he was eager to repay the many kindnesses he’d received. Within an hour he sent us a Google map to a safe camping spot. The actual place remains a secret, but let’s just say it made us realize how easy illegal wild camping actually is.

Did we mention that Connor and Matilda are also vegan?

The night felt warmer after meeting them and by midnight we were fast asleep in our cozy tent. Morning dawned with fresh radiance, underscoring our belief in the law of attraction. Connor greeted us at 7 AM sharp with a full spread of breakfast, which we enjoyed alongside lively conversation.

Copious amounts of tea had nature calling and we still had several miles ahead before reaching Friend. We stood in a group hug before parting from Connor, forever grateful for his gift and guidance.

It was about then when I noticed how frantically nature was calling. Some modern conveniences fade away while cycle touring, toilets among them. Our immediate surroundings were by now lively with Saturday morning activity but modesty also fades away in such moments. Steven and I hastily parked our bikes and ran for the trees. Thanking a giant oak for her presence, I squatted and watched a nearby group of hikers pass by.

One such hiker greeted us some ten minutes later, oblivious to our not-so-secret activity moments ago. His name was Robin and he had advice to share from his 90 years on this planet. “Don’t go to Somalia, they’ll chop off your heads there.”

I thought of all the animals losing their heads as we spoke. A lovely dog stood by Robin’s side, leashed but smiling as dogs do. What do you say to someone like Robin, who sees an entire country through the lens of a few horrific actions?

Billions of more heads are getting chopped around the daily ritual of eating. Some rituals are deemed normal, natural and necessary, while others are acts of terror. Who decides? Dr. Melanie Joy wrote about these hypocrisies in her landmark book, “Why we Love Dogs, Wear Cows and Eat Pigs, an Introduction to Carnism.”

Dr. Joy wrote,

“The billions of animals that are killed every year for meat and the virulent consequences of contemporary animal agriculture practices remain conspicuously absent from public discourse. How often have you seen media exposes on the violent treatment of farm animals and the corrupt practices of carnistic industry? Compare this with the amount of coverage afforded fluctuating gas prices or Hollywood fashion blunders. Most of us are more outraged over having to pay five cents more for a gallon of gas than over the fact that billions of animals, millions of humans, and the entire ecosystem are systematically exploited by an industry that profits from such gratuitous violence. And most of us known more about what the stars wore to the Oscars than we do about the animals we eat.”

In western culture most people would feel great sorrow seeing their dog decapitated and served up for dinner. It’s common practice in other parts of the world. As Dr. Joy points out in her book, it’s not that cows are so different from dogs. They feel pain, have consciousness and preferences much in the same way. The difference is the way we perceive them. The difference is our perspective.

What does it take to shift perspectives?

When politicians boil my blood I often imagine sending them to the places they ridicule from their podiums. Spend a year in a culture drastically different from your own, away from Twitter and the like, and see what happens. This is one approach to our activism. Go to the source, be with the people you’re afraid of, meet the animals you once ate.

Inspiring change is one reason why places like Friend Sanctuary exist. First and foremost they’re here for the animals, but their presence is a powerful way to educate. You’re less likely to eat pork chops for dinner after bonding with Dottie all afternoon.

“For the animals! For the guinea pigs!”

Our chants continued not long after leaving Robin. They powered us to the banks of the Thames in Tilbury, where a ferry led us to the next mini-miracle. It was afternoon by now and we felt the effects of cycling on busy streets. The Thames stretched wide and gray, lulling on a windless day. How could such a sleepy scene have once witnessed majestic ships on their way to conquer the world?

Docking at Gravesend, Steven decided on a whim to stray from our route and cycle through the town. That innocent decision led us to a mouth-watering discovery. A bright pink sign popped into view with the words, Vegan Antics, enticing us to look closer. All thought of cycling progress vanished at the sight of rich vegan desserts singing out their creative advocacy message. “We are delicious and we are free of animals!” It took ages to decide on just one treat each.

Properly humming with vegan sweetness - despite our usual sugar-free intentions - we now continued into the hardest leg of the journey yet.

“For the animals! For the cows! For the beagles!”

Our chants rose above cars whizzing by. How could our human bodies of blood and bone have built such forceful machines? In a car we lose connection to the grit of Earth, to the feel of elevation and elements. In a car we become weightless and our senses numb beneath the constant borage of flittering scenes.

We crave consciousness. Groundedness. Connection.

My heart raced in stark contrast to the slow rotation of my wheels as we pedaled, up, up and up. The bikes were designed to take on the world, but in that moment this hill almost had us.

