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Emotional portraits of rescued farm animals show what they look like when they're allowed to grow old

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

By Micaela Garber, INSIDER

  • Photographer Isa Leshko spent nearly a decade traveling to sanctuaries to capture emotional portraits of elderly animals for her book, "Allowed to Grow Old."
  • Leshko set out to capture the unique personality of each farm animal or elderly companion she photographed, many of which had suffered horrific abuse or neglect prior to being rescued.
  • Below are just some of the animals Leshko met during her time working on the project.

Photographer Isa Leshko spent nearly a decade visiting sanctuaries and capturing images of elderly farm animals that have been rescued from grim situations for her book, "Allowed to Grow Old."

As a native of an industrial town in New Jersey, Leshko stepped out of her comfort zone to embrace farm life, spending anywhere from hours to days photographing just one animal.

Keep scrolling to see Leshko's powerful animal portraits and to learn the inspiration behind them.


Photographer Isa Leshko spent nearly a decade visiting animal sanctuaries, where she captured images of geriatric farm animals like Forest, a 16-year-old sheep, for a book titled "Allowed to Grow Old."

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

Leshko pointed out that there is a network of sanctuaries dedicated to the rehabilitation and housing of aging animals that have been rescued from grim situations.

Forest roamed free with a herd on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California before being rescued from planned extermination after the National Park Service deemed them a "nuisance."


She began the project shortly after caring for her mother who had Alzheimer's disease.

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

"The experience had a profound effect on me and forced me to confront my own mortality. I am terrified of growing old, and I started photographing geriatric animals in order to take an unflinching look at this fear," she explained.

Although this project helped her face the fears of aging, Leshko also became an advocate for the animals like Ash after hearing their stories. The 8-year-old Broad Breasted White turkey was a factory farm survivor.


Her hope was to capture the unique personality of each animal she photographed, like this 21-year-old Alpine goat named Abe.

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

Most of the animals Leshko photographed had suffered horrific abuse or neglect prior to being rescued. But at the sanctuaries, they are cared for as individuals with personalities and emotions.

Some of the animals were surrendered to sanctuaries because their guardians could no longer care for them. Abe, a 21-year-old Alpine goat, was sent to a sanctuary after his owner entered an assisted living facility.


As part of her series, Leshko also photographed elderly dogs, such as Blue, an Australian Kelpie rescue that acted as a companion for 21 years.

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

By featuring both farm animals and elderly dogs, Leshko hoped to raise the question of why we pamper some animals and slaughter others.

"After a few sanctuary visits, I could no longer see a difference between the farm animals I met and the dogs and cats I have known," she explains in her book.


Leshko approached each photograph as a portrait and took pictures of the animals in their own environment for their comfort.

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

Zebulon and Isaiah, two 12-year-old Finnsheep with severe arthritis, were the first animals she photographed during a visit to Winslow Farm. The pair were rescued as part of a cruelty investigation. They had been kept in a small cage for the first eight months of their lives and developed severe arthritis as a result of their early confinement.

"I walked toward them cautiously, not sure what would happen. They seemed calm so I inched forward. Again, they did not stir. I dropped to the ground so I could gaze into their eyes directly while photographing them. It seemed natural to take this approach, so I employed it for the remainder of the project," the photographer explained.


She also kept her equipment to a bare minimum so as not to frighten the animals.

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

Leshko chose only to work with available light, a decision that proved challenging when it came to photographing in dimly lit barns.

But not all of the animals were frightened. Leshko says Melvin, an 11-year-old Angora goat, was one of the most affectionate animals she photographed, despite spending the first six years of his life tied to a tire in a barren yard without shelter from the elements.


Many times, Leshko spent hours lying on the ground next to an animal before taking its photo.

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

"Rescued farm animals are often wary of strangers, and it can take several days to develop a comfortable rapport with the animals I photograph," she said.

She came to care deeply for animals, like a potbellied pig named Violet, after spending days capturing their portraits. Born with her rear legs partially paralyzed, this 12-year-old pig was surrendered to a sanctuary because her guardian could not properly care for her special needs.


Given the amount of time she spent with each animal, Leshko says the portraits were "emotionally difficult" to create.

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

"I have cried while photographing the animals, particularly after learning about the horrific traumas they endured prior to being rescued," she said.

Buddy, a 28-year-old Appaloosa horse, was surrendered to a sanctuary because his guardians could not properly care for him after he lost his sight. Buddy suffered from debilitating panic attacks as well as iritis, a painful condition that resulted in the removal of his eyes.


As someone raised in an industrial town in New Jersey, Leshko was also forced to step out of her comfort zone in order to adapt to country life.

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

She went from not even knowing how to unlatch a farm gate to spending hours lying in chicken scat, covered in mites.

"By the end of a day spent in a barnyard, I am filthy, sweaty, and sometimes covered in mites. My muscles and joints ache from contorting my body to remain at eye-level with the animals I photograph. I feel every bit as old as the animals I met that day," Leshko explained.

But through her experience, the photographer said she "adjusted to farm life and learned to see farm animals as individuals." Phyllis, a 13-year-old Southdown sheep, was farmed for wool for the first eight years of her life prior to being surrendered to a sanctuary.


The animals also taught her that "aging is a luxury, not a curse."

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

"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 said. "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."

Murphy, a Jack Russell Terrier who is more than 16 years old, was adopted as a senior dog from a high-kill shelter. He had an untreated dental disease so severe that all his teeth needed to be extracted. The infection had spread to his jaw and caused his tongue to permanently hang out of his mouth.


And "Allowed to Grow Old" has been met with an overwhelming emotional response.

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

When asked how people react when they see photos such as this one of Babs, a 24-year-old donkey who was used for roping practice, Leshko said that "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 said.


But Leshko ultimately hopes that the people who read her book will stop to consider what is lost when animals like Teresa, a 13-year-old pig who was rescued en route to the slaughterhouse, are not allowed to grow old.

© Copyright Isa Leshko/"Allowed to Grow Old," University of Chicago Press 2019

You can purchase a copy of "Allowed to Grow Old" here.

If you're interested in viewing Leshko's work, you can attend her solo show at the ClampArt gallery in New York City between October 2 and November 16.

On October 24, a major show of her work will also be opening at the Griffin Museum of Photography in the Boston suburbs (Winchester, Massachusetts), and will run through December 6.

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