Climate Change Is Driving Animal Sanctuaries To Relocate

Climate Change Is Driving Animal Sanctuaries To Relocate

About 18 months ago, Catskill Animal Sanctuary in Saugerties, N.Y., rescued 42 neglected and ailing sheep. Many were anemic and had foot rot, a contagious bacterial disease that can be life-threatening if left untreated in wet environments.

For the animals to recover, they should be in a clean and dry place, said Kathy Stevens, the 150-acre sanctuary’s founder and executive director. But the sheep and their new caretakers faced a rapidly developing problem: soggy pastures and flooding barn stalls.

Increased rainfall, among the weather distortions caused by climate change, has finally forced the sanctuary to search for a new home, a predicament shared by a growing number of animal refuges across the United States.

“It is absolutely untenable to stay here and to wait until a true disaster strikes,” said Ms. Stevens, who fears that the regular flooding the sanctuary has been experiencing could soon become dangerous.

Climate change has resulted in warmer and wetter weather across New York, where annual precipitation jumped 10 to 20 percent over the past century, according to a state report. The study projects that the largest precipitation increases in coming years will be in New York City, the Catskill Mountains region and the Lower Hudson Valley.

At the Catskill sanctuary, flooding and constant dampness have resulted in soil erosion and a loss of trees. Animals’ hoofs often sink into saturated ground while members of the sanctuary’s staff undertake flood mitigation efforts, installing culvert pipes and curtain drains, among other tactics, to no avail.

Ms. Stevens and the sanctuary’s board of directors have watched the changes accelerate over the past few years. Now, they are looking for elevated land with better drainage within a 30-mile radius of their present location.

As it seeks higher ground, the Catskill refuge joins a several other sanctuaries around the country that have moved because of climate change. A few fled wildfires and drought conditions in western states; others on the Gulf Coast have had to contend with hurricanes.

The exact number of relocations is hard to pinpoint. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an accrediting agency, does not track the reasons for such moves. But the nonprofit group did report an increase in sanctuaries strengthening their disaster preparedness plans from 2022 to 2023, said Valerie Taylor, the executive director.

“Sanctuaries which did not previously have to worry about wildfires, severe flooding or extreme heat and cold are now faced with these new challenges,” Ms. Taylor said. Last year, about a third of all sanctuaries seeking accreditation reinforced their disaster plans, a 4 percent increase from the previous year, according to the federation. (Some 186 animal refuges in the United States are accredited by the group.)

After entering Catskill Animal Sanctuary, which is about 110 miles north of New York City, the road dips into a bucolic valley and leads to a main farmhouse with stables and pastures around it. Animals like Buddy, a geriatric, blind horse and Mario, a 600-pound pig with a foot injury, roam free among chickens, ducks and cows saved from abuse or slaughter.

It is an idyllic scene. But on closer inspection, visitors might notice the tree stumps and exposed rock caused by erosion or feel their shoes sink into waterlogged fields.

“Basically that property is in a bowl,” said Jake Wedemeyer, the executive director of the Ulster County Soil and Water Conservation District, a government agency that advises farmers on agricultural practices.

Another problem, Mr. Wedemeyer said, is that the valley’s clay soil retains water and drains poorly. He added that the surrounding area had not experienced a deep enough frost for about five years. When moisture in the soil freezes, it expands, breaking up the compaction caused by humans and livestock, and improving drainage.

Ms. Stevens remembers when she first bought the Catskill property in 2002. “We only had a small number of animals, it was August, the grass was lush,” she said. “I didn’t ask about soil composition.”

Changes were gradual, she said, going from dry summers to a few years where the property’s pond remained full to about three years ago, when extreme rainfall became more common.

This year, much of the Northeast recorded one of the warmest and wettest Januarys on record, said Art DeGaetano, the director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University.

“I think what you’re seeing is just the broader impacts of climate change,” Dr. DeGaetano said.

Several animal sanctuaries fleeing drought conditions out west have been willing to take a gamble on New York’s wetter weather, though they are moving to corners of the state that will be potentially less affected by climate change.

Sweet Farm, an animal sanctuary that also grows produce and supports climate-related technology, moved 140 animals from Silicon Valley in California to New York’s Finger Lakes region in 2022 after a close call with a wildfire.

“This region had been identified as the most stable on climate prediction maps,” said Nate Salpeter, who runs Sweet Farm with his wife, Anna Sweet.

The area, about 75 miles south of Lake Ontario and a few hours’ drive from the Canadian border, gets extreme rain like much of New York, but it also has a moderate microclimate because of its deep bodies of water, which are slow to cool in winter and slow to heat up in summer. Additionally, the terrain around the lakes often slopes toward the water, which is ideal for drainage.

About 60 miles south of Sweet Farm, in New York’s Southern Tier, is Happy Compromise Farm + Sanctuary, which moved from Oregon in 2021.

Trading drought concerns in the Northwest for New York’s extreme rainfall presents its own set of challenges, the owners said. But it was a trade they were willing to make.

“We do have to deal with an overabundance of water here in New York,” said Eryn Leavens, a founder of Happy Compromise. “But climate change affects every corner of the planet, and you really have to pick and choose your battles.”

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