Compassion in Action – The making of an animal sanctuary in America

February, 2021 Shaleen & Shilpi Shah

“In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” ~ Lord Mahavira.

Many of you, like Shilpi and I early on in our lives know this quote from Lord Mahavira, but it would take the birth of our first son, his health challenges, and a horse named Jale to truly teach us the meaning of this quote.

Shilpi and I both grew up in Jain families in India. Shilpi in Vadodara and myself in Ahmedabad. Neither of us thought about it at the time, but the values we learned in our early years were truly life-defining for the both of us. We learned from our parents, grandparents, and the community about the values of ahimsa (non-violence), karuna (compassion), and the importance of jiv daya (compassion for all life). We learned at an early age that all living beings’ matter, and we should care for all life from an ant to a tree.

When our families independently moved to the United States, we were all culture-shocked! The vast difference in the culture that we came from to the realities around us stood in stark contrast. We landed in the south, in Jacksonville Florida. This area of the country is known for its conservative political beliefs, Christian religious zeal and the traditional ‘meat and potatoes’ lifestyle. Being of brown skin and vegetarian in this place meant that were easily the odd ones. Both of us were repeatedly pressured by our peers to try meat and often considered not equal as we were so different from the rest. Somehow, both of us found the will to resist and to stay true to our core values.

Although our early life experience was so similar, Shilpi and I had not met yet, we met much later when we were in college. We were drawn to each other through this shared experience and values that were still core to who we were. Ironically, we had not yet learned to truly understand these values. I recall a time when a fellow university student approached us with a PETA pamphlet about going Vegan. Our thoughts immediately were that there is nothing wrong in dairy, we are already vegetarians. So, we did not even take the pamphlet.

Were we true to our values of ahimsa, karuna and jiv daya as vegetarians? We were not yet ready to question our values. That was to come much later. We were too busy building our careers and our lives. Shilpi became a Certified Public Accountant and joined the prestigious big accounting firm, Price Waterhouse Coopers. After having started my first business when I was in high school, I was busy pursuing my entrepreneurial paths.

The opportunity to question the application of our values first came after four years of marriage and the birth of our son, Aarav.  Aarav was just days old, when we realized something was incredibly wrong, our beautiful baby boy was not well. When Shilpi would nurse him, he would soon throw up all the milk, and cry for a long time. He was not gaining weight. Incredibly worried, we consulted with our pediatrician. She suggested that he most likely was not thriving due to the dairy that Shilpi was consuming. The cow’s milk proteins made it through her body and into her milk that Aarav was drinking. Aarav was throwing up and not gaining weight because of dairy. This came as a complete shock to us. Wasn’t milk supposed to be good for us? No one else we knew had any issues with milk, so why Aarav?

Dutifully, Shilpi stopped consuming dairy right away. The pediatrician had said that it is only for a few months, and then Aarav would most likely build up a tolerance and she would be able to consume dairy again. However, the question of “why” plagued Shilpi, and she started to research. She learned that cow’s milk is not good for our bodies, it is designed by nature as the perfect food for a baby cow to grow very quickly into an adult cow. How could that be healthy for humans, let alone human babies? She learned about the horrible atrocities done on a dairy farm. What she related to the most was the fact that a mother cow carries her baby in her womb for 9 months, just like us – however when the baby is born on a dairy farm, it is immediately taken away from the mother. If the baby is a boy, he is killed – often in the most horrific ways. If the baby is a girl, she is raised to take the place of her mother. The mother never sees her babies ever again. We couldn’t even begin to imagine not seeing our baby again. You see, cows in a dairy farm are made pregnant each year, and babies are taken away each and every time, and this cycle goes on for a few years till the mother’s body starts to break down and she cannot produce enough milk for the dairy industry. At that point, she is killed for her meat and skin (leather). Her life of only a few difficult years on the dairy farm is far shorter than that of the natural lifespan that cows live of 25 to 30 years.

Learning these realities, and connecting them to herself as a mother, Shilpi immediately made the decision to make the absence of dairy in her life permanent. She decided to no longer participate in the cruelty of this industry. This was the first time that one of us had questioned the meaning of our values of Ahimsa and Karuna and how they played out in our daily lives. It took me two more years to go vegan and leave dairy. Cheese was my addiction that took the longest to leave. Slowly with Shilpi’s lead, we started to realize just how much we were doing against our own values. After leaving dairy, we left leather, wool, silk, and honey too. We were finally aligning our values to our actions.

How could we help Aarav learn the importance of karuna and ahimsa towards all life as he grows? This seed of a question was slowly growing within us.

After our second son Avi came into our lives, we started to really connect with animals. Shilpi was pregnant with Avi and in a park with Aarav near our home. There, they met a man with a horse. Shilpi talked with him and got his contact for me. You see, I loved riding horses growing up. So, after many years I was excited to go riding again.

