What eating meat means

Rowdy Girl is a ranch named after a favorite cow by a unique lady, former Texas cattle rancher Renee King-Sonnen, who with her husband Tommy Sonnen, has gone vegan. Their Texas ranch now no longer sells livestock off to be slaughtered and instead has been made a refuge for animals, including cattle, horses, chickens and goats, which they treat like pets, or even family members. More than that, Renee does outreach, raises money for others to follow, and to convert their farms, using them to house rescued animals in the transition stage. A big chicken farm that used to raise 35,000 chickens in factory, concentration camp-like conditions, is being converted to raise mushrooms. Renee has created the Rancher Advocacy Program to help out with the expenses of these conversions.

This engaging little documentary film will draw you in with the warmth of its approach, the personalities of the animals, whom we learn to see as akin to people, and the dynamic personality and twangy accent of Renee. She is up front about everything: this is how she can be a model for others and set a template for herself. She freely acknowledges that she is in recovery: she was addicted to alcohol for years, addiction being a common way of numbing oneself to doing what one can't really condone. She also acknowledges that becoming a vegan and rejecting their previous life was a slow and painful process. She and others she talks to acknowledge the PTSD they feel from the horrors they have seen in a system that involved factory farm cruelty leading to wholesale slaughter. Renee sees herself as not only rescuing animals but rescuing ranchers.

I'd just eaten a sausage dinner when I started watching Rowdy Girl, and already a few minutues in I came to regret that. This is a movie that really makes you think. For thousands of years man has raised animals to eat them. If that isn't healthy for us or for the planet we should stop doing it. None of this comes off as preachy because it's Renee talking, not to the camera but to other farmers who are enthusiastic about what she represents and are following in that direction as Renee is visibly loving and affectionate toward the animals we see her and Tommy live so comfortably along with.

A lot of the time is involved with those conversations. But the heart of the little film is seeing the animals up close, photographed as they are treated by their handlers, with the same loving care that goes to the humans. Rowdy Girl is the first cow that opened Renee’s eyes to a sense of animals as sentient beings. She sings to cows - and they like it. A memorable moment is the arrival of a calf with a rancher who recounts staying up all night with him after he was born, seeming nearly lifeless. Good luck trying not to see him as adorable as he and Renee do. Various farm fowl come and go, like independent-minded pets, looking colorful and sleek. Another moment to dwell on is when Renee calls to horses across a wide open space and two of them appear and come running, and she greets and pets and talks to them.

This isn't going toward the recommendation of keeping farm animals as suburban pets. What it's about is recognizing that raising them to be killed and eaten is animal cruelty, pure and simple, and that there are ways to reverse the practice. Renee says when we eat a chicken or a steak we have "hired a hitman" to do it, a wizard behind the curtain whom we just don't happen to see. There are many other cruel practices leading up to slaughter of animals: horrendous overcrowding, the constant separation of baby chicks and baby calves from their mothers right after birth to be raised en masse. But when you think about it, when you eat your free range eggs or chickens or beef, spread your free range butter or drink your free range organic milk, animals were raised in nice conditions only to cruelly exploit them at the end. There's no "nice" way to raise animals for our food. Renee and friends who've gone a similar way talk about how being vegan is "connecting the dots." She connects those further, and says it leads to rejecting other cruel ways of thinking we've been raised to -particularly, rejecting racism.

I'm having trouble with the egg and dairy part. They form a central element of my present diet, and they seem safe from the cannibalistic image of eating meat. But they're part of the animal-exploitation system nonetheless, I guess.

All this isn't raised by Rowdy Girl. It doesn't weigh us down with arguments and discussions. It doesn't consider statistics or chronicle this movement beyond this place. It's about a few individual journeys that make waves influencing others. Most of the people we meet have already made up their minds and converted to plant diet, as far as we can tell. But the value of the film is that it makes them and their animal friends come to life so vividly, and lets us sense, through Renee, how important this issue is and how we're all ingrained and culturally conditioned, and how coming to terms with this issue isn't easy.

Rowdy Girl, 72 mins., debuted at Toronto (Hot Docs) Apr.. 29, 2023, showing also at the Hamptons, Tacoma, New Haven and Seoul Animal Film Festival. produced by Moby, it opens at DCTV in New York May 31, 2024, Laemmle Monica, L.A. Jun. 7, 2024; special screening Laemmle Noho Jun., 7:30pm, followed by Q&A with Moby, Jason Goldman, and Renee King-Sonnen.