These Portraits Show the Beauty of Farm Animals Who Are ‘Allowed to Grow Old’
Photographer Isa Leshko captures the grace and resilience of elderly rescued farm animals who have been shown mercy
With deep, soulful eyes, the 19-year-old Holstein cow stares out from the pages of Allowed to Grow Old, a collection of photographs of elderly farm animals. His name was Valentino. He had dark hair, with a tufty patch of white running down the top of his head. He loved carrots. And he forever changed the life of Isa Leshko, the woman behind the camera.
Leshko met Valentino at a California sanctuary in November 2011. By that point, she was several years into a project that had seen her take dramatic portraits of rescued farm animals as they entered the last stage of their lives. She had spent hour upon hour with aging horses, and pigs, and sheep and turkeys, many of them survivors of violent pasts. But when Valentino lumbered into Leshko’s world, she melted.
“His tongue was sandpapery like my cats’ tongues,” Leshko recalls.
Valentino had been born into the dairy industry, where male calves are typically consigned to veal production or killed outright; because they do not produce milk, they are of little use to dairy farmers. But Valentino met a rare and happier fate. As a calf, he had lax tendons that rendered him unable to walk. He was surrendered to the SPCA, and ultimately was sent to Farm Sanctuary, a shelter for rescued farm animals with locations in California and New York. In his new home, Valentino underwent months of physical therapy and grew stronger. He socialized with other cows and became friends with a dog named Sunshine. Against the odds, his life had been comfortable and long.
For the entirety of her adult years, Leshko had been a vegetarian, taking care to buy organic dairy products that she believed came from humane farms. But she had never fully considered — or allowed herself to fully consider — what happens to the male calves of the dairy industry, or to the females once they have no milk to give. Learning about Valentino’s story, being on the receiving end of his affectionate licks pushed Leshko toward adopting what she describes as an “ethical diet.”
“I remember coming home and saying to my partner that I think I’m going to try being vegan,” she says.
It wasn’t just Leshko’s diet that was changing. The photographic series that had taken her to farm sanctuaries in California, Texas, Massachusetts and New York was evolving too — from an artistic project rooted in personal healing to a work of determined activism.
I speak to Leshko, who is based in Salem, Massachusetts, in mid-June, over Skype. It is a busy time for the photographer, who has been promoting Allowed to Grow Old, published in April by the University of Chicago Press. On the day of our conversation, she is wearing a red t-shirt from the Kindred Spirits Sanctuary in Florida. The back design, as I can see when she turns around to show me, is stamped with the words “I FRIEND PIGS.” She has other shirts, she says, bearing punny slogans like “JUST A KID AT HEART” and “GIVE A CLUCK.”
Farm sanctuary swag is a relatively recent addition to Leshko’s wardrobe. She grew up in an industrialized part of New Jersey, close to an oil rig but far from any verdant pastures. She is not, she says, “by nature comfortable in rural areas.” Leshko worked for dot-com start ups before transitioning to a career in photography, after which point she began documenting amusement park rides in eerie black and white. Soaring roller coasters terrified her. The project, she explains, “was looking at a fear of surrendering control.”
In the early 2000s, when Leshko was in her mid-thirties, both of her parents became severely ill. Her father developed oral cancer, and her mother began a precipitous decline from dementia. “My mom’s condition in a lot of respects was the most traumatic, because she reached a point where she was completely delusional, and just didn’t recognize me,” Leshko says. “She had gotten violent at one point. It was really, really tough.”
Leshko began to worry that her own mental acuity would start to slip away as she aged. This time, however, she didn’t reach for her camera to work through the fears that plagued her. Her mother was unable to consent to having her portrait taken, and it felt wrong to turn the lens on her when she was in such a vulnerable state.
On Easter Sunday 2008, Leshko stumbled upon another way to grapple with her complex feelings about growing old. She was visiting a relative’s farm when she met Petey, a 34-year-old Appaloosa horse. His eyes were veiled with cataracts and his coat had lost its shine, but Leshko thought he was beautiful. She whipped out her camera.
