Interview by Anna Mackiewicz.

Images copyright Isa Leshko. These images appear in Allowed To Grow Old published by University of Chicago Press in April 2019.


Isa Leshko is an American photographer and writer whose first book, ‘Allowed to Grow Old’ was published in April 2019. The book, compiled of images taken over nearly a decade, examines the themes of animal rights, aging, and mortality through portraits of elderly rescued farmed animals who have been given the unlikely chance to grow old. We spoke to her about her experiences photographing elderly animals, and what they have to teach us about the value of life.

How were you drawn to this subject matter, and what are you trying to communicate with the series?

I began this series shortly after caring for my mom, who had Alzheimer’s disease. The experience had a profound effect on me and forced me to confront my own mortality. I am terrified of growing old, and I started photographing geriatric animals in order to take an unflinching look at this fear.

Plate 3. Abe, an Alpine goat, age 21, was surrendered to a sanctuary after his guardian entered an assisted living facility.

As I met rescued farm animals and heard their stories, though, my motivation for creating this work changed. I became a passionate advocate for these animals, and I wanted to use my images to speak on their behalf. It seemed selfish to photograph rescued animals for any other reason.

From that point on, I approached these images as portraits, and I endeavored to reveal something unique about each animal I photographed. I want viewers of these images to recognize that these animals are sentient beings who think and feel and have distinct personalities.

Plate 2. Blue, an Australian Kelpie rescue dog, was a companion for 21 years.

I continued to focus on elderly farmed animals because 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. By depicting the beauty and dignity of elderly farm animals, I invite reflection upon what is lost when these animals are not allowed to grow old.

How did you determine whether a farmed animal was old enough for your project?

I struggled with this question. On today’s factory farms, animals are bred to reach slaughter weight

at a younger age than ever before. What constitutes slaughter weight also has increased significantly over the past ninety years. In 1925, chickens raised and exploited for meat (commonly referred to as “broilers”) lived for approximately 112 days before they were slaughtered. Chickens at that age weighed around 2.5 pounds, which means it took them an average of 44.8 days to gain each pound. Fast forward to 2017: broiler chickens are now slaughtered at only 47 days old, at which point they weigh 6.18 pounds. That’s a growth rate of nearly a pound per week.

Rescued farm animals often grapple with health problems related to their breeding and early confinement. When factory farm animals are young, their weight gain often outpaces their bone development. Their still-growing bones have difficulty supporting their obese bodies. At the time of their rescue, many farm animals are lame due to broken bones, skeletal deformities, or torn ligaments.

Plates 11. Ash, a Broad Breasted White turkey, age 8. Ash was a factory farm survivor.

Once they are rescued, they receive excellent medical care and frequently make miraculous recoveries. But, often, these animals have arthritis and other orthopedic problems that plague them throughout their lives. Other common health problems include pulmonary hypertension, heart disease, and various cancers. For this project, I focused on animals who were either elderly or who had aged prematurely due to the trauma they had endured early in their lives.

You took the photographs for the book during visits to various farmed animal sanctuaries around the United States. Can you describe this experience?

I feel a sense of peace when I visit these sanctuaries that I experience nowhere else. There is a sign at the entrance to Pasado’s Safe Haven sanctuary in Sultan, WA that reads, “Sweet creatures who pass this way once scared and alone…Now you are safe; now you are home.” I cried the first time I saw it.

Plate 1. This rooster, age unknown, was a factory farm survivor.

At these sanctuaries, animals are given ample space to roam freely and indulge their natural behaviors. Chickens spend their days outdoors basking in the sun and taking dust baths. Their living conditions are vastly different from those of industry chickens who are densely packed in poorly ventilated, windowless sheds. On commercial farms, sows are so tightly confined that they can’t even turn around. At sanctuaries, pigs explore large pastures and soak in wallows. They sleep curled up together on fresh hay, often snoring loudly.

You’ve had some special connections with animals along the way. In your book, you talk about your encounter with Valentino. Can you tell us about it?

Photographing Valentino was a life-altering experience. I had been a vegetarian for fifteen years and thought that I consumed a humanely produced diet. I purchased organic dairy products that came from grass-fed cows who were not given bovine growth hormones. But I had never contemplated what happens to cows after they no longer produce milk; nor did I consider the fate of male calves in the dairy industry. Then I met Valentino, a dairy industry survivor whose life would have been brief and miserable had he not been rescued. Because male calves do not produce milk, they hold little value for dairy farmers. Some are reared for breeding purposes, but millions each year are sold to beef or veal producers. Sickly calves are killed or hurled onto “dead piles,” where they are left to die. This would have been Valentino’s fate had he not been surrendered to a nearby SPCA.

I met Valentino when he was 19 years old, and he was the longest living Holstein that Farm Sanctuary had ever cared for. While photographing him, I wondered how many cows were denied old age because I enjoyed cream in my coffee and butter in my mashed potatoes. After I finished, I hugged him and spent time petting his soft cheek. He licked me, and his tongue had the same sandpapery texture as my cats’ tongues. In that moment, I knew I could no longer consume dairy products. Upon returning home, whenever I was tempted by the sight of a buttery croissant or the sharp aroma of Pecorino Romano, I conjured memories of my afternoon with Valentino and recalled his story. Nine years later, I no longer yearn for dairy products, but I still miss my friend’s presence whenever I visit Farm Sanctuary.