Steven and I were ready to arrive at Friend Sanctuary, a home to over 200 unwanted, neglected and abused animals. An image of a half-blind horse whose eye had been pierced to brand her flashed before my own eyes. I knew our physical discomfort was but a gentle kiss compared to the pain felt by those shuttered in darkness.

We were soon to meet some of the few protected ones.

The miles of ascent continued on. Who knew Kent had so many hills? We must have picked the route leading up every hill, but we only laughed as we rounded each bend to discover yet again, the slope was relentless. So too our determination to reach Friend before nightfall.

The November sun threatened to disappear behind a rural horizon. Magic filled the skies. The night’s event was a special Samhain occasion to honor the animals, reclaiming Guy Fawke’s weekend to rebel peacefully for the animals. By remembering their names around a fire, by standing in silence and sending our dreams into the night sky. We dream of your freedom.

Our anticipation grew with each ascent and descent. At one point Steven reached 45 mph (72 kph), whizzing down a hill that showed us a glimpse of London in the distance. I couldn’t let go, holding tight to brakes and learning a lesson about front and rear brakes in the process. Steven later explained why I was skidding down the hill. One day I’ll let go.

Then, there it was: Friend Sanctuary, a humble sign marked our arrival. We were immediately greeted by the quiet sounds of animals preparing for night. We caught our breath, jarred by the contrast of cycling intensely for hours and then suddenly stopping.

Entering Friend was like stepping into another creative dimension. Gone were the cookie-cutter hedges and other common details of quintessential England. We now stood in an outdoor gallery, greeted by jack-o-lanterns and a series of gateways leading deeper into the 10-acre sanctuary. Murals and painted quotes rose up from the grounds, speaking messages of love and inclusiveness.

We immediately felt the mission of Friend, to provide a safe space free of oppression for animals and humans alike. Their About page includes a powerful vision by owner and trustee Mark Eaton, who we met ushering the Turkeys to sleep that night. The sanctuary “is run with an ethical vegan philosophy of education about animal welfare and the need for a world of compassion to all its inhabitants, faun and flora alike. As well as educating visitors about the animals, we are working to make the sanctuary an example of ecological sustainability, for example planting native trees, rewilding and growing food.”

Arriving to the heart of Friend we saw an elaborate wood tower, more like a sculpture, built for the honorary bonfire. It was held in a large circular earthen fire pit, carefully carved to provide seating for gatherings.

Our lasting impression of Friend is one rooted in its very name. Everyone we encountered treated us with generous warmth. One of the first people we met invited us to camp there that night and we looked forward to a night among new friends, eager to meet the animal residents in the morning.

Mandy led the fire ceremony and a small crowd stood in awe as soaring flames leaped into the galaxy. She spoke sacred words of remembrance, inviting us to join in reflection. Tears filled my eyes as I recalled the one animal friend who has affected me most in my vegan journey. A rooster in Cyprus, one who I could not save.

The night passed by in a whirlwind of music and shared passion for the animals. It was their presence calling to us the most.

Pete was our guide the next day. He and his partner were longterm volunteers at Friend who helped Mark and Mandy care for the animals. They promised a dazzling experience that morning and we were enraptured by the energy that burst forth. Steven prepared his camera and our tour began.

The first to greet us were the Roosters, each one boasting a unique personality. Pete introduced names and told us which ones would be more open to having their portraits taken. Not every being likes standing before a camera, as we humans know. Doors opened to the squawks, honks, quacks and excited movements of the sanctuary residents, all eager to play and explore a bright new day. They’re kept enclosed at night to ensure their safety and many are separated from others to protect each other.

What stood out immediately was how apparent their differing personalities are. Some shy, some playful, some dominant and everything in between. We fell in love with their individuality. Pete spoke of them as we speak of people, noting how important it is to honor the residents’ space. They do not exist for us, but for their own self sovereignty. Isn’t that we all crave? To exist as we wish.

Some people may protest, “Don’t take away my choice if I wish to eat animals.” We humans hold a moral compass within, preventing most of us from hurting other humans. Or at least, trying not to cause harm. Why do we exclude animals from our moral compass? Animals never had a choice when we put chains and ropes around their necks.

The hours with Friend’s residents formed a memory so vibrant, each minute became a flower forming a vibrant bouquet of joy. Steven and I shiver to think we have spent more time with the dead relatives of these animals than with their live ones. Most of us touch more dead flesh of a pig than petting a live pig.

According to data provided by the USDA, the average American will consume 2,332 land animals in their lifetime. The breakdown is 2,232 chickens, 54 turkeys, 31 pigs, 8 cows and 7 ducks. If these numbers seem far-fetched, let’s consider turkeys alone. If you live at least 80 years and celebrate traditional American Thanksgiving, you’ll contribute to the slaughter of at least one turkey every year of life. That’s far less than the 54 proposed here. Keep in mind, these numbers don’t include fish or other marine animals.

