When Elena Tova rescued a sick pig on a whim nearly 15 years ago, she had never heard of the concept of an animal sanctuary. “Sanctuaries didn’t exist in Spain. The word didn’t exist,” she says, explaining she’d only ever heard “santuario” used in a religious context.
Tova found the young pig, whom she later named Benito, at a farm on the outskirts of Madrid she’d been touring as a place to build a shelter for rescued cats and dogs. All of the farm’s pigs had been sent to slaughter the day before, except Benito, because he had an infection and wasn’t fit for human consumption. The owners were about to kill him. Tova convinced them to give the pig to her instead.
She searched for shelters to take Benito in. None existed. “We realized we couldn’t take him anywhere, so this was the beginning of the sanctuary,” Tova says. Fundación El Hogar, founded in 2007, became the first sanctuary for farmed animals in Spain.
Tova continued to rescue cats and dogs, but people also started bringing her roosters and hens, sheep and pigs. Many people who were working with her left, telling her that rescuing livestock was a waste of money. “It wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted to keep rescuing cats and dogs,” she says. “For me, every animal has the right to be rescued.”
Four years later, another sanctuary opened, and then more after that. Now, there are between 30 and 40 sanctuaries throughout Spain, Tova estimates, providing forever homes to abandoned or surrendered farmed animals such as Benito and aided by enthusiastic social media followings.
Grassroots efforts such as Tova’s are changing how people think about how animals bred for human use are treated, says Valerie Taylor, executive director of the U.S.-based Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), which accredits nonprofit sanctuaries around the world that adhere to ethical practices, including bans on breeding and on the commercial trade of animals.
“There's been a huge shift in animal sheltering altogether, and it’s refreshing to see this being extended to [farmed] species whose suffering is intentionally hidden from public view.”
Millions farmed—how Spain stacks up
Spain is one of the leading pork producers in the world. In 2019, 53 million pigs were slaughtered for meat in the country. Animal welfare advocates criticize common industry practices such as the prolonged use of gestation crates that confine pigs to tight spaces and the premature separation of babies from mothers. One 2020 undercover investigation by Tras Los Muros, an investigative photography project, of 30 pig farms in Spain documented numerous pigs with severe, untreated infections.
Spain is also a top rabbit meat producer, with 48 million rabbits slaughtered in 2016. Here too, activists have documented inhumane treatment. A 2014 undercover investigation of 72 rabbit farms by a Spanish animal rights group Animal Equality documented rabbits live rabbits thrown in waste bins, rabbits in cages with untreated wounds, and cannibalism among rabbits in tight confinement. (Read more about groups working to rescue galgos, Spanish hunting dogs.)
Animal welfare nonprofit Would Animal Protection, which evaluates the animal welfare laws of every country, grades Spain a D (on an A through G scale) on its protection of farmed animals, citing the continued use of confining stalls and not requiring animals be stunned before slaughter, among other concerns. (France, Italy, the UK, and Germany also earned a D, and the U.S. earned an E.)
Lucho Galan, spokesperson at Interporc, a trade group that represents the Spanish pig farming industry, says by email that “Spain is a world benchmark in animal welfare” and that Interporc strongly encourages farmers to provide an optimal quality of life for animals.
“For their part, these so-called sanctuaries seem to us a legitimate option, but the same respect that farmers give [the sanctuaries] is what we expect from them for our activity,” he says. Many in the rescue community tout the importance of developing good relationships with farmers, to facilitate rescues and keep an open dialog about treatment of animals.
“Sanctuaries are the only opportunity that we ever get to see these kinds of animals in a different environment—the only way we can learn about and truly connect with these animals outside the [farming] industry,” says Abigail Geer, founder of Mino Valley Farm Animal Sanctuary in Galicia, a rural area in northwestern Spain.
Geer, originally from the U.K., founded the sanctuary with her husband in 2012. It was the first in the Galicia region. It began spontaneously: The Geers had mentioned to friends that they hoped to start a sanctuary one day, and someone brought them a female sheep, unable to walk, who had been abandoned on a mountainside. Nestled on 50 acres of meadows and woods, the sanctuary is now home to more than 300 animals, mostly rescued from the agricultural industry.
