My grandmother turned 86 in June, and, since then, she has been having some health and memory problems. It’s been sad and frustrating to watch her in this state––for me, for my grandfather, for my mother, and, of course, for her. She has been to dozens of doctors, she has been back and forth to the emergency room, she has tried out different medications, but nothing seems to quite fix what is going on––because what is going on is simply that she is getting old, and this upsets all of us, but it especially upsets her.
“There’s so much to live for,” she said the other day at lunch. “I have so much left to do.” She does. There is my wedding next June, the publication of my book the spring after that, a great-grandchild in the years following. There are so many things that she wants to be here for, that I want her here for, and it makes her angry that no doctor can give her a guarantee. “Even if they can fix the pain,” she said the other day, “I’m still going to get old and die, huh.”
In her darkest moments, when my grandmother feels the worst, and not like herself at all––not like the woman who used to play on a tennis team twice a week, who walked miles to and from work in high heels, who was a champion bowler, whom I’ve seen in a black and white photograph wearing a billowing white shirt over a bathing suit while playing softball at the beach with friends––my grandmother will plead, “Couldn’t I have just had a heart attack in my sleep?” Aging, for so many of us, is painful, scary, and hard. To grow old––and sick and weak and dependent on others––is a burden. Some of us may wish never to make it to old age. “If I get like that, just shoot me,” many say. In some ways, I agree. Getting old is depressing and demeaning. Getting old is not for sissies. Getting old is a bummer.
Getting old isn’t just hard for people, but for animals, too. Ask anyone who has loved a pet what it was like to watch their dog, cat, parrot, hamster slow down, turn gray, eat less, become listless. It’s heartbreaking when your fourteen-year-old terrier is too weak to get off the sofa, when she has no interest in chasing a tennis ball anymore, when she doesn’t even want to eat a piece of chicken cooked especially for her.
Getting old is hard, yes, but many never even get the chance. “Roughly fifty billion land animals are factory farmed globally each year,” writes photographer Isa Leshko in the introduction of her book Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries, published in April 2019 by University of Chicago Press. “It is nothing short of a miracle to be in the presence of a farm animal who has managed to reach old age. Most of their kin die before they are six months old.” Many people, most people, I would argue, view farm animals as a commodity––something to breed more animals, something to create consumable products, something to eat. But as Gene Baur, one of the co-founders of Farm Sanctuary, puts it: farm animals are “someone, not something.” Baur continues, in his essay at the end of Allowed to Grow Old: “Pigs, cows, chickens, and other animals are treated like inanimate tools of production and live in misery from their first day on earth until they meet their bloody end at the slaughterhouse. While it’s hard to grasp the enormity of billions of animals—trillions if you include fish—who are exploited and killed for food every year, we need to remember that each is an individual, and each experiences his or her own life in a very real and personal way.”
Leshko set out to make portraits of the elderly residents of farm sanctuaries to remind us that the animals we rely on for food and dairy and leather and wool are more than just a commodity, but that they are individuals deserving of care and respect and honor. Leshko’s photographs are also a reminder that all that any being wants––human or animal––is to live as long as they possibly can. It’s wired into our biology. “I was with him when he died, and up to the last second, he was fighting for one last moment of this beautiful life,” Sy Montgomery writes about her dying father in the forward for Allowed to Grow Old. And what a beautiful life these elderly farm animals have. Leshko visited farm sanctuaries around the United States, and she worked to photograph her subjects on their terms––in their fields, barns, the places where they are most at ease. She didn’t use artificial light or backdrops or even a tripod, and she often returned many times to visit an animal to gain their trust before photographing them. In short: Leshko treated these aging farm animals with the same respect and care she would give to an elderly human subject.
Staring into the rich black and whites of Leshko’s images––made with a Hasselblad 503 CW medium format camera––it is easy to forget you are gazing into the eyes of an animal you may have had for dinner the night before. As Anne Wilkes Tucker puts it in her essay at the end of Allowed to Grow Old, “Each one stares directly at the camera, but with lethargic tolerance, not the energetic curiosity of a younger animal.” I have felt that lethargic tolerance before––the expression of Melvin the elderly Angora goat isn’t that different from the look on my 85-year-old grandfather’s face when I try to explain what a “meme” is. Leshko photographed her subjects at eye level, and each animal––whether it is a chicken or turkey, a goat or sheep, a cow or horse––gazes deeply into the lens. “Animals, like people, can grow wise with age. They become finished and complete,” writes Montgomery.
To become “finished and complete” is a beautiful way to describe arriving at old age. Thinking about aging in this way forces one to not only embrace old age, or tolerate it, but to welcome it. But in order to welcome old age, you have to get there first, and that doesn’t just happen, especially not for farm animals. For a turkey hen to live to age eight or a cow to live to age twenty, someone has to give the animal the medical care, the food, the water, the shelter, and the companionship needed to survive that long. “When sanctuary animals get sick, they are given constant care,” explains Leshko in her introduction. “Staff members routinely sleep next to the animals during particularly difficult nights. Each animal is regularly assessed in terms of her quality of life. When euthanasia is considered the most humane course of action, it is performed while the animal is surrounded by her closest human and animal companions.” The residents of farm sanctuaries are given exactly the kind of end each of us can only hope for––a good, comfortable death, after a long, full, happy life.
