Woodstock Sanctuary, Jenny Brown and the perils of charisma

The vegan activist cared deeply for animals and won over donors but was allowed to run roughshod over people at Woodstock

Marc Gunther
Dec 20, 2019 · 11 min read

For dozens of chickens, pigs, cows, ducks and turkeys rescued from factory farms, auctions or slaughterhouses, the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary has been a peaceful refuge where they get loving care. But for the people who worked for Jenny Brown, the co-founder and former executive director of Woodstock, it could be hellish.

Brown and her husband, Doug Abel, built the sanctuary on a 23-acre parcel of land they acquired in the Catskills, near the hippie enclave of Woodstock, N.Y. They began with a half dozen chickens, and eventually took in hundreds of animals, making Woodstock one of the largest farm sanctuaries in the US. Celebrities including Sean Lennon and Chrissie Hynde supported them; the singer-songwriter and animal rights activist Moby did a benefit concert and had a goat named after him. Brown could be inspiring, as a speaker and a fundraiser.

But she could also be an erratic, tempestuous boss. She verbally abused, threatened, humiliated and intimidated people, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former staff members and board members, as well as internal documents. Her crude language discomfited people.

“If you disagree with Jenny, no matter how sound your reasoning may be, she will berate you, curse at you and call you names whether you are alone or in front of other staff,” says Cole Mannella, who worked at Woodstock for six years. Jody Sidote, another former staffer, says: “Jenny was a tyrant. It was a completely toxic, unhealthy, hostile work environment, all the time.”

In 2012, Sidote was one of five employees — about half of the paid staff at the time — who rebelled. In an email to three members of the sanctuary board, they wrote that “the staff struggles with persistent high stress, low morale and reduced productivity amidst the unhealthy and hostile environment created and sustained” by Brown.

When the directors tried to investigate, Brown and Abel refused to cooperate, accused staff members of lying and threatened to sue, according to a lawyer hired by the board.

The three directors were stuck. Brown’s fundraising kept the sanctuary afloat. She and Abel lived on the property. Firing her could destroy the organization, the directors worried. Instead, the three — Eva Orlowski, JL Fields and Cynthia King — quietly resigned.

In response, Brown fired Elana Kirshenbaum, one of the dissident staffers, and brought on new directors. Kirshenbaum threatened to sue and was paid a settlement by Woodstock.

It was not the first time Brown had abused staff. It would not be the last.

How does Brown respond to the charges? By email, she says that she rarely yelled but would sometimes “raise my voice and respond defensively or angrily. It was unacceptable behavior and something I deeply regret.”

The stress of caring for animals, raising money and dealing with staff could be overwhelming, she told me, with admirable candor: “My anxiety would turn into anger and tears — and self-medication with pot and alcohol. Describing me as ‘a hot mess’ would be kind.” You can read her full email here.

Farm sanctuaries can change lives

Brown no longer runs a sanctuary — she travels to colleges and universities, speaking about the abuse of farm animals — but her story is worth telling for several reasons.

First, farm sanctuaries matter: They connect thousands of people to farm animals and educate them about the cruelties of factory farms. “Whether through a major epiphany or a tiny little synapse firing, nobody leaves the farm without being changed in some way, “ Brown wrote in her 2012 book, The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals. Others agree. Yet sanctuaries seem to be prone to discord. This is “a movement that eats its own,” says Peter Nussbaum, a founder of the Tamerlaine Sanctuary and Preserve, a New Jersey sanctuary that is feuding with rivals, including Woodstock.

Second, Brown’s story is another example of the dysfunctional leadership that has set back the animal protection movement. In recent years, senior leaders at the Humane Society of the US, Mercy For Animals and the Farm Animal Rights Conference have been forced out because they mistreated or sexually harassed staff. No wonder activist burnout is a problem in the animal rights movement. Countless people have left.

Finally, Brown’s story is a cautionary tale about the importance of board oversight, particularly of charismatic founders who want to control “their” organizations. “What happened at Woodstock Sanctuary isn’t unique, although it’s extreme,” says Jeff Lydon, managing director at Woodstock. “This was, among other things, a classic case of founder’s syndrome.”

Without commenting on Woodstock, Krista Hiddema, an animal rights activist and consultant to nonprofits, says the failure of boards to oversee leaders of animal groups “is a pervasive problem in our movement.” Hiddema, who is studying governance in the movement as part of her doctoral research, says founders should not serve on boards of directors and that, even at small nonprofits, directors need to keep channels of communication open with staff. One job of a board is to try to protect staff from the harm caused by abuse at work.

