When it comes to saving the lives of young calves, no place is too far or task too impossible for Jason Bolalek. He is the passionate Executive Director and operator of Destination Liberation, a Vermont-based rescue service which finds homes for former meat and dairy industry calves at sanctuaries throughout the nation. Since the start of his heroic story just over a year-and-a-half ago, Jason has since saved nearly 40 calves, gained a devoted social media following, and has been the subject of two Dodo videos. He gives all of us more insight into his efforts in taking on the dairy industry and a first-hand look into his experiences as a transport rescuer.
You posted a beautiful quote by Eve Ensler stating that “An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by money or fame, but in fact is driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness, so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.” What was that point of no return for you, when you knew there was no going back but only forward on this path of activism? Where did the story of Jason Bolalek, vegan activist, begin?
I originally did not grow up here in Vermont, I moved out here to a beautiful rural area three and a half years ago to get into the hemp industry. I grew up living in an urban area of Western New York, so back home I never really had friends that were farmers, and I didn’t grow up in a farming community. At the time I was already a vegetarian as a result of activist videos on Instagram, so even at that time I realized the power of social media and activism. Everything began after I’d been in Vermont for a while—when I heard a story from a friend of a friend about what happens to the calves in Vermont. A farmer hitting calves over the head. It was something that just shook me to my core. At the time I heard that a majority of the farmers will immediately shoot the Jersey calves because they don’t weigh enough to send to slaughter, and they aren’t worth raising because it takes too long for them to put on weight. Since it isn’t economical to the farmers, they will shoot them in the head and dispose of them like a waste product. And then there was this story about the farmers who just hit them over the head, and I just thought to myself I want to save a couple—I have to try and save a couple. And that was my original goal, just to save two. When I visited the farmer, the one who my friend told me the story about, I walked into that farm as a vegetarian and walked out as a vegan. That was it— that’s when a switch went off. I didn’t know at the time that I would continue rescuing, that all came later.
“I walked into the farm as a vegetarian and walked out as a vegan.”
This farm that you visited, the one from your friend’s story, had such a profound impact on you. How did visiting the farm influence you and how did that jumpstart Destination Liberation?
Take Organic Valley for example. On their milk cartons they use a picture of a mother and her baby with a cow in the background. Then I see the hypocrisy of it all after going into the farm and seeing how the babies were treated. The farmer that I met with owns a small family farm, it’s organic, and they sell their product to co-op markets. Most of the dairy from the co-op milk, from the co-op farmers—most of the dairy in Vermont is bought by Organic Valley. When I went into the farm, I saw how the females are treated while in process of being separated from their mothers and being transitioned into being the next ‘machines’ basically. They are too young to be impregnated, so they’re just trapped in chains or in hutches. Just seeing them in chains and hearing the clanking of the chains reminded me of how I’ve seen slave ships portrayed. And then I just began putting all the pieces together. It was just so disgusting to me that I, at 42 years old at the time, didn’t know what happens in the dairy industry. There’s something so sick and so wrong with our lack of knowledge about what is really going on. That’s what really drives me, that the public is so unaware. The farmer I met with was actually nice and said he’d have babies soon and would be in contact with me. I ended up rescuing two and taking them down to Virginia, to a sanctuary I connected with on Instagram. I just thought it would be one rescue. Then I came home and got another call from the farmer saying that he had another male. I had recently connected with a lady in Vermont who owns a sanctuary and wanted to adopt a calf, so the wheels just began to turn from there. It wasn’t even my decision. It was a one-day trip to save this little boy. When I went home after saving this little boy and posted the video of the rescue, and I watched what I had shot in the car, it’s just like something clicked again. Like I am supposed to be doing this. Then the video went viral, and it just energized me and took on a life of its own. Since then, sanctuaries as well as farmers reach out—ultimately, it’s like its own ecosystem where I am connected to farmers who don’t want to kill their calves along with sanctuaries and private adopters.
We saw the touching video about your initial rescue, but what we didn’t see is the part of your story before the video. What exactly went into this first rescue of yours? How did you prepare for your first ever rescue, and what was it like picking up calves for the first time?
