Allowed to grow old

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Isa Leshko’s touching portraits of elderly animals

When Isa Leshko met Petey, a 34-year-old Appaloosa horse with cataracts, stiff movements and a gentle demeanour, she was captivated. She rushed for her camera and spent hours photographing him. She wasn’t sure what drew her to him so strongly, but when Isa reviewed the negatives, she realised she might have found a way to catharsis.

Isa had cared for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. This experience affected her profoundly. She realised that photographing elderly animals could help her to examine her grief and confront her deep fear of ageing and mortality.

black and white image of aged pig in a bar filled with hay
Violet, a pot-bellied pig, age 12

Winslow Farm

In the autumn of 2008, Isa made several trips to Winslow Farm, a sanctuary in Norton, Massachusetts. She photographed senior residents, including two severely arthritic Finnsheep named Isaiah and Zebulon who found comfort napping together. She thought about how ever-present animal-derived products are in our society but how unseen farmed animals are. Determined to learn more about them, she decided to visit other farm animal sanctuaries across America. The focus of her project changed, and she went on to passionately advocate for animals through powerful portraits, recently published in her book, Allowed to Grow Old.

Isa wanted to “reveal the unique personality of each animal”. She knew this wouldn’t be possible if she entered their homes unexpectedly and started snapping photos. Most of us would certainly be alarmed if that happened to us and unlikely to look our best on camera. These animals needed to be relaxed - comfortable in her presence and in their own space. This was especially important for animals who had been abused and who might be uneasy around strangers. Isa approached them on their own terms. She used the minimum of equipment and spent countless hours unobtrusively waiting for them to accept her presence.

Inspired by grief

Isa befriended animals who touched her deeply including Melvin, an Angora goat. Melvin suffered terrible neglect in his past, but he was still relentlessly cheeky. He pawed at Isa – demanding to be petted – and chewed her hair. Isa says, “Many of our photo sessions were not terribly productive, but at least we had fun.” She was struck by the affection of animals who “Had every reason to fear humans, yet they had come to trust, and even love, their caregivers.”

The bonds Isa forged inevitably came with a price. Many died within months or even days of her photographing them. Having also suffered painful personal losses during this period Isa says, “Grief inspired this work, and it has been my constant companion as I have worked on this book.”

black and white photograph of head shot of aged blind goat
Abe, an Alpine goat, age 21


The individuals Isa met during this project were in a tiny minority of farmed animals because, unlike most, they had lived to old age. Globally, roughly fifty billion land animals are factory farmed every year. Most are not allowed to see their first birthdays, let alone allowed to grow old. Isa had been a vegetarian for most of her adult life, but she decided to go vegan after she met Valentino, a Holstein cow and survivor of the dairy industry. Male calves don’t produce milk, so they are considered worthless and killed. This would have been Valentino’s fate had he not been surrendered to a sanctuary. Isa describes photographing him as a ‘life-altering experience’.

The short, miserable lives of animals exploited for meat, dairy and eggs are in stark contrast to the lives of their counterparts in sanctuaries. Here they can carry out their natural behaviours and express themselves as individuals. Pigs soak in wallows and chickens bask in sunshine. They form lifelong bonds with friends and nap to their hearts’ content. They are cared for while they live. They are mourned when they die.  As Isa says, “Nothing is expected from them.”

It must be noted that the farm refugees in her book had not always this fortunate. Most of them suffered severe neglect, abuse, physical and psychological trauma. Many animals in sanctuaries need expert care for the rest of their lives, especially in old age. The stories of these survivors are all different. Some escaped from trucks on the way to slaughter, some were abandoned after farmers couldn’t afford to feed them and some were rescued from “Backyard butcher operations that got out of control.”  What they all have in common is that they found safety, love and respect – despite the incredible odds.

black and white photograph of aged horse wearing a head collar on a lead
Handsome One, a Thoroughbread hourse, age 33

Louder than words

Isa's raw, intimate portraits reveal testaments to dignity, courage and endurance. She is determined that these animals not be looked on with pity. They are remarkable survivors with something to say. Isa gives them the chance to speak to us loudly and clearly. She hopes her book “Invites reflection upon what is lost when these animals are butchered in their youth.” What makes this book unique is that their portraits, frozen in time and silence, convey this message more powerfully than words ever could.

By Kristin Heggeli

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