Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

In August 2018, I received an email from a staff member at the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary, a refuge for farm animals in New York’s Hudson Valley, proposing that I write about Jenny Brown, the co-founder and former executive director. The staff member wrote:

I can no longer remain silent about what working at this organization was like working under this horrid individual. This person was abusive, and not just to me but to many who worked under them. I personally experienced not only bullying and sexual harassment, like many others, but I also endured attacks based in homophobia.

I’d written a lot about workplace conditions and #metoo in the animal rights movement, but I passed on the idea. About a year later, it came to my attention that Brown, her husband and co-founder Doug Abel and their allies had gone on the offensive against the current management of Woodstock. In a bizarre twist, Brown, Abel and Peter Nussbaum, the founder of a farm sanctuary in New Jersey called the Tamerlaine Sanctuary and Preserve, were accusing Woodstock of colluding with disgruntled former employees of Tamerlaine to try to shut down Tamerlaine. As it happens, I’d been told about the conflicts at Tamerlaine in 2018 but again chose not to investigate. This time, my curiosity was piqued.

Today, I published a story about Woodstock and Jenny Brown on Medium. [MG UPDATE: I have taken this story down after repeated requests from Jenny Brown and her husband, Doug Abel, because they told me it was preventing Brown from resuming her work on behalf of animals.] It reports that Brown “verbally abused, threatened, humiliated and intimidated people,” citing interviews with more than a dozen current and former staff members and board members, as well as internal Woodstock documents and emails. 

Brown left Woodstock in 2016. So you may wonder: Why did I write the story?

First, I wanted to set the record straight. Brown and her allies have cast her as the victim, saying she was unconscionably forced out by the sanctuary. It wasn’t that simple.

Second, I want to make the point once again that boards of nonprofits need to take their oversight responsibilities seriously. So much hurt could have been prevented–and scandals could have been avoided–if boards did their jobs. This was true at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, at ZeroDivide, at the Marguerite Casey Foundation, at the Humane Society of the US and elsewhere.

Finally, I’ve come to believe that the exploitation of farm animals by industrial agriculture is one of the great moral issues of our time. Most people who consume meat, eggs and milk do not want to think about the unnecessary suffering of cows, pigs and chickens to which they are contributing. Only a strong animal rights movement can change that. Poor governance, weak boards and a lack of attention to organizational development are “in large part what has led to many of the problems in the movement,” says Krista Hiddema, an animal rights activist and expert on boards who is quoted in my story.

None of this is simple. Brown, it appears, was struggling with serious emotional issues; she had bone cancer as a child and part of her leg was amputated. The Woodstock board was made up mostly of her friends. Ethan Ciment, the current board president, said it took courage for the directors work through their feelings about Brown and Abel and to “prioritize the needs of the sanctuary, our employees, and the hundreds of animals in our care,” as they eventually did.

6 thoughts on “A sanctuary for farm animals could be hellish for people

  1. Kate says:

    It appears the story was deleted on Medium. I watched a video about the Tamerlaine aspect of all this, and it seems pretty compelling, with a lot of evidence in their favor. Curious if you had seen any of the emails and other docs before the article. Any updates?

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      No updates. Yes, I have followed the Tamerlaine story. I took down the Medium story after a year at the request of Jenny Brown and her husband, Doug Abel, but they told me it was damaging to her efforts to resume work on behalf of animals. In a spirit of forgiveness, I decided that was the right thing to do, even though the story was accurate and fair.

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      1. Jeri Devereaux says:

        I wish you hadn’t taken down the story. It’s important and relevant and Brown and Abel’s behavior are the norm at other sanctuaries like Rowdy Girl Sanctuary in Texas. I’d love to follow up with you personally as well about one area of your Medium article that I read around Brown’s supposed “retirement” and her current activities or lack thereof. I appreciate what you did in the spirit of forgiveness but I believe there are larger issues here that have yet to be addressed in the sanctuary/nonprofit world. I hope you reach out, Marc.

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      2. Marc Gunther says:

        You can find me a marc dot gunther at gmail. Thanks.

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  2. Jody Riesberg says:

    I am aways saddened by rescues or sanctuaries not focusing on the task at hand, just loving the animals and giving them the PEACE, they deserve!

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  3. tomwprice says:

    Great, vital work as always Marc.

    >

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