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Quirky Compassion
Nellie McKay Sings Out for Farm Animals
By Sharon Nichols |

March 2005, Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills, California

Photograph by Amy T. Zielinski

It's an extraordinary night at the 19th Annual Genesis Awards. Bill Maher and Ed Asner are there, along with Stockard Channing, James Cromwell, Tippi Hedren, Linda Blair, Carl Reiner, Alicia Silverstone, and many other TV and film stars. A young musical newcomer, still reeling from media accolades (Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and even the Onion), steps up to receive the Doris Day Music Award. Her performance is a sassy cabaret number, and she amuses the audience with "The Dog Song" at her piano. Perhaps you've heard of this year's winner, an up-and-coming performer named Nellie McKay.

    The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites,or women created for men. —Alice Walker

Aired annually in the spring on Animal Planet, Genesis addresses animal abuse issues, feeding gritty new information to clueless consumers with a spoonful of sugar (a.k.a. glittery Hollywood entertainment). The shocking cruelties of factory farming were a popular topic this year, and McKay (pronounced Mc-EYE) is no stranger to the facts. But she realizes that dipping a toe into the cesspool of animal agriculture could throw a wrench into her soaring career. She doesn't seem to care. I was fortunate to receive a call from McKay recently in the few spare moments she had during a world tour. Though the topics were grim, she was chipper, sweet, and hopeful.

"I really believe in reducing suffering wherever you find it," she began. "With the animals, you've got a lot. You want to fight to put through legislation that will protect them. Focus on things that are winnable and have a broader sense of purpose, such as cage size for factory-farmed chickens. Or [abolishing] foie gras farms or fur. I've been going to foie gras protests here in New York City, an individual campaign against a certain restaurant. But going public with the animals puts you in a more vulnerable position. I know Susan Sarandon has lost work because of her involvement with the antiwar movement."

McKay was born in London in 1984 and moved to New York City two years later. Her awareness of animal welfare began early, as the child of vegetarian parents. Today, she's vegan (no meat, dairy, or eggs). She started playing piano at age 10, moving on to saxophone, cello, percussion, recorder, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibes, and synth. While attending the Manhattan School of Music, she did some standup comedy in Greenwich Village's gay bars for exposure. An irreverent performance attended by a journalist from Time Out New York quickly led to a bidding war by several major record labels, including Virgin and Blue Note. She signed with Columbia/Sony and produced a unique double album debut (the first woman to do so), Get Away From Me, the title being a play on Norah Jones's Come Away With Me. She's been compared to a motley selection of artists—Ethel Merman, Missy Elliot, Monty Python, Ella Fitzgerald, Eminem, and the Zappa clan. Whether she's doing rap, jazz, jive, country, rock, reggae, or cabaret, McKay's delivery is clever, witty, dramatic, political, and downright pithy. Her performances often involve McKay costumed as a 1950s Hollywood starlet. But beneath it all, this imaginative smarty-pants with enormous potential has just as much heart. She intends to use her celebrity to instigate social change. Her next stop—Woodstock.

    The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. —Mohandas Gandhi

The cruel reality of what happens to cows, chickens, pigs, and other farm animals (nearly 19,000 per minute in the US) before they reach the dinner plate is immensely disturbing. Many consumers are unaware, still believing the family farms of "Little House on the Prairie" to be an accurate depiction of current affairs. (How many people realize that a piece of milk chocolate is connected to the horrific veal industry?) Many others do have information but are too squeamish to learn more or simply don't care enough to take a personal stand against the system.

One local woman, Kentucky-born Jenny Brown, left an impressive career in television after documenting animal abuse in factory farms for PETA and Farm Sanctuary. What she saw reminded her of Auschwitz, leaving her forever scarred but empowered to dedicate her life to assisting sentient creatures who suffer from the moment they are born. Today, she and her activist/film editor husband, Doug Abel, are building their dream—the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, or WFAS. Their shelter, which opens to the public next year, provides care, rehabilitates, and provides sanctuary for abused and discarded farm animals. They hope to educate the public about the conditions in which food production animals live out their short lives, and the devastating impact that modern agribusiness has on the environment, our health, and world hunger. They'll provide an atmosphere in which anyone can come to meet these animals; they also plan an outdoor sculpture garden, yoga classes, farm tours, speakers, and perhaps vegan cooking and nutrition classes.

Speaking with Brown was just as delightful as with McKay. "We're getting our tractor today!" she squeals with exuberance. She then laughs at herself. "Never in my life did I ever think I'd be so excited about a tractor. We are really psyched. We actually bought it on eBay." Brown launches joyfully into a discussion about the upcoming benefit concert with Nellie McKay to raise money for WFAS.

"Nellie did an article for Satya magazine, an interview with a friend of mine. She said she'd done some animal-rights work and showed interest in doing more by the way of benefit concerts, but she just hadn't been asked. A lot of people didn't know it was such a big thing in her life. So we immediately jumped on it. Dan Piraro, who is on our board of directors and does the [King Features Syndicate] cartoon 'Bizarro,' used his semicelebrity status to get in touch with her. He's well known in the animal-rights movement."

WFAS has had one benefit in Manhattan, and their first one in Woodstock will be Saturday, August 27, at Colony Cafe; tickets are $25. (There will also be a "meet-the-animals" event at WFAS from 11am to 4pm before the concert.) Brown and Abel hope to increase awareness of the farm's existence and also raise money to fund a barn. They haven't done much community outreach yet, as they don't wish to be flooded with visitors before the farm is ready. When they bought the 23 acres in the hamlet of Willow just over a year ago, there wasn't a shed, fence post, or even a stick of wood in sight, but they've already begun animal rescues for their newly built structures—12 enormous pigs, three veal farm steer, and many chickens. They've also fostered lambs and turkeys and formed a friendly network with Catskill Animal Sanctuary and Farm Sanctuary. All help at WFAS is strictly volunteer.

    I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights.
    That is the way of a whole human being. —Abraham Lincoln

"We want people to come face to face with the animals they only know as dinner," says Brown. "I think it's really important to not be so disconnected from what is such a major part of the American diet. These animals suffer no differently from our companion animals, such as cats and dogs. It's important for people to have that personal experience where they can see that pigs will frolic, and cows will lick and nudge and want affection and attention just as your dog would. People need to understand that these animals have emotional lives. But they still choose the disconnect, they don't want to hear about it. I gotta say, it's the same thing as turning a blind eye to a starving child, or a child suffering with AIDS. No matter what it is, it's suffering. It sickens me and says a lot about our society."

Brown is elated to have landed a big name like Nellie McKay to help draw awareness to the animal sanctuary. McKay says she's looking forward to it and plans on performing with a band, doing much of the music from the album, a few standards, and some songs relating to animal rights. Dan Piraro ( will open the show with standup comedy from his "Traveling Bologna Show"; all his proceeds will go to WFAS. Brown also predicts another surprise opening act, but is reluctant to make it public until it's locked down.

For more information on the WFAS benefit, the farm sanctuary, or to volunteer, donate or sponsor an animal, contact Jenny Brown or Doug Abel at (845) 679-5955, or The benefit featuring Nellie McKay and Dan Piraro will be held on Saturday, August 27 at the Colony Cafe in Woodstock. Tickets are $25 and available through

A PETA investigation has revealed grotesque abuses to animals in laboratories at Columbia University, including subjecting baboons to invasive surgeries and leaving them to suffer and die in their cages without any painkillers. Red-hot recording artist Nellie McKay has a lot on her mind, and she's not afraid to share—whether she's singing about the death of her cat or Columbia University's primate prisoners

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