He took a major life detour and now his New Jersey animal sanctuary cares for 240 animals—and counting.
Posted in , Feb 24, 2020
With his long shaggy hair, graying beard and muscle T-shirt, Mike Stura looks like a biker or a truck driver. Yes, he rides a motorcycle and drove trucks for years. But he’s also a vegan who runs an animal sanctuary and calls a cow, Jimmy, his best friend. His passion for saving animals takes him down new roads—and he’s not looking back.
Did you grow up with animals?
I grew up in the little town of Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. We had a bunch of dogs and other pets too, but we didn’t have farm animals. I’ve always loved being around animals, although I didn’t make them my job until later in life. I was a car mechanic and then spent 27 years as a truck driver.
When did you make the sharp turn from truck driver to animal advocate?
One day I was driving with a friend. He was a big guy—six feet six inches, 400 pounds. He said he planned to go home and cook steak he’d marinated. I pictured him chewing on a big hunk of meat, and it just seemed horrible. I wondered how many animals had died for him to be that big. After that day, I became a vegetarian for the next 15 years.
And then you took that commitment even further?
One day I was out on my bike and saw a flyer that read, “Come and meet a sheep.” I followed the directions to an animal sanctuary for the first time. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I’d never known a vegan. But this visit changed me. I never ate anything from an animal again.
Your first sanctuary trip didn’t just change your diet though.
It changed my life. I went there and met chickens and ducks, and I learned facts about animal farming, like how cows are kept pregnant to make milk, but the baby doesn’t even get the milk. I thought, How did I go this long and not know that? I went home and started reading. That was in 2010. From then on, I was an advocate.
How did your animal advocacy work begin?
I started volunteering at a sanctuary on Saturdays and Sundays—gathering donations, helping with projects, fixing equipment and rescuing. I bought my own truck, trailer and van for rescues.
How did you come to open Skylands Animal Sanctuary & Rescue?
Helping other sanctuaries, I realized that I wanted to start doing things my way. But it was really a three-week-old steer, Jimmy, who motivated me to create this place. He was very sick. The folks at the animal hospital said treating him would be really expensive, but to me, he was my son. I found this place, but it wasn’t perfect. There were no automatic waterers and the fencing was sparse, but the mechanic in me knew I could fix anything. Jimmy did heal, and he was the first to enjoy those 232 acres.
When he passed away years later, I wanted to give up. But thinking about my best friend helped me push on. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think of Jimmy. He’s on the sanctuary logo.
What have been your biggest challenges?
Ha! The challenges and surprises keep coming. There’s a feeling of isolation, of being unsure of what you’re doing, and that animals’ lives are depending on you. Things can often seem insurmountable. From sick animals to broken equipment, there’s a daily crisis. Some people thought I was crazy at first. But anyone who knows me knows that when my mind is set, it’s set. I had a lot of mixed emotions when I started, but knowing that the animals were safe and cared for helped me keep going each day. Seeing these creatures heal, recover and live happily pushes me to overcome whatever obstacles pop up.
You’ve taken in several escapees, haven’t you?
My first high-profile rescue was a bull. He was running down the streets of Paterson, New Jersey. After he was caught, a spokesperson for a slaughterhouse said he was going to a farm, but I got them to admit the truth. Luckily, I convinced the slaughterhouse to hand him over.
Freddy the steer escaped a slaughterhouse in Queens and was running around Jamaica Avenue. Once again, I convinced the slaughterhouse to give him to me.
Then there was Brianna, a dairy cow who jumped out of a truck headed to the slaughterhouse. We got her, and she was so skinny we didn’t realize she was pregnant. I was a midwife for the first time!
Who lives at Skylands now?
There are 78 cows, 34 sheep, 39 goats, 16 pigs, 7 turkeys, 3 miniature donkeys, Ted the goose, some ducks and chickens—240 animals total. We go through so much feed. Last winter we went through 18,000 bales of hay. It’s daunting.
How is the sanctuary funded?
It’s all from donations. I’ve always worked hard, so being dependent on others’ generosity was a real adjustment. If I get $10, I well up, because people work hard for their money, and they give it to us with hope. It’s a big responsibility.
Where do the animals come from?
Live markets, auctions, farms where they don’t think they’re abusing animals, but they are. People focus on factory farms that are treating animals terribly, but some of the worst cases I’ve seen have come from small family farms.
What was your craziest rescue?
I had rescued during Hurricane Harvey, so when Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina, I knew I had to go. I bought a boat and saved a cow that had been swimming all day. We tied a halter to her and pulled her a mile through the water to shore. She was pregnant, and now she has a calf.
What’s a typical day like?
Each morning, we start at eight, letting out the smaller animals, answering phone calls and emails, paying bills, talking to accountants, feeding, cleaning, fundraising, medicating, trimming hooves. If I get a call about a rescue, I’ll drop everything for it.
What have you learned about animals since you started this venture?
I’ve learned that birds have so much personality. Turkeys are awesome; they’re real characters. Cows are the coolest. When I call them by their names, they come running. All the animals are unique, and they’re all worth fighting for.
What are your hopes for the future of Skylands?
I hope it becomes unnecessary! I hope we’re a good home for animals for the rest of their lives. But I’d love it to be obsolete.
How has having this sanctuary enriched your life?
I give the animals a place where they can live and be healthy, and they give me a purpose. Every fiber of my being is invested in this. I’ll get this feeling, like a calling, that tells me to check out a farm or to help with hurricane rescues. I don’t fight it, because I know I’ll end up saving animals’ lives. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Did you enjoy this story? Subscribe to All Creatures magazine.