Preparing for the first rescue was interesting. It was actually a little nerve-racking at the start of the rescue because I didn’t really know what to expect and have never really been around calves. I just got something in my head like this is going to happen and I’m going to make this happen. I already heard that you should try to save two, so they have each other to go through this traumatic experience together. I spoke with Susan from Little Buckets Farm Sanctuary, and we spoke about renting a work van. Unfortunately, they wanted to charge too much for mileage. I thought about a U-Haul van, but still the expenses would’ve been too much to get them all the way to Virginia. So I just came up with this idea that I would rent a car. It was just a small car with a hatch-back, since they are just babies the size of dogs. I thought if I could make the whole area flat for them, line it with a tarp, put hay or straw in there then it would work, and it did. Although I would never use a car again. A small SUV is definitely the way to go! I just had to ensure the coordination with the farmer and the sanctuary, make sure the timing ran smoothly, and make sure Susan had a vet ready for when I got there with the calves. Luckily all went well. One thing I took from my first rescue and continue to carry with me today is that the babies are so peaceful, and they have such a calming presence.
I know you have touched a bit on this already, but since you have the insider’s perspective of what happens behind the closed doors of small dairy farms, what do you wish dairy consumers knew? How might you debunk this “small farm” myth?
Even in the best conditions, even in the nicest, cleanest farms I’ve been to, I notice they are packed in too tightly—their movements are very restricted. And the feces. It doesn’t matter how much they clean because the cows are just eating and pooping machines. You have so many cows, and it’s just [feces] everywhere. It’s just disgusting because even in the cleanest of environments the babies can easily get infections because of this environment that they grow up in—it’s unnatural. You go in [the dairy farm], and there’s just so much cow poop, that you can go in there for ten minutes and your clothes, your hair, even your socks have such an odor that you have to wash your clothes and shower. It’s just on you, but that’s what they live in. I mean, they’re chained to a wall, and some only have a foot to move. And like I said before, they’re babies. They want to run around and want to be with their mothers. I mean I’m sure you’ve seen the birth I filmed where the mother couldn’t even turn around to lick her baby. That’s tough. That’s one of the worst farms I’ve been in, and I’ve taken a lot of calves from that guy. That’s an example of someone who shouldn’t be farming. I mean they don’t have enough acres so the cows go out for an hour or two, they don’t have enough room, and they can’t clean themselves off. That’s one thing I’ve noticed. The cows living at sanctuaries just look clean, and healthy, and happy. They have a healthy coat; whereas the cows on the dairy farms have dirty coats with manure matted on them. That’s the clear difference of what happens on the dairy farms—it’s disgusting. I hear all the time from people “oh I just hate the big food system.” No, there’s no difference.
When you pick up the calves, what are you feeling in those first moments? What are those rides like in your so-called “calf cab,” and what have you learned about these calves’ personalities after spending so much time in the car with them?
Oh for me there’s that initial feeling of adrenaline. For the calves, it’s different for each of them. They do not all react the same, but there is the same thing I can see in all of them—since they haven’t been handled all that much, they just don’t want you to hurt them. It just breaks my heart because they’re initially so apprehensive and unsure of what’s happening and what my intentions are. I usually just go alone and try to do a trip straight through. I think the quicker you get them to where they need to go the better. I don’t want them to have any stress, so I make it cool if it’s hot out or hot if it’s cool. I feed them when it’s time for a feeding, and they were on a schedule before, so they are loud when they are ready. They start yelling at me when it’s time to eat [laughs]. So I stop and bottle feed them, or try. Sometimes they are too anxious from the trip or their new surroundings, you know, being in a car. It’s always a relief when they do eat because when they don’t that means there is some type of stress. They eventually do adjust and relax, just like infants would. Some will let you pet them, and others just want to look around and are curious about their surroundings, and then they all fall asleep. They sleep most of the time. They’re at our mercy, and it’s just heartbreaking. But that’s the thing you know, the thing that drives me. However, there’s nothing like getting them out when we arrive and they will do their little happy dance, their little zoomies, and that’s a fact. They all just want to run. They want to run and play—they’re just like puppies.