A remarkable life story

Whatever her shortcomings, Brown, 48, has led a remarkable life. The child of a single mother, she grew up in a working-class, conservative family in Louisville, Kentucky. At age 10, she got bone cancer in her right ankle and, after months of painful chemotherapy, had her right leg amputated below the knee. The experience, she says, led her to empathize with the powerless. She studied film and TV production, and built a successful career working on documentaries for public and cable television. She met Abel, a film editor, when both worked for the acclaimed director Errol Morris.

Brown’s passion has been animals since she bonded with a cat named Boogie while recuperating from cancer. She became a vegan. She volunteered with PETA, going undercover to videotape factory farms. She trained at Farm Sanctuary, the upstate New York animal refuge that pioneered the sanctuary movement. She made a harrowing five-minute film at Texas stockyards about animals who are too injured or sick to stand or walk. Those experiences led her and Abel to start Woodstock Sanctuary.

Abel, Brown and an animal friend

Woodstock became known for the extraordinary care it provided to animals. When a rescued goat named Albie was fitted with a prosthesis for his leg, similar to the one worn by Brown, The New York Times covered the story, bringing national attention and donations to Woodstock. Other animals, notably a cow named Fawn, got costly surgery at Cornell’s veterinary hospital. Brown herself once gave “mouth-to-beak” resuscitation to a rooster.

“She’s tireless and fearless and really connects with those animals,” says Lydon, Woodstock’s managing director. David Cabrera, who was president of the Woodstock board from 2013 to 2018, says Brown did “life-affirming and life-changing” work.

Ultimately, though, it was the board led by Cabrera, spurred on by Lydon, who called Brown to account for her behavior. Why boards did not act earlier is unclear. Most of the directors were friends of Brown and Abel. They were incurious about the workplace issues at Woodstock, former staffers say.

“Riddled with sexual innuendo”

There were ample warning signs. In September 2014, for example, a staff member fired by Brown hired a lawyer, Nathaniel Charny, who in a letter to board president Cabrera alleged that his client “was subject to a severe and pervasive hostile work environment…created and perpetuated by Ms. Brown that was riddled with sexual innuendo.”

According to Charny, Brown remarked on her “stinky crotch,” touched herself in her genital area and commented on her lack of underwear, and referred to women who bear children with the derogatory term “breeders.” Brown also berated his client, Charny said, when she raised questions about whether employees were being unfairly denied overtime pay.

“Ms. Brown’s conduct became increasingly abusive, hostile and angry,” Charny wrote. He told Cabrera that his client had valid claims against Woodstock for unpaid wages, a retaliatory firing and the hostile work environment, among other things. Woodstock subsequently paid his client to settle the claims.

Cole Mannella, the former Woodstock staffer, confirmed that Brown’s crude talk bothered people: “She told inappropriate stories of her own sexual exploits, asked co-workers inappropriate questions about their relationships, and exposed body parts that would be covered by any bathing-suit.”

Some of the complaints were misunderstandings, Abel said: “Jenny has a potty sense of humor. It doesn’t land well.” Sanctuary staff worked in the home where he and Brown lived. Herve Breuil, a longtime Woodstock employee, said: “Things can get a little weird when the office is in your own house.”

Also during 2014, a second staff member at Woodstock who asked not to be identified says he or she made Cabrera and a second director aware of problems with Brown’s conduct. This staff member says Brown cursed at people, calling one a “f — -ing c — t” and another a “spineless piece of shit.”

“There was no oversight of Jenny’s actions,” the former employee said. “She could do whatever she wants. This is so unbelievably common in animal nonprofits.”

Several staff members also complained that Brown and Abel allowed their pit bull, Marty, to run free. Marty bit the ear of a rescued pig, bit the tail off a staff member’s dog and attacked the cat of another staffer. He frightened people, too. Brown and Abel “didn’t understand what it means to be a responsible pet owner,” Cole Mannella said.

In response, Abel says that their dogs, including Marty, were needed to guard the sanctuary animals from coyotes or bears, and that the dog and cat kept by staff members were bitten because they weren’t protected by their owners.

Promises to improve

When board members raised doubts about her conduct, Brown promised to do better. “Jenny and I absolutely recognized her management problems,” Abel says. She says: “I was seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist regularly.” She took mindfulness courses and tried meditation. Cabrera brought in a consultant, pro bono, to help, but says Brown did not appear fully engaged in the process. That was “a big disappointment to me personally,” he says.

By email, Cabrera told me it took him a while to grasp the scope of the workplace problems: “Jenny oddly simultaneously acknowledged and was dismissive of the claims around harassment. The board made clear that this behavior had no place at the Sanctuary, and Jenny assured us it would not continue. Mistakenly, being new to the board at that point, I believed Jenny…would move forward in a more skilled manner.”

