When photographer Isa Leshko first met a 34-year-old spotted horse named Petey, there was something about the arthritic, kind Appaloosa that captivated her. His eyes were clouded with cataracts, his coat was dull and coarse, and he moved stiffly as he followed her around the pasture.
Mesmerized by the gentle animal, Leshko ran inside to grab her camera.
"I wasn't sure why I was so drawn to him, but I kept taking pictures. It had been a long time since I felt this kind of excitement while holding a camera," Leshko says.
Leshko and her sister had been caring for her father, who had successfully fought stage 4 oral cancer, and her mother, who was dealing with advanced Alzheimer's disease.
"When I reviewed my negatives from my afternoon with Petey, I realized I had stumbled upon a way to examine my grief and fear stemming from Mom's illness, and I knew I had to find other elderly animals to photograph," Leshko says. "I wasn't thinking about embarking on a long-term project. I was seeking catharsis."
More than a decade later, that encounter with Petey has resulted in Leshko's haunting book, "Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries" (University of Chicago Press, 2019). The work features images of horses, cows, chickens, goats, pigs and other farm animals that have been rescued and are living their final days in safety.
"The experience had a profound effect on me and forced me to confront my own mortality," Leshko says. "I am terrified of growing old, and I started photographing geriatric animals in order to take an unflinching look at this fear. 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."
'The lucky ones'
The animals Leskko photographed were living in animal sanctuaries all over the country. Some had been abandoned during storms or other natural disasters. Others were rescued from hoarders or backyard farming operations. Some were found wandering the streets after they escaped on the way to the slaughterhouse. A rare few were pets whose people couldn't care for them anymore.
"Nearly all of the farm animals I met for this project endured horrific abuse and neglect prior to their rescue. Yet it is a massive understatement to say that they are the lucky ones," Leshko says. And as Melissa observed over on Treehugger, "The thing is, we don't have the opportunity to meet a lot of old animals."
"Roughly 50 billion land animals are factory farmed globally each year. 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 6 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."
The images were often emotionally difficult for Leshko to take.
"I have cried while photographing animals, particularly after learning about the horrific traumas they endured prior to being rescued," she says. "Sometimes an animal would remind me of my mother, which was also painful."
In the book's introduction, Leshko describes encountering a blind turkey who she says resembles her mother after she became catatonic:
"One of the animals I met for this project was a blind turkey named Gandalf who lived at Pasado's Safe Haven in Sultan, Washington. Because he was blind, his eyes often had a blank quality to them. It was an unseasonably muggy day when I first met him, and Gandalf — like most turkeys — cooled down by breathing with his beak open," she writes.
"His empty gaze coupled with his gaping mouth transported me to my mother's bedside during her final months, when she was catatonic. I fled Gandalf’s enclosure in tears after spending mere moments with him. It took a few more visits before I was finally able to see Gandalf and not my mother when I gazed at him through my viewfinder. I was struck by the bird's gentle and dignified nature, and I focused on these attributes while photographing him."
Leshko's kind and stately portraits often have quite the impact on the people who see them.
"Many people cry. I have received hundreds of deeply personal emails from people around the world, sharing with me their grief over a dying parent or an ailing beloved pet," she says.
"At exhibition openings, I routinely receive hugs from total strangers who tearfully share their stories of loss. I am deeply touched that my work has affected people on such an emotional level. I am grateful for the outpouring of love and support that I have received for this work. But sometimes these encounters have been painful as well, particularly when they happened while I was mourning my parents' deaths."
The images have been therapeutic for Leshko as well.
"Spending time with farm animals who have defied all odds to reach old age has reminded me that aging is a luxury, not a curse," Leshko says. "I will never stop being afraid of what the future has in store for me. But I want to face my eventual decline with the same stoicism and grace that the animals in these photographs have shown."
'Unflinching in detail'
When photographing her elderly subjects, Leshko says she wanted them to be "unflinching in detail" but not cold or cruel. She photographed most of the animals while lying on the ground at their level in a barn or pasture to make them feel the most comfortable.
"Humans are self-conscious about their age and appearance in ways that animals are not," she says. "This is one of the reasons why I had not photographed my mom during her declining years. Prior her illness, my mother was very concerned about her appearance and took pains to look her best before going out in public."
Animals have different reasons to hide signs of aging.
"Some animals do disguise signs of illness or camouflage themselves to avoid being easy prey. Many species alter their physical appearance to attract mates. But that does not mean that animals are self-conscious about their appearance in the same manner that humans are," she says. "Nonetheless, when editing my images for this project, I carefully considered whether the images I selected were respectful to the animals I had photographed."
Although she brightened their eyes to increase detail, she did little to change what she photographed.
"Many of the animals I met had lost many teeth and drooled a lot. I wrestled with whether to include drool in my images or to edit it out in Photoshop or choose an entirely different image. I decided to include it in my images because I did not want to impose anthropocentric norms on these animals. I wanted to respect the fact that my subjects are non-human animals and are not humans in fur and feathers."
'Testaments to survival and endurance'
Most of the animals who appear in Leshko's book died within six months to a year after she photographed them. In a few instances, an animal died the day after she met them.
"These deaths are not surprising given the nature of this project, but they have been painful nonetheless," she says.
Since she started the project, both her parents passed away, she lost two pet cats to cancer and a close friend died after a fall.
"Grief initially inspired this work, and it has been my constant companion as I have worked on this book," says Leshko, who instead of being disheartened by her experience, has found a reason to be uplifted. "I prefer to think of them as testaments to survival and endurance."