It felt comforting to photograph this horse, who was so old and a little hobbled, but still lovely. Leshko subsequently began visiting sanctuaries in search of other elderly farm animals. The ones she met were utter rarities; farm animals are often slaughtered long before they can reach the end of their potential lifespans. Many of Leshko’s subjects narrowly escaped a similar fate.
From the start, her approach to the project was slow and careful. To acclimate the animals to her presence, she would often lie on the ground with them, getting covered in mud, feces, and mites. Though the animals could not give photographic consent, Leshko paid attention to their physical cues. If they were skittish, she backed off. And when they seemed content to have her around, she spent hours photographing them, in pursuit of the perfect portrait. The images were to be dignified — not morbid, or sentimental, and certainly not cute. Cuteness, Leshko opines, is “more to provoke a reaction or an enjoyment in the viewer, versus the image trying to … reveal something about who that animal was.”
The scenes she captured were often tender, sometimes sad, always breathtaking: Teresa, a 13-year-old pig who had been rescued en-route to a slaughterhouse, slumping blissfully in a pile of hay; Zebulon and Isaiah, two Finnsheep who developed arthritis after being confined to a cage for the first eight months of their lives, nuzzling in the sunlight; A turkey hen named Ash gazing defiantly into the camera, her voluminous white feathers standing in dramatic contrast to a darkened background. The tip of her beak has been cut off — a sign that she had been raised in the poultry industry, where beak trimming is common practice. These photographs told stories of suffering, but also of joy and resilience. For Leshko, it was a relief to realize that old age can be a privilege, not just an affliction.
“These animals survived so much, and still managed to enjoy the warmth of sun on their fur or feathers, the cool drink of water,” she says. “Seeing [them] enjoy that, even after the lives that they had led, gives me hope, and it reminds me that old age doesn’t have to mean what happened to mom and dad.”
The more time Leshko spent with farm animals, the more determined she became to transform her photo series into something bigger than a project of personal catharsis. She wanted to introduce people to the species whose products are ubiquitous on grocery shelves, but who are, as Leshko puts it, “culturally invisible.” She wanted to convey that these animals have unique personalities, that their lives have worth. “My approach is to appeal to people’s compassion through my images,” Leshko explains.
In Allowed to Grow Old, she does more than that, laying out the abuses perpetrated against farm animals in non-evangelizing but uncompromising prose. Most of the portraits in the book include brief captions summarizing the animals’ histories, and Leshko also writes at length about a few animals who left a particularly lasting impression, like Valentino, Ash and Babs, a shaggy-haired, doleful-eyed donkey. Babs, Leshko reveals, was used for roping practice on a ranch; when she was turned over to a Washington sanctuary, she was covered in rope burns and suffering from inflammation in her hooves that was so bad it could not be cured. Sanctuary staff soothed Babs’ pain with ice baths, acupuncture and massages. Allowed to Grow Old is, in many ways, a tribute to the people who devote themselves to ailing farm animals, swaddling them with compassion and kindness as they inch closer to death.
For her next project, Leshko hopes to pivot to the start of farm animals’ life cycle, photographing them at birth. Because industrialized animals are often separated from their newborns, she is particularly interested in documenting the bonding period between mothers and babies. But memories of the elderly animals, many of whom died not long after Leshko met them, still linger.
She relates what she initially describes as a “cheesy” anecdote, though she subsequently corrects herself: “It’s funny for a vegan to say cheesy. This is going to really sound Daiya-ish.” Allowed to Grow Old was printed in Altona, a Canadian town not far from Winnipeg. For an intense few days, Leshko was constantly on hand at the press to inspect each page. “It could have been sleep deprivation,” she says, “but I did have this mental picture of all the animals in the project behind me as I was looking at the pages in the book.”
“So,” she adds, “they’re still with me.”