“They want to run and play—they’re just like puppies.”
Everyone can’t get enough of the Dodo story about Eli and Marley. How did you coordinate the efforts in saving that infamous duo?
That was a very different rescue because it was so far. I drove a straight shot to Iowa, but I think that [driving to Gainesville, Florida] was the longest haul. Erika at Sisu Refuge already had Marley. I don’t typically like to break up the trip, but Erika had the perfect setup and stall, so he [Eli] wouldn’t have to stay in the car. I picked up Eli from up here, and Erika had a stall set up and ready for Eli. I bottle fed him, put him in his stall, slept for some hours, then headed onto Gainesville with Joanna from the Dodo.
It sounds like you have many generous sanctuaries willing to help you in your efforts in transporting these calves long distances. However, what is the longest trip you’ve single-handedly experienced?
I’ve actually been to Critter Creek before Eli and Marley; first I brought them Eddy and Stone. But I had somebody in Pennsylvania foster these boys a couple of weeks before I could do the trip, so that was broken up. I rode down to Pennsylvania and stayed overnight and then drove from Pennsylvania to Gainesville [Florida] in one shot. From Here With Us Farm Sanctuary to Critter Creek—that might have been my longest trip in one stretch. When I get to 14 hours that’s usually when I want to call it, when I need to recharge. But I did Iowa Farm Sanctuary, and that was 16 hours. I probably could have found a volunteer to do the second leg, but I wanted to do it by myself because I wanted to meet Jared and Shawn [from Iowa Farm Sanctuary]. Also doing the trip independently versus putting the calves with new people and a new environment is better. Ideally, you just want to take them and do it all your own rather than transfer and transfer. But if it’s just too far, and you have a home for them, and you can save their life, then you have to weigh these things out.
What complications do you experience in the planning and execution of delivering this precious cargo?
There’s a lot of last-minute coordination that goes into these things. There’s the farmers wanting them out of there and me wondering when can I leave. I’ve had to wait for some of the babies to be born which is tough because when you have a home for one but want to take two, but you are waiting on the birth because you don’t know whether it’ll be male or female. It used to make me anxious, but now I just realize it’ll work the way it works—that it’ll all work out. Right now I have three calves. I had a farm call me about a boy that was born two days ago, and another farm call about a female and male that was born last week. I don’t even know if I have homes for them yet. I’m already trying to do this rescue. What I would like to do is have a network of drivers, but the problem is homes. I can find drivers that will volunteer to transport these babies, but you can’t continue to fill the sanctuaries forever—you’ll eventually just run out of room. I’ll post today and ask people if there’s any homes, but it’s tough. I have private adopters, too, that reach out to me that want to adopt cows, but then they may not have any experience. Then I have to take time and check them out and make them aware of what the cows need. I would like to have some help and I could do more. It’s a lot. What I have also had to come to terms with is that I can’t save every calf. There isn’t a happy ending for every one of them, and some calves have died. Not with me, but they always die because of digestive problems. Calves are tough on the exterior, but their interior is very vulnerable and susceptible to bacteria and digestive problems, and this is because they should be with their mothers in a natural, healthy environment. People often ask me if I develop a connection, if I’m sad to see them leave. But I’m anxious and nervous for them the whole time—about how healthy they’re going to be until the time they arrive [at the sanctuary]. So, once they arrive, it is such a sigh of relief. Now they’re in their home, and I can always watch them and see them on social media. That’s such a beautiful thing.
What is the most significant piece of the work that you do for Destination Liberation?