But the animals in Leshko’s photographs are not the norm when it comes to farm animals. “Farm sanctuaries can only rescue a tiny fraction of the billions of animals who deserve reprieve,” writes Baur. The animals in Leshko’s book were lucky. “All of [these animals] survived to old age because someone understood that these creatures love their lives as we love our own,” writes Montgomery.
How easy it is to forget that all creatures love their lives as we love our own. Because, of course, it’s not just farm animals who are not allowed the privilege of old age. Plenty of other animals have their lives cut short all the time––rats and mice and anyone else considered a “pest,” all the insects flying into our car windshields, all the birds flying into our windows, majestic moose and lions and other big game creatures murdered for the sake of sport. Animals overworked in zoos, circuses, and Hollywood, animals that have experiments done on them in the name of research, hundreds of thousands of animals that have had their environments destroyed and altered through forest fires, urban construction, pollution, and climate change. Sea turtles swallowing plastic bags, monarchs with nowhere to migrate to in South America, and polar bears stranded on ice islands. It’s not just the farm animals that we eat; none of these animals are allowed to grow old either.
But people, too, are regularly denied the privilege of growing into old age. Without fair and proper access to good healthcare, clean water, nutritious food, unpolluted air, without safety from violence and war, without the support of mental health services and medications, without cures for unusual and fast-moving types of cancer, people regularly die well before their time. As I studied Leshko’s photo of the sweet, sleeping face of Ash the Broad Breasted White turkey hen, and read about how Ash had escaped a brutal life and early death on a factory farm, I couldn’t help but think of humans trying to escape similar dire circumstances––people trying to flee violence and drug cartels and poverty and hunger, and being rounded up and stuffed into cages like so many factory farmed birds. “These frustrated, immobilized animals suffer physical and psychological distress, and clank against the bars of their enclosures, desperately seeking release,” writes Baur of factory farm animals, though he may as well be describing migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border.
So many people––so many children––not allowed to grow old because they have been denied food and water, healthcare and safety. Kids are shot to death by assault rifles in schools, babies are torn from breastfeeding mothers at the border, children are sold into human trafficking. Reading Leshko’s book made me think more deeply about all the ways that individuals are denied the right to live their life through to the end, and it seems a miracle at all that anyone––human or animal––is allowed to grow old. It seems a miracle that anyone makes it out of childhood. More than 50% of baby osprey don’t live through their first year of life. It seems shocking that humans are doing any better than that. Reading Allowed to Grow Old made me realize just what a miracle is to get to see your life all the way through, to its maximum capacity.
But it is so easy to forget this, or to never know this––if you’ve never lost a favorite aunt to bile duct cancer at age forty-nine or a brilliant student to suicide at age fifteen, if you’ve never had to look poverty and disease in the eye, if you’ve never watched fire eat up the Amazon, if you’ve never seen the inside of a factory farm. In a relatively safe and cushy life like mine, it’s easy to think that being allowed to grow old is simply the norm for everyone. (Naturally, the humans who do make it to their 80s and 90s and 100s are the ones with access to medical care and the money to pay for it.) And that not only is it the norm, but that old age is something to be dreaded and feared and denied and avoided and sworn off at all costs. Something that enough money can cure. Something that a doctor has a magic pill to stop. But old age can actually be something quite beautiful and special, and something that not all of us get to experience.
“Spending time with elderly farm animals has reminded me that old age is a luxury, not a curse. I will never stop being afraid of what the future has in store for me,” writes Leshko, who watched her own mother suffer through a long battle with Alzheimer’s at the end of her life, and who fears developing Alzheimer’s herself eventually. “But I want to face my eventual decline with the same stoicism and grace that the animals in these photographs have shown.”
Baur describes Farm Sanctuary as a place where animals are “allowed to live out their lives in peace.” “Nothing is expected of these animals,” says Leshko of the inhabitants of the sanctuaries she visited––they are not expected to perform for or interact with visitors, their bodies are not used to create any products, they are simply allowed to “relish the times we would simply lie beside one another in the green grass, bathing in the sunshine, the scents of the barnyard and orchard, and the glow of each other’s affection,” as Sy Montgomery put it, describing her beloved, then-elderly, now-deceased pet pig, Christopher Hogwood. To bath in sunshine, to lie in the green grass, to simply do nothing––that is the gift of old age. I am reminded of the last lines of Max Ritvo’s “Poem to My Litter” about the mice used in experiments to test out different cures for Ritvo’s cancer, the mice Ritvo all calls “Max” after himself: “And if a whole lot / of nothing happens to you, Maxes, that’s peace. / Which is what we want. Trust me.” (Ritvo was not allowed to grow old; he died in 2016 at age 25.) Having nothing to happen to you, being allowed that peace at the very end of your life––that really is a privilege. As Montgomery writes of how Christopher Hogwood enjoyed his final days: “The company of a friend. The warmth of the sun. A sip of cool water. It’s not just enough; it’s glorious. It’s all that really matters, and it’s all that ever mattered.”
In my family, there was never any question that my 86-year-old grandmother would not be allowed to live for as long as possible, to have the best possible care, to feel comfortable and happy and as good as she can until the last days of her life. That was a given. That was assumed. But, for so many, humans and animals alike, it is not, and Isa Leshko’s photos stare into that truth with an unwavering eye.
E.B. Bartels holds an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and her essays have appeared in Catapult, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Toast, and The Butter, among others. E.B.’s book, GOOD GRIEF: ON LOVING PETS, HERE AND HEREAFTER, about the ways we mourn and remember the animals we love after they die, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in spring 2021.