In a few months, this led us to adopt the first animal in our lives – a horse. The horse we adopted, Jale (Ha’lay), was neglected by the couple she was previously with. So, in adopting her, we were giving her a better life. I fell in Love with Jale, and for the first time, I saw a horse as an individual and recognized what she liked or didn’t like. Most of the time, Jale did not want to be ridden, she would run away, and I would have to try and trick her to catch her. The act of riding felt like me forcing my will upon her. It was again that I connected our values of Ahimsa and Karuna to our actions. I stopped riding after understanding that Jale’s will is just as important as my own. Now, we wanted to do more to help horses.

Soon after, we rescued another horse, Niblet. He was the same age as our younger son, Avi, and was unwanted. We did not have any land, but we could pay for boarding and hay for horses at a boarding facility. So, this was something we could do to help horses.

After adopting Jale and Niblet, we soon heard about a mare (female horse) and two babies going to slaughter at an auction. We just had to help. I grabbed some cash and drove for an hour to get to the auction. I was not prepared for what I saw there. There were hundreds of farm animals waiting to go to auction. Many of them were just babies. Cows, pigs, goats, horses – all with the same look of fear in their eyes. They were all being brought to the auction floor by any means – pushed, kicked, pulled, or prodded. They were being sold by the pound. I sat there, feeling helpless to do anything for them. I waited 6 hours watching these atrocities with one life after another until the horses I was there to save came to the auction floor. There was fierce bidding for the horses, but I was determined to save their lives from any horrors awaiting them. Finally, after bidding very high, I was able to get them released to me.

On our way to the horse boarding facility, I could do nothing but think of the animals that we could not save. The hundreds of innocent lives lost to unknown atrocities awaiting them. All I could think was ‘if only we had land’, maybe I could have saved some more of them.

Incredibly, the universe answered us the same night. I got a call from a contact asking if I knew anyone who would like to rent 23 acres that were just 2 miles from our home. It felt like God was asking us to do something.

After a long night of discussion between Shilpi and me, we signed the lease the very next day.

On this day in August of 2015, Luvin Arms, our animal sanctuary was born. (www.luvinarms.org)

The question still arose between the both of us “How will we be able to run a sanctuary with two little boys to care for in addition to earning a living”. Still, the real challenge for us in starting the sanctuary was that we knew nothing about taking care of animals or farmland or construction of buildings or fences. How would we do this work at all?

The property was in really horrific condition. We would have a lot of work ahead of us before we could rescue any new animals, let alone move our horses there. Someone was kind enough to post on Facebook about how we needed help to create a home for these animals. That very next Saturday, 35 strangers showed up and stayed the entire day to help us repair and clean the property. We were amazed and overwhelmed by the dedication of these individuals that didn’t know us and were there for one reason “to help animals”. This is when we got the answer to our question of “How?” How indeed? We would be able to run, grow and do this work together and with the community. Hence our tagline became, “Connecting Community through Compassion”.  After the first weekend, these volunteers kept coming each week till we had the property repaired enough to start rescuing some animals, giving them a permanent and loving home at Luvin Arms.

The community and the Sanctuary grew together each day. Shilpi and I were getting a crash course on running a nonprofit, caring for farm animals, building fences and so much more. The first two years both of us were at the sanctuary from sunrise to sunset no matter what the weather – and our boys were helping us hand in hand. Avi was still in diapers, and there were days when we did not have the chance to even change him. One of the days, we had to give him a bath in the horse water tank.

Early on in our animal rescues, we had the opportunity to rescue two pig brothers, Felix and Franklin. They were being raised on an ‘educational ranch’ that raised pigs in the spring and summer and slaughtered them in the fall in front of a paying audience to show them how the pigs’ bodies were used in the 1800s. This year, Felix and Franklin had won the heart of a woman in the area who put a lot of pressure on the ranch and had them released. We gave them a loving home. Franklin became the heart of the sanctuary and anyone who would meet him would instantly fall in love with him. In his eyes you could see that he was a deep and old soul. He was truly special. We had tours of families who would come to visit the sanctuary, and very often when someone met Franklin, they could see just how wrong it was to kill and eat pigs like him. I remember a girl from a school group getting up after meeting Franklin and declaring that She is never going to eat ham or bacon again. This girl showed us the power of helping people connect with our rescued animals. That through education and connection, we could inspire people to adopt a more compassionate lifestyle and leave animal products out.

We learned that by inspiring compassion in one person who stops eating meat, dairy, and eggs, we could spare the lives of over 300 animals each year! This was far more than we could rescue, and the impact of our resources would go much further. It then became the core part of the work of Luvin Arms. Education, and inspiration to help people transition into a pure vegetarian/vegan lifestyle. Thus, sparing the lives of countless animals and making this world a better place.