The rescues are so important, saving a life is so important. But my friend explained to me what is more important is the message and the story that will reach people. If I spend all of my time on the road, I can’t be editing videos, spreading the word, and getting things out. The big sanctuaries, these places are so big and get so many requests. People always tag these [big farms] in my posts, but what they don’t realize is that these places get so many requests they won’t bother talking to me. But if there’s a story, say there’s a cow on a highway, then that’s publicity. If there’s a good story that they could tell to gain publicity, then it’s going to raise a lot of money for their efforts. The story also spreads the message. That’s the bigger picture, is waking people up. You have to show something that connects them, and I do this through cute animals, because these babies are so cute. That’s the perfect hook to get you hooked in and then show what is happening behind the scenes. Saving lives is important, but the message, the story, is the bigger picture. Take saving Journey for instance, he will live for hopefully 20-25 years, but his story will be told to who knows how many people. He is the story.
We often hear stories about the sanctuaries, but we seldom hear about the transport rescuers. How come your line of animal activism is so unique, or should I say rare?
There’s not a lot of people doing what I’m doing, I think, for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons is because dairy doesn’t typically function like it does in Vermont in other places. A lot of farmers from other places around the country won’t surrender their calves—they want money for them. Because they have bigger operations where they sell them to veal farms. I’ve tried with other farms in New York, and they won’t even talk to me. It’s just unique as far as Vermont because, like I said, if they don’t weigh around 75 pounds at birth, they can’t slaughter them. Then they have to decide whether it’s worth raising them. It’s not worth it because a lot of Jersey herds have a unique cream that you can get out of them, and the Jerseys are very small. They weigh 30-40 pounds and take weeks and weeks to gain weight, and [farmers] just don’t have time to bother with a few calves. They just focus on milk production and give them away. Also, many animal farms in Vermont are unaware of animal activists and will let me into their farms.
Where do you see Destination Liberation taking you going forward?
When you look at people who are passionate about things, they have to be crazy about them, almost obsessed about them, and that’s how I feel about this. It clearly is my calling, this work. I don’t know where it’s going or what’s next, but it’s definitely going somewhere. I am thinking about shooting a pilot to pitch for a docuseries. I think it would be great to tell the story of these people who run sanctuaries. There’s a story there about people who give their lives and dedicate their lives to saving animals. What great subjects they would be because they could tell the stories of the characters that they have—they could personalize the animals. There’s also so many stories to tell from the generational farmers that I’ve met. I deal with three generations of the farm. I deal with the grandfather who is the farmer, I deal with the mother who just texted me yesterday to save babies, and the granddaughter who sees what I am doing, loves what I do, and follows me on Instagram. I even think that she’s vegetarian, and maybe she can be the change in breaking that chain. Ultimately, my idea, for the grand finale for a docuseries or documentary, would be to interview people at these sanctuaries, and with one of the calves I saved I hope to reunite them with their mother. I would like to take a mother who is spent, and the farmer surrenders her to me rather than sending her to slaughter, and I would bring her to her baby. I think that’s what people want to see—a mother reunited with her baby. I think people could really relate to that, especially mothers, because we are robbing them of their babies and exploiting their reproductive rights. I believe people could connect with that.
“I think that’s what people want to see—a mother reunited with her baby.”
Assisting in the liberation of farmed animals is no rudimentary or inexpensive undertaking. How do you get all of your funding for the supplies required for taking care of the animals that you save?
Social media is the greatest tool I have. My following supports me in just this amazing way. Every rescue I post ‘emergency here we go,’ and bam! They help donate. I do think I’m in a unique position where sanctuaries aren’t. My friends, plenty of sanctuaries, want to raise money, but maintenance is boring—it’s not sexy. They need hay, they need feed, they need to put up a new barn, they need to put a roof on the shed. It just doesn’t get people as motivated to donate as seeing cute faces behind bars or tied to a wall, you know. That’s totally different. When I’m in this emergency situation people do go into their pockets to help in a remarkable way.
Any final words of advice that you would like to give your followers or people who feel the urge get involved?
People who are interested in spreading the word or would like to donate, support small sanctuaries. They need our support. Even if people can’t donate, then like, post, share on social media. Some people think five dollars a month won’t help, but if you join someone’s Patreon, five dollars a month does help. No donation is too small.
“support small sanctuaries. They need our support.”