You say that people have had strong emotional reactions to your images. Why do you think presenting these stories is so powerful for people?

My images often remind people of a beloved elderly companion animal or parent they have lost or are currently caring for. Many people come up to me and share their caregiving stories with me, and their grief is often still raw. When this happens, I share my own experiences of loving and caring for my parents and my cats in their decline. I also talk about farmed animals I still mourn, and stories about the close bonds that sanctuary workers form with the animals in their care. I think it’s important to share these stories because they present to people a new way of relating to farmed animals that does not involve exploitation and violence.  

Plate 38. Sierra, a White Holland turkey, age 3, was rescued as a young poult from a commercial hatchery that supplies turkeys to factory farms.

How do you think the way we understand animals is changing? 

Our understanding of animals is definitely improving, especially among scientists. From the early twentieth century through to the 1990s, animal behaviorists rejected the idea that animals were capable of thought or emotion. They posited that all animal behavior was the result of hard-wired reflexes or learned associations between positive or negative stimuli. Over the last three decades, this theory has been challenged by research in the fields of evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology, zoology, and neuroscience. Although some behaviorists still resist attributing “human-like” mental processes to nonhuman animals, the prevailing scientific view is that all vertebrates and many invertebrates (e.g., cephalopods such as squids and octopuses) are sentient beings that have emotions and cognitive capabilities we are just beginning to grasp. 

Plate 31. Handsome One, a Thoroughbred horse, age 33, was surrendered to a sanctuary when he retired from racing.

That said, we are living in an era in which empathy is in increasingly short supply as xenophobia and nationalism continues to spread throughout Europe and America. Across the world political policies are increasingly designed to maximize cruelty toward minority populations, especially immigrants.

This same callousness is also directed toward non-human animals. It’s true that in recent years there have been some legislative victories for non-human animals in America, such as the successful Yes on 12 campaign in California, which has increased protections for farmed animals from extreme confinement. But there have been many devastating developments, especially regarding the weakening of protections for wildlife and recent evidence that the USDA is failing to report violations of animal welfare laws at puppy mills, research labs and zoos. Also troubling, the Trump administration has proposed a new rule that will cut the number of federal inspectors at pig slaughterhouses by 40 per cent and instead shift oversight to plant employees. Under the new rule there also will be no limit on slaughter-line speeds. This is absolutely gut-wrenching. 

Would it be correct to say that you see animal rights as deeply connected to broader rights issues, and the current political environment?

I’ve spent the last several months thinking about the connections between speciesism, racism and sexism in light of what has been unfolding in America. President Trump has called his political enemies “dogs on several occasions and routinely uses dehumanizing language to refer to undocumented immigrants and refugees. He has gone as far as referring to immigration as an “infestation”. There is even an article on the White House web site describing members of the MS-13 gang as “violent animals.” This likening of humans to animals both dehumanizes people, and reinforces the idea that animals are inferior to humans. History has shown us that governments apply dehumanizing language towards a minority as a precursor to committing atrocities against them.

Plate 34. Violet, a potbellied pig, age 12
Born with her rear legs partially paralyzed, Violet was surrendered to a sanctuary because her guardian could not properly care for her special needs.

I have yet to address what has been happening in America through my art. But I have little doubt that my anger and fear over the last several years will find its way into my artwork.

What’s next for you? Will you keep working on animal stories?

For my next long-term project, I intend to look at life at the opposite end of the spectrum by photographing farmed animals at their birth. Sanctuary animals are either sterilized or segregated by sex to prevent pregnancies, so births at sanctuaries typically occur with recently rescued pregnant animals. Many of these births are at-risk due to the abuse, stress and poor nutrition that their mothers endured prior to their rescue.

Like with old animals, the line between life and death is razor thin in newborns. Stillbirths are not uncommon in farmed animals, and even healthy babies are vulnerable and frail. The first 24 hours of an animal’s life are critical ones. By taking portraits of animals at birth, I intend to explore the beauty, pain, and fragility of life in its earliest stages. In addition, I want to document the interactions between newborns and their mothers during their first few weeks together. Just as it is rare for farmed animals to reach old age, infant farmed animals seldom remain with their mothers. On factory farms, animal pregnancies are only a means of production; motherhood never enters into the equation. By depicting the strong instinctual bonds between a mother and her babies, I want to encourage people to consider the painful implications of denying farmed animals these fundamental relationships.

As a spin-off project, I want to return to create portraits of each animal when they reach the average slaughter age for their species to illustrate that they are still just babies. Juxtaposing these portraits with my elderly farmed animal portraits will be especially powerful.

Leshko author photo, credit Ron Cowie

Interview by Anna Mackiewicz.

Images copyright Isa Leshko. These images appear in Allowed To Grow Old published by University of Chicago Press in April 2019.

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