From Kill Pile to Piglets of Pride
At Woodstock Sanctuary, Marsha and Harvey get a chance to live at a place where they will inspire thousands to live more kindly
Before Marsha and Harvey became Marsha and Harvey, they were just two tiny, nameless piglets, doomed for death on what Rachel McCrystal describes as a “kill pile,” at an auction house in Pennsylvania. McCrystal is the executive director at Woodstock Sanctuary in New York State, where she and her team care for nearly 400 animals saved from the food industry (plus one llama), and host more visitors than any other single-location sanctuary in the country. It’s also where Harvey and Marsha are now, safe and sound.
Woodstock Sanctuary prides itself on having multiple missions, not only focusing on animal advocacy and promoting veganism, but also, as McCrystal says, “marching in alliance with other social justice movements.” This includes having a diverse board of directors, collecting food donations for people in need, and marching in Pride parades, “to do our little part to make this movement a little more inclusive,” she says. So when McCrystal got a call about those two little piglets, rescued on the first day of Pride month, June 1st, she knew exactly who they would become: Harvey Milk, after the first openly gay politician in the US, and Martha P. Johnson, the transgender rights and gay liberation activist.
“They were both runts of their litters. Both were under five pounds. Nobody wanted them because they wouldn’t be profitable, and so they just toss them on this pile.”
As McCrystal explains, “a kill pile is where they put all the animals who can’t sell at auction. It tends to be either sick animals, elderly animals,” or in the case of Marsha and Harvey, “they were both runts of their litters. Both were under five pounds, and normally when pigs are sent to auction they are about 20 pounds. Nobody wanted them because they wouldn’t be profitable, and so they just toss them on this pile.” They would have been killed at the end of that day, she says, “along with everybody else.”
Thankfully though, someone –an anonymous angel of sorts — saw them, “and they felt some mercy,” says McCrystal,“so they walked out with them.” The piglets were then brought to another sanctuary that didn’t have the resources to care for them, so they contacted Woodstock. After sending McCrystal photos, — “they were the size of like cereal bowls,” she recalls — she quickly drove to Southern New Jersey to pick them up. “They were very lethargic and so tiny. I picked up Harvey and he wasn’t moving. I picked up Martha and she started screaming, and was like, ‘ok, that’s a good sign.’” Then they quickly made their way to Woodstock.
Since arriving at the sanctuary six months ago, McCrystal says the two pigs have gained around a half a pound a day, making them now about 160 pounds each. “They’re basically like giant, adolescent, cute pigs,” she says, who at this point, she jokes, “haven’t lived up to the dignity of their names just yet.” But she knows they will.
“Yorkshire pigs are killed between four and six months old. All of their siblings, all those babies who were bought at auction that day, they’re all dead. Meanwhile, these two, look, they’re still just babies.”
“Harvey the pig, though he’s a little goober right now, during his lifetime at the sanctuary he’s going to meet tens of thousands of people, and he’s going to meet millions of people online, all with the message of animal liberation and justice. I think that in itself is our way of honoring the legacy of Harvey Milk.”
As for Marsha the pig, “she’s a bit of a rabble-rouser,” says McCrystals, “very independent,” so she’s already starting to embody the spirit of her powerful namesake.
One thing that McCrystal says is particularly poignant right now about Harvey and Marsha is their age. “Yorkshire pigs are killed between four and six months old. All of their siblings, all those babies who were bought at auction that day, they’re all dead. Meanwhile, these two, look, they’re still just babies.” That most farmed animals are killed as babies, “is profoundly sad,” she says, but in that fact McCrystal also finds hope, “because most people don’t know that. And if they know that, and then they meet a piglet, you just see people change. We educate people and that’s where we see change,” she says. “Telling these stories in a way that is not combative, just truth telling, and introducing people to these amazing creatures, it makes a huge difference and that gives me a lot of hope.”
In fact, after visitors complete a tour at Woodstock, they are offered a voluntary survey, and of those not already identifying as vegan, says McCrystal, “90% of self-reported respondents say that they are going to take steps to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products.” Woodstock Sanctuary is certainly making a difference — not only for their hundreds of animals, but also for the more than 10,000 people who visit each year. With the help of Marsha and Harvey, they are sure to continue inspiring even more.