Former Dairy Farmers Now Animal Sanctuary Owners and Vegans
“Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.” ~ The Fray
“You can’t measure humaneness, but you can practice it.” ~ The Butenland Farm
Sometimes ordinary people do extraordinary things with their lives. Quantum change can come unexpectedly and sudden insights can catch us by surprise. Most of us, it seems, walk through life expecting few big life changing surprises. But others, like Jan Gerdes and Karin Mück, have the courage to take a leap of faith, make their vision a reality, and achieve lasting change. Their personal metamorphosis guided them to a new place of truth within themselves and a shift in their core values resulted. Their transformation came through personal insight and they humbly accepted their wakening moments when they realized their lives were about to change, forever.
In their earlier life, Jan and Karin were dairy farmers in northern Germany. Jan grew up on his parent’s family farm and farmed the way his parents did, later transitioning to organic farming. In an interview for the documentary film, Live and Let Live, in which both Karin and Jan appear, Jan talks about a powerful transformative moment when they met a young girl, Cecile, who wanted to train on their farm. While visiting the farm, Cecile learned that a dairy cow was going to be slaughtered the next morning. “Why is she being slaughtered?” Cecile asks. Jan replies, “Because the cow no longer gives us good milk, we don’t need her anymore. She only costs us money now, so she must be slaughtered.” Female farm animals that are no longer deemed productive for breeding or producing milk for humans (their babies are killed immediately after birth), are rendered “useless” by farmers and slaughtered at an unnaturally young age. So Cecile, feeling deep compassion for the cow who was about to lose her life the next morning, went to the stable and started playing her flute to her. She played to her all night and into the early morning hours to comfort her. The next morning, as the cow was being led into the slaughterhouse, Cecile continued to play the flute walking alongside her until the bolt gun struck her head and knocked her unconscious.
During the interview for the film, Jan admits how he denied that he liked the farm animals, “there was no other way, I wanted to earn a living.” Most of us can appreciate how difficult it can be to leave a job and find a new one, but changing careers can be a real challenge. But change came for Jan and Karin after they started having second thoughts about the lack of humaneness in raising cows for food, and then slaughtering them when they were no longer useful or profitable. Sometimes revelations come to us when we begin to change our way of thinking or our way of seeing something. Maybe we’ve seen it a certain way for years, but suddenly we don’t see it that way any longer—we see it differently and it transforms us.
Jan and Karin didn’t just theorize about change, they acted upon it. Their heightened awareness about the animals suffering, slaughter and use, opened the door to wanting a different and better life for them. They wanted farm animals to be treated with greater respect and humaneness—honoring their contribution to people by being able to live out their lives freely instead of killed because they no longer serve our personal needs and purpose—it’s about not seeing them only as machines. While being interviewed for the documentary Live and Let Live, Karin describes, “One understands only through living with animals that each animal is different and what kind of needs they have. They are individuals who are all different from each other.” Later she says, “To see the bond between mother and calf—it really affects you. And also as a group, it has a lot to do with compassion. You develop compassion for the animals. Although I was almost a vegan, that was the point where I said to myself ‘I cannot ignore this anymore, that’s it now.’” Jan adds, “No one notices or is aware of this suffering. This cow is nine months pregnant, just like a woman, pleased that it will eventually give birth. And the birth—is really damn hard. Then it’s finally, finally over and the baby calf is here—and it gets taken away. And the cow definitely suffers, just like a woman would suffer if you take away her baby.”
From their dairy farm—an animal sanctuary was born. Created to provide a safe and loving home for animals that are destined for slaughter or are unwanted. Hof Butenland farm animal sanctuary is now home to over 100 cows, pigs, horses, chicken, geese, rabbits, cats and dogs, and is considered the “first retirement home for cows” in Germany. The model is based on “a new coexistence between humans and animals.” To ensure the sanctuary lives on in the future, they founded the “Tierschutzstiftung Hof Butenland” or Animal Protection Foundation Butenland Farm. In their foundation brochure, they say, “The New Cowlture – Because Animals Aren’t Machines,” and talk about how humans are discovering a new relationship to cows. Instead of being slaughtered by farmers when they become less useful, they can now have a different and better life—“protected by humans who aspire to a new, more humane culture.” As role models, for Butenland Farm, “it’s about showing respect for animals, taking responsibility for them, and standing side by side with them as fellow creatures.”
The Foundation “guarantees a lasting existence for the farm with its special, forward-looking purpose. Here animals are given spaces in which to live freely, peacefully and without fear in the company of humans. The experiences made, are valuable for both animals and humans.” The foundation’s research and work represent a turning point in creating a new model for providing a safe, humane space for animals for future generations. Their goal is to model and teach co-existing with today’s farm animals and allowing farm animals to lead a healthier, happier life, protected by humans who are dedicated to creating a more humane culture where suffering and misery aren’t part of the model or accepted.
Jan has vowed to devote the rest of his life to his sanctuary animals and ending animal exploitation. Karin talks about how the Hof Butenland sanctuary will help farmers, “it offers them the opportunity to get out of farming and will help them with the conversion. We offer a concept of how it’s possible. Our vision is to open an animal sanctuary in each county (northern Germany). Of course with the transition to abolish livestock in the long run. But we also have to find space for all the animals.”
You can learn more about Jan and Karin’s transition from farmer to sanctuary founders in the film, Live and Let Live—a feature documentary that examines our relationship with animals and the ethical, environmental and health reasons that move people to go vegan.
More about Hof Butenland Animal Sanctuary
Hof Butenland Non-Profit Organization (Sanctuary)
More About the Documentary, Live and Let Live
DVD / Stream / VOD
About the Cast
Documentary Film: Live and Let Live, Director Marc Pierschel. Cast: Jan Gerdes & Karin Much, Tom Regan, Gary Francione, Peter Singer, Kati Kosler, Lauren Ornelas, Sharon Nunez, Ria Rehberg & Hendrik HaBel, Robert Goodland, T. Colin Campbell, Melanie Joy, Matt Ruscigno, Jonathan Balcombe, Will Potter, Aaron Adams, Jack Lindquist, Susanne Gura, Neil Robinson. 2013 Film.
Brochure: The New Cowlture, for Animal Welfare Foundation.