Many animals at both Mino Valley and El Hogar have special needs. Because laws prohibit sick animals from entering the food supply, they—along with disabled and injured animals—are often found abandoned or are surrendered, Geer says.
Almost every sanctuary animal has a harrowing origin story. There’s River, a pig found next to a riverbank with four broken legs. A bicyclist noticed him and contacted El Hogar. Now River is healed and thriving. Mino Valley is home to 16 rabbits that were left to die in a barn fire on a meat farm in 2019. Now they live in spacious, hay-filled quarters.
Hurdles and hope
For every animal rescued, there are thousands who die alone. “Those things live with you and haunt you,” says Geer, who has struggled with insomnia, guilt, and depression. But over time, she says she’s become better at managing these feelings. “It doesn’t mean I’m not grieving when animals die, but it’s definitely evolved. It has to, to keep doing this without getting completely burnt out.”
“People in sanctuaries are very strong but also very sensitive,” says Tova. “There are lots of ups and downs and in the long run, after many years, not everybody can take it.” She and other sanctuary owners say that it’s the animals at the sanctuary—whom they all refer to as their family—that give them strength.
Those in the rescue community share a universal language and creed. Most sanctuary owners are vegan, and they tend to refer to animals as someones and avoid using pronouns like it when the sex of an animal is unknown. Ismael Lopez started Fundación Santuario Gaia outside of Barcelona in 2012. He says he’s noticed the beginnings of a shift in how people in Spain think about animals. “People are evolving faster than politics,” he says.
Those changes are reflected on social media and are translating into tangible benefits. Gaia is now home to 1,500 animals and has over a million followers on Facebook. “Without social media, this growth would not be possible,” Lopez says.
El Hogar and Mino Valley also have dedicated followings on Instagram and Facebook, from Spain and all over the world. The sanctuaries share rescue stories in real time, raising money for individual cases. Others have monthly membership options through websites like Patreon. All of the sanctuaries rely on donations from the public.
While changes are happening at the grassroots level, sanctuary owners say they still face structural hurdles. If a truck full of pigs crashes on the way to a slaughterhouse, for example, it’s illegal to rescue the animals without the owner’s permission.
“They’re not victims—they are property,” Tova says, explaining that owners are able to apply for insurance money for animals that die in a road accident. Because of regulations on animal transportation and health, rescuing animals also requires paperwork and government approval, which can often take up to two weeks, says Lopez—time that a sick or injured animal may not have.
Even finding good veterinary care for sanctuary animals can be a challenge, Greer, Tova, and Lopez say. They often take in animals who need significant medical care. But for veterinarians, especially in rural, agricultural areas, Geer says, it’s often “the first time they’re ever seeing these things in these animals and the first time people have ever asked for help with this stuff.”
But in recent years, veterinary students increasingly have started to embed at sanctuaries. Santuario Gaia has hosted several veterinary students for months at a time, Lopez says.
The true power of farm sanctuaries “lies in the connections they can foster between humans and individual animals,” says Taylor of GFAS, especially when people can follow a rescued animal’s evolution.
Laro, a 20-month-old cow, had been kept tethered by to a short chain in a shed in Cantabria, in northern Spain. Left standing in his own feces, he was only able to lie down and stand up; he’d never been able to walk around. Angela Gómez, who lived locally, had heard him crying out when he was a few months old, and for over a year, she went to visit him every week, touching him through a slat in the barn. His owner planned to keep him until he was three years old, and then slaughter him for meat, she says.
Gómez eventually persuaded the farmer to surrender Laro last August, when he was 14 months old. Mino Valley posted about his case on Instagram and raised 1,100 euros in one day to cover his transport across the country to the sanctuary.
Videos from the past seven months show his new life, starting with his first wobbly steps after arriving at Mino Valley. “He was so scared to even walk,” Geer says. Another video documents him staring up at rustling leaves. Another, his first snowfall.
This week, the sanctuary posted a video of him running, jumping, and doing spins through the forest.
“Sometimes,” Geer says, “I honestly just cry looking at them, from happiness.”