Beyond the ethical considerations, consuming these animals is detrimental for our health and environment.

Yet statistics and science fell away that morning at Friend. Sitting with cows in an open field we knew the numbers mean nothing compared to the beauty of these beings. We sat in silence, observing their slow gazes and stillness. Suddenly one cow rolled slowly over and stretched, moaning with a yawn not unlike a human yawn. But it was entirely her own.

This is the message we share. These animals are their own, we have no right to them.

We met many more Friend residents that day and reluctantly parted ways. Leaving forever affected. It felt surreal to enter back into the other world, the one most of us dwell in, where animal parts are commonly sold in every grocery and clothing store. Where countless others are caged to endure torture in testing labs.

Our route back to Essex took us closer in to London and later that day we came to a major motorway. By now it was dark and once again we had our eyes peeled for a campsite. We saw a prospective area on the map but getting there was an immense challenge. The route took a drastic elevation climb, leading us right alongside the motorway.

We crossed over a bridge and then paralleled the raucous traffic as a narrow bike path led us up a steep ravine. Switchbacks were carved in to make the ascent possibly, but it felt impossibly steep and slippery with fallen leaves. Eventually Steven inched ahead of me and soon I was shrouded in evening shadows. The motorway roared beneath us. The Valley below projected all noise into monstrous proportions. I imagined each person cocooned in their metallic bubble, unaware of how much noise and pollution they emitted. It struck through me, my aura of light wasn’t strong enough in the sea of rising emotions.

Steven was yelling our chant, “For the Animals!” up ahead trying to keep our energy high. My heart wasn’t in it. I felt angry. Getting off my bike to push was even harder. The 32 kilos of gear and bike pulled me down on the steep slope. Feet slipped on slick leaves. I could only pedal, bit by bit, using my legs to stomp out simmering frustration.

Eventually the top came to view where Steven waited beneath a glimmer of yellow street light. The dam broke when I reach him, breathless and panting.

“I hate this,” I cried, using a word typically never use. “Why doesn’t anyone care for them?!” Words sputtered out, making little sense. Of course I knew why no one seemed to care, as I had once been one of those people myself. It goes far deeper than care.

I saw all the animals faces and equally the apathy of our society. Dr. Joy once said, “Empathy is the antidote to contempt: it’s difficult to look down on someone when we are looking at the world through their eyes.” I didn’t want to listen to her or anyone else in that moment. I wallowed in pain and longing, knowing I had to call in my higher self but feeling too tired.

So we rode on. Minutes later we arrived to a restaurant, of all places, Toby Carvery. This is a place made for animal eaters. The feature menu item is an animal of one kind or another. Steven once worked at Toby Carvery in another lifetime, regularly witnessing carcasses in various shapes and sizes. Now he suggested we stop there to use the restrooms. I gaped at him. Forever the voice of logic, he was right. We wouldn’t have another public toilet this late at night before finding our campsite. It was also a good moment to step out of the November chill for a brief repose.

But I refused to enter, sitting with the bikes while Steven went in. Families walked in and out, one little girl running from a vehicle yelling, “I can’t wait for turkey roast!” My heart broke for the turkey. Being there felt like betraying all the animals we’d just met.

Steven gently urged me to go when he returned, saying I didn’t have to walk through the restaurant to reach the toilets. I relented. The bathroom walls were lined with beautiful illustrations of animals and clever quotes. Words failed me. I felt caught in an alien world.

Mother Nature, I know why you rebel against us humans. I would too. But can rebellion truly call in a lasting age of compassion?

My thoughts returned to a peaceful state over the next few miles. We were distracted with finding a campsite and once again received miracle guidance. Feeling desperate at the end of a long road, we hadn’t heard a woman approaching her front gate.

“Are you lost?” Her name was Tina and she promptly suggested a discreet spot some miles back where we could wild camp. The place we found was at the edge of a thicket of trees where residents had created a circle of tree stumps. We imagined talking circles here beneath the canopy and felt held by this sacred place.

The morning graced us with a now familiar coat of dewy frost which shimmered brightly in filtered sunshine. This was only our fourth day of the journey and already we’d learned many valuable lessons. Keeping our feet dry proved difficult while the riddle to finding campsites in urban areas was nearly solved. Those who are curious can message us and we may reveal the secret.

London lay ahead on that day, leading up to one of the most profound meetings of the entire journey. It’s a story that began seven years ago. One we’ll save for Part II of this tale.

Written by Karla Sanders @karlasandersart | Photos by Steven Tiller @steventiller