Two things changed in 2015. Lydon, an experienced sanctuary director, joined Woodstock. And the sanctuary moved to a bigger property, a 150-acre site in High Falls, N.Y, in the Hudson Valley, about 90 miles north of New York City. Brown raised more than $2 million to fund the new site.

Originally, Brown and Abel did not plan to live on the property. They intended to leave day-to-day management of Woodstock to Lydon, they say. But when they raised the possibility of buying a house next door, staff members objected and took their complaints to Lydon. He relayed them to the board.

This time, Cabrera and other board members acted swiftly. They brought a set of allegations to Brown and Abel, including the hostile work environment, the Marty the dog’s aggressiveness and potential labor law violations. Efforts to mediate the issues turned contentious. Eventually, Brown “described a burnout situation for herself and requested a leave of absence,” Cabrera said. The board gave Brown a six-month paid leave, the title of “president and co-founder,” and said that her new duties would exclude “hiring, firing, disciplining or otherwise supervising sanctuary staff,” according to an agreement she signed in March, 2016.

It didn’t go well from there.

“It became really ugly and spiteful”

In the months that followed, the board and Brown argued about matters big and small, ranging from Brown’s refusal to update her email signature to reflect her new title to her desire to be at the side of a beloved steer named Andy who had to be euthanized. On visits to Woodstock, she engaged in “hostile communications” with staff members, according to Cabrera.

Brown “demonstrated nothing but contempt for the agreement to which she put her signature,” Lydon said in an email to the board. His concern grew as he learned more about her past conduct at Woodstock, writing that she had exhibited “patterns of behavior that have been remarkably dangerous, erratic, cruel, impulsive, wasteful, abusive, illegal and reckless.”

Lydon told the board:

All of this has been hidden. If the things Jenny has done were widely known, and she as the one responsible for them were still serving as a founding representative ostensibly in good standing, Woodstock Farm Sanctuary would be destroyed. On your watch. That seems so threatening to me because there are times I feel as if a public reckoning is inevitable if we’re not careful.

Jenny’s history, intransigence and recent behavior have convinced me that she should not be involved with Woodstock Farm Sanctuary.

Brown and Abel tell a different story. They say the board interpreted the agreement too strictly, and that Lydon and the board tried to stop Brown from dealing with the media and with donors, some of whom were also her friends. “There is no doubt that the board acted harshly and improperly,” Brown says. Abel said the board’s effort to keep her from meeting with donors or the media were “unreasonable, hostile and punitive.”

What had begun as an amicable transition turned sour. “It became really ugly and spiteful,” Abel told me. “In my opinion, they emotionally abused Jenny.”

In October 2016, Brown was told she could not to return to the sanctuary. She was offered a year of severance (at her annual salary of $56,000) as well as health insurance and asked to sign a non-disparagement agreement. “We very much hope you will stay involved,” the committee said in an email to Brown. She declined to sign.

The story could have ended then, quietly, for the benefit of all concerned. Ethan Ciment, who became president of Woodstock’s board last year, wishes it had. “No organization wants to be separated from its founders,” he says. “That’s just bad.”

Brown and Abel remained quiet for a while but gradually allowed their unhappiness to surface. In a Facebook post, Brown wrote:

After almost 12 years of pouring everything we had into the sanctuary, the board of directors took all control away from us and essentially forced us out. I don’t talk about what happened much publicly because it’s too painful and there is already too much drama and infighting in the animal rights movement and we need to be unified to make the greatest progress, but what happened to Doug and I was beyond unjust and wrong and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel heartbroken over it. We were naive and trusted people we shouldn’t have.

Brown and Abel joined forces with the Tamerlaine sanctuary and its co-founder, Peter Nussbaum, who alleged that senior staff at Woodstock and Farm Sanctuary conspired with disgruntled former workers at Tamerlaine to spread lies about the New Jersey sanctuary.

Again on Facebook, Brown wrote:

I’m not going to be quiet any longer about it. They have treated Doug and I horribly and now they are involved in trying to oust the founders of another wonderful sanctuary and close them down.

Nussbaum told viewers of a YouTube show called The Vegan Zombie that Brown was “unconscionably ousted” from Woodstock. Tamerlaine has filed suit against some of its former employees.

Rachel McCrystal, the former director of development at Woodstock, was named executive director in 2017. Today, Woodstock has more than 400 animals on site. It attracts thousands of visitors a year.

Brown has moved back to Kentucky where she is being supported, in part, by a major donor to animal rights groups. She speaks at colleges and universities around the country.

Weekend visitors to Woodstock Farm Sanctuary

Marc Gunther

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reporting on philanthropy, nonprofits, animal welfare, global poverty, psychedelics and whatever else interests me

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