Lansing vegan inspired by rescued farm animals

Volunteer Spotlight
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Q&A with Lauren Hansen
Meet Lauren: Mid-Michigan native Lauren Hansen is a freelance violinist and violist, dividing her time between active teaching and performing schedules. She is in her 14th season with the Lansing and Jackson symphony orchestras, and is a touring member of Lil’ Darlins Vaudeville. A veteran instructor, her teaching studio of 35 students is a staple of the Lansing-area music scene. Lauren holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan and donates her time in the field to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. She is a regular volunteer at SASHA Farm. She would like to thank her parents, Kay and Knud, for raising her and her sister, Erin, to be the animal lovers and supporters they are today.

You have been vegetarian since age 4. What led to that, and why do you maintain a meat-free diet?

Yes, 4 or 5. There’s some discrepancy in the family as to which year it is, but 1985 or 1986, somewhere in there. My mother had come across an article in Mother Earth News or a similar publication on how to slaughter your own chickens, a step-by-step guide type of thing. I guess it was pretty graphic and disturbed her so much that she knew she couldn’t eat meat anymore and didn’t want her family to either. So, she talked with my dad, and he was on board, and they in turn talked with my older sister and I, and the decision was made as a family to go vegetarian.

The decision was definitely not a common one in those days, certainly not like today. I mean, we’re talking about a time period when ketchup was considered a vegetable for the purposes of school lunches. As such, my parents definitely encountered some skepticism and pushback from those who questioned the health and safety of a vegetarian diet, especially for children. So, while the decision was made out of compassion for animals, my mother would often tell people it was because a vegetarian diet is shown to help decrease the inflammation that is present in the autoimmune disorders that tend to run in our family.

There’s never been a question in my mind as to whether or not I would remain a vegetarian. It was a source of great pride for me to be a young child growing up in a meat-free family. I’ve always felt a great sense of connection with and compassion for animals, and the idea of taking a life for something as simple and ultimately meaningless as a meal is incomprehensible. To be frank, I was so young when we changed, I have no idea what meat tastes like. For me, it’s simply never been food.

I am pleased to say I am egg- and dairy-free as of this year as well. It’s something I’ve been working toward since I began volunteering at SASHA Farm last year and something of which I am extremely proud. The farm gave me a close-up look at how the dairy industry feeds into the meat industry and the barbaric practices that occur in both those and the egg industry — many of our animals at SASHA are visual reminders of this — and I just couldn’t in good conscience continue to eat those foods.

What do you do at SASHA Farm?

I have a regular shift there once a week. The work is typical farm labor: taking care of the feeding and watering of the animals, and cleaning up after them. With more than 200 animals on the farm — SASHA is the Midwest’s largest farm animal sanctuary — it’s a pretty big job.

Tell us about some of the animals at SASHA Farm and the effect they have had on you.

Oh wow, I feel like I could fill an entire book with stories of the animals. But, I’ll share two stories about animals who had the greatest effect on me.

The first is the story of Daisy and Lucky. Daisy the cow came to us last summer from a backyard butcher situation and gave birth to Lucky shortly after. She had no reason yet to trust humans and protected that baby with all the devotion and fierceness you would expect from a mother whose previous four babies had been taken soon after their births. It was touching and yet tragic at the same time.

I learned this happens all the time in the dairy industry. Female cows face frequent pregnancies to keep the milk flowing, and their babies are stolen and deprived of the very milk that nature means for them. The male babies are sold for veal, and the females face the same fate as their mothers. I just couldn’t be a part of that anymore and gave up dairy shortly after. Daisy — who has since grown to trust humans — and Lucky have been happily integrated into the SASHA herd and remain wonderful reminders each week as to why I remain dairy-free.

The second story is of a hundred rescued battery hens. The ladies, as we affectionately call them, could no longer keep up with completely unnatural production demands, and thus, were due to be destroyed. The condition they came to us in was appalling: feathers missing and combs limp, and beaks horribly mutilated, which is the way in egg farming to keep chickens from hurting each other from stress. They had never seen grass or been allowed to move around in a space bigger than a folder, and for the first few days, were scared to venture out or be too far away from each other. It was heartbreaking.

I’m pleased to say the ladies proved resilient, and today are curious, funny and feisty. This is how chickens are supposed to be, not the mutilated, broken and miserable creatures that came to us. I have the ladies to thank for my break from eggs.

SASHA Farm is full of these stories. The animals are precious reminders that each life is worth protecting.

What inspired you to become involved in animal advocacy?

My love for animals was evident from a very young age. When we would go out, if there was an animal present, that’s where I’d be. And I was very fortunate to grow up in a household that really supported this love and helped foster my sense of duty to protect and care for animals.

Our family was involved with various rescue organizations, even opening our home at one point to orphaned baby raccoons for Critter Alley Wildlife Care Center, and I would participate in the fundraising walks and volunteer for the Capital Area Humane Society. We also always had rescue pets and seemed to have a knack for finding injured animals who needed care.

So honestly, I think there’s always been an animal advocate in me. I believe when you grow up vegetarian, you think about those issues from a young age, and the desire to help end suffering and raise awareness becomes a part of you.

What is your advice to others who want to work to benefit animals?

Simply put: follow your passions. My passion is for equal and humane treatment of all animals, especially farm animals. This led me to find SASHA Farm and keeps me going back, week after week, despite bad weather, long commutes and a busy schedule. This passion also translates into how I live my life: free from meat, dairy and eggs. Because I love my volunteer work so much, it is featured heavily in my social media presence. And you know what? People are interested. They have no idea that pigs are like dogs and that emus love hugs. They want to know more, and they want to come and see for themselves. And while it might not change the behavior of everyone, it has changed the behavior of some and definitely raised awareness for all.

If you can find a way to merge your strengths with your passions, even better. A fun example: I am a professional violinist, and one day last summer, inspired by a video I saw of a New Orleans-style band playing for cows, I brought my violin to the farm. The response I got from the cows, horses and mules was astounding. They all came and stood in rapt attention — normally behavior reserved for food — while I played. The calm was astounding. Of particular note was our mule Johann, normally not one to have much to do with humans. He came and stood right in front of me, almost touching the violin. It is an extremely powerful video that ended up raising a lot of online traffic for SASHA and touched a lot of people.