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Solutions that act at the source of the problem: livestock farming

While scientific studies on the environmental impact of agriculture are piling up and the question of animal welfare is taking more and more space in social debates, many people are trying to find ways to cohabit with animals. It is the case for Virginia Markus who created an animal sanctuary in Switzerland and helps farmers in their career change.

"My daily life is that of an average farmer who gets up early to take care of the animals, clean the spaces, run errands, take care of the logistics, accounting and administration of a place like this" explains Virginia Markus, founder and president of Association Co&xister.

Although the young woman initially worked as a social educator, she always lived surrounded by animals. It was at the age of 24 that she began to campaign publicly and assert her opinions through her books, conferences and even investigations on farms and in slaughterhouses. Then in 2019 when she created her animal sanctuary in the Swiss countryside, her life took a real turn.

The sanctuary welcomes around forty livestock animals - cows, pigs or sheep which were intended for the slaughterhouse - throughout the year. “These animals arrive at the sanctuary and do not leave, contrary to what happens in shelters. Except in rare cases where I feel that the animals would be better off elsewhere and, thus, I take the necessary steps to find a place that suits them better” she explains. Hence one of the association's missions is to allow animals to experience a dignified life without ever going to a slaughterhouse.

The association also aims to train people who wish to create a sanctuary. “People immerse themselves on site and learn what it means to create places like this and what their daily life is like” adds Virginia Markus.

Since 2021, the organization has also supported farmers in their retraining. "Even if I often talk about farmers, I prefer to use the term breeders because it includes several profiles. For example, I have helped an owner of a riding school who bred horses. She decided to change her career because there is a lot of mistreatment towards animals in the equestrian world. I could also accompany a butcher or a laboratory worker if these scenarios came up" she describes.

"This is a very specific mission that requires a solid range of resources. With Co&xister, the goal is to go further than simply welcoming animals. It is about finding solutions that act at the source of the problem: livestock farming" explains the young woman.

If the president of Co&xister is supporting three farmers at the moment, she is in discussions with around ten of them at the same time. In fact, these career change can be done in three months or in three years depending on the situation and circumstances. "We have around ten people who are still thinking about it. This scenario often happens when a person wants to change but their partner does not want to. Consequently, for several months or even years change is impossible. It cannot take place because one of the two is slowing down the process” she adds. Since 2021, six farmers have completely switch careers, the others are in progress. And this subject is increasingly concerning farmers. "Since this year, I have also been working in France. I have just met a first farmer who wishes to change. It is very satisfying to see that the subject of animal welfare goes beyond borders” she emphasizes.

But how exactly do these farmers change years of practice?

According to Virginia Markus, it is not always the change in career itself that motivates those who come to Co&xister. "The common thing among all the people who contacted me is that all of a sudden, they feel incapable of sending one of their animals to the slaughterhouse. And the fact of not being able to do it for an animal, pushes them to ask questions about their work more generally. Very often, these people contact me first to place their animal in the sanctuary, rather than to change career. And then, when they see this individual living in a sanctuary, changing character and flourishing, it makes them want to offer the same end to others. All of a sudden, the exploitation of the rest of their animals becomes a problem” says the president.

The association supports farmers according to their needs. Each case being unique, Virginia Markus does not recommend a strict method but listens to those she helps. "The retraining of farmers is an important part of my work and there is nothing more concrete than seeing change happen before my eyes. It's an incredible feeling to see that we are saving animals in the short term and also in the long term. For example, in the case of a farmer that I am supporting at the moment and who has a farm with 300 animals, how many animals will we save over the period of his career? These are hundreds, even thousands of individuals” she explains.

In addition, since 2023, the organization has collaborated with other associations in France and Belgium. And if this delights the young woman, she also fears not being able to keep up. "For the future of the association, I hope to be able to train people, particularly in France, to help me with professional retraining for the farmers. The difficulty is finding people who have field experience in the agricultural sector - because I believe that we have to be credible when helping the farmers - but also who have skills in social work because we do a lot of psychological and emotional work with these people" she says.

She also hopes to open a sanctuary in France one day: "it would allow me to have two feet on the ground and to make the work easier." While waiting for her future projects to come to fruition, Virginia Markus is very proud of her association which connects worlds that seem conflicting. She has also just published her third book What animals whisper in which she shares the lessons that Maya the cow, Ondée the sow or even Tawaki the horse gave her and where she gives them a main position.

“I am always very moved to live with the animals on a daily basis, to see them happy, fulfilled and, confident. And the story behind each animal is very touching. Seeing how their stories move the people who come to the sanctuary, it’s a magnificent observation” she concludes.


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