Our lease at this property was for 2 years. We had to find a way to have a permanent home for our rescued animals and build a sanctuary that can inspire hundreds of thousands to bring ahimsa into their way of life. In October of 2016, we found the perfect property in Erie where Luvin Arms is today. The new property was necessarily larger, we went from 23 acres to 40.  It had a house we could use for educational events and offices, and one 30-year-old barn. Our biggest problem to tackle, we needed and still need new buildings for our rescued animals. From October 2016 till April 2017 we had workdays every weekend to build the barns and every single weekend we had 30-40 volunteers come together to help us build a home for the animals we had rescued. The dedication, love, and hard work of all of the volunteers was immensely valuable and appreciated. We were exhausted each and every day, and we could not have done all the work needed without such incredible support and help. It still brings chills for us to think of how incredibly lucky we are to have such wonderful support from the community. For us, this community that gathered around, became our extended family.

After we moved to the new sanctuary property in April 2017 – we were able to do more education and outreach work besides giving free tours to visitors. We were able to start demonstrating plant-based cooking classes, and nutrition classes that help people transition to becoming pure vegetarian/vegan. Today we have reached out to more than 30,000 people through our education/outreach programs to over 28 countries. During the pandemic that hit in 2020 and continues to affect the lives of everyone, we realized it was more important than ever to spread Ahimsa. We created opportunities through virtual tours and events to introduce and tell the stories of individuals like Tito, our cow who was rescued from a large dairy farm, but is very much like a big puppy, thus inspiring people to see farmed animals differently and expanding their circle of compassion. We have partnered with a school in Kerala, India through which we have been able to virtually connect with hundreds of kids about the sanctuary, the animals’ stories and the values of Ahimsa. We have rescued over 800 lives directly in over 5 years of starting the sanctuary but through our education program we have indirectly been able to spare countless more lives. Spreading the compassion and value of Ahimsa to individuals coming across Luvin Arms and helping them continue to spread that even farther is the way we can save more and more lives of the animals.

Since starting the sanctuary, Shilpi and I have had to do a lot of research to learn and teach ourselves how to run a nonprofit, but also how to care for each individual species and honestly, there was not much compassionate information available. We needed information to be more readily available and accessible and free – not only for us, but for the many people around the world that would want to create or grow a sanctuary for animals. This is how our second nonprofit, Open Sanctuary (www.opensanctuary.org) was born. Open Sanctuary provides compassionate knowledge on how to start, grow and run a sanctuary for animals. In the past three years, Open Sanctuary has received recognition and a following worldwide from thousands of people trying to help animals as a sanctuary or in their own homes.

Today, we continue to work to build this world as a more compassionate place for all.  We currently have 115+ residents and 9 species at Luvin Arms. We give them the highest quality of care using Jain values. We even think deeply about any medicine administered to ensure that it is Ahimsic. We often try to find ways to supplement ayurvedic treatments such as turmeric for arthritis in our pigs.

Each resident is a part of our family. Jale, Belle, Tito, Felix, Alfie, Aria, Milo, Leroy, Marley Rose, Sunshine, Russel, Valentine, and so many others. You must come to visit them here at Luvin Arms.  Aarav and Avi and our community know each individual resident by name. We get to know their likes, dislikes, and what makes them happy. We want to know what they are still frightened of so we can help them work through it. We make sure they have loved ones of their own species to spend the rest of their lives in companionship. We give them the promise of love and life without exploitation.  We promise them the best forever home. Each and every individual deserves that level of compassion.  When Tito the cow gives you a hug, because he loves spending time with you, when he runs and does a little hop because he wants to play ball, it changes you.  When you see Felix, the pig gets so excited for his learning sessions that he opens his own gate because he is too excited to wait for a second longer. You are never the same again. When you see them for who they are, you can’t undo it.  We want every person to know and fall in love with our very large family and feel Ahimsa and Karuna in their heart. We still have much to do, and together with your help, we can do even more. We can save lives by changing hearts.

Please join us. You can donate, share this story, change your diet to completely plant-based, or even do something for the animals where you live. With each of us doing something, we can make a difference.

About Author

Parul Sanghavi

Shaleen & Shilpi Shah

sshah@luvinarms.org

Shaleen and his wife, Shilpi Shah are the founders of Luvin Arms Animal Sanctuary near Denver, Colorado. Spreading the values of Ahimsa, Jiv Daya, and Karuna towards farmed animals, creating a more compassionate community for the animals and our planet. They have created another nonprofit called OpenSanctuary.org that freely publishes resources on how to start, manage and grow an animal sanctuar.

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