Canvas Rebel Article

Meet Renee King Sonnen

We recently connected with Renee King Sonnen and have shared our conversation below.

Renee, thanks for taking the time to share your stories with us today We’d love to have you retell us the story behind how you came up with the idea for your business, I think our audience would really enjoy hearing the backstory.

It all started with Rowdy Girl, a little 2-month-old baby calf my husband wanted me to care for, hoping I would start wanting to be a “good” rancher’s wife. I bought her for $300 having no idea that she would take me down the rabbit hole where I would come out on the other side of compassion for all sentient beings – even the ones that used to end up on my plate. The rest they say is her-story.

Becoming vegan for me has been a result of living on the Sonnen Ranch, now Rowdy Girl Sanctuary with my multi-generational cattle rancher husband – I couldn’t take the red trailer leaving with the babies anymore – As a result, I started watching documentaries and slaughterhouse videos and when I made the corner, I’ve never looked back. Forever Vegan!

It all started on my husband’s 96-acre ranch in Angleton, Texas. I was transplanted from suburbia to the ranch in 2009 – I fell in love with all the critters….kinda like Elly Mae Clampett – I named them all and loved them every one – I’d go out and spend time with them, dance around them – sing to them and talk to them.

Then they started being trailered up to go to the sale barn, and the experience of watching them leave, the mamas wailing for a week, and the absence of their souls in the pasture haunted me. As a result of watching a Melanie Joy documentary on Carnism, I was set up on Halloween 2014, while at my mother-in-law’s. She was serving Beef Stew and instead of seeing meat, I saw floating dead animal parts. I’d been vegetarian in the past and even tried a raw plant-based diet for several months, but never had the compassion connection until I LIVED IT! I love these animals – I see their souls, and they see mine – I can tell they are looking at me out of the corner of their eyes. They can feel our motives.

I soon realized I could not stand to watch the babies leave their mamas even one more time to go to the sale barn FOR SLAUGHTER…and that I had to do something to prevent that from ever happening again. My husband had come to the end of his rope. He was ready to sell the entire herd and get out of the business altogether because of my revulsion to the ordeal. The idea to create my own Sanctuary to rescue all of the cows was born from this realization and I convinced my Rancher husband to work with me to make this dream a reality. Since he was at the jumping-off place and was going to sell them all anyway, I asked him if I could buy them and if he’d give me a discount. He thought I had lost my mind, and frankly, I had, but it was my only hope and because of compassionate vegans across the world, my project on Indiegogo was funded in early May 2015. I never planned to have this type of business but there was a clear need, ultimately.

Awesome – so before we get into the rest of our questions, can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers.

I was a singer and musician, a realtor, a yoga instructor and many other roles. I was never prepared to be a rancher’s wife.

I’m the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Rowdy Girl Sanctuary (RGS), a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is to provide sanctuary to farm animals at risk of being slaughtered and promote an ethical vegan lifestyle. RGS seeks to educate the public on plant-based options, FFA/4H, factory farming practices, and the devastating impact of animal agriculture on the environment.

RGS is changing the world for farmed animals with programs like the Rancher Advocacy Program (RAP), an educational program that inspires cattle ranchers and animal farms to consider alternatives to animal farming, and Families Choosing Compassion that offers a compassionate alternative to Future Farmers of America and 4-H.

Since going vegan on October 31, 2014, I’ve led the transformation of a cattle ranch to a sanctuary for more than 120 animals–the first documented beef cattle ranch to a 100% vegan sanctuary conversion in history. As a result, my husband Tommy Sonnen, a former cattle rancher, is now vegan and together we are creating a strong vegan footprint in Texas and have become a model for what is possible.

Can you open up about how you funded your business?

To buy the herd from my husband, I needed $30,000. I asked my followers on my Facebook Page, Vegan Journal of a Cattle Rancher’s Wife for ideas and Kip Andersen, the documentarian (my friend and now RGS board member), suggested I do a fundraiser on Indiegogo. I did and we raised $26,000, primarily from vegans. We needed $4,000 more so I decided to put on a special event since I’d done that many times in my past life. I put together a lineup of speakers, including Kip who is the coproducer and creator of the Netflix documentaries, “Cowspiracy, What the Health and Seaspiracy.

We had over 100 people in attendance at the fundraising event and raised a total of $36,000. I bought my husband’s herd and on that very day, May 2nd 2015,

Can you share a story from your journey that illustrates your resilience?

Three “once in a lifetime” floods changed everything for us at Rowdy Girl Sanctuary. In each case, we had to evacuate all the animals (and people). And finally, we had to completely relocate.

The first flood we experienced at Rowdy Girl Sanctuary was a 100-year flood in June of 2016. At that time, we had 87 animals and when the catastrophic flood event began on June 4th of that year, we had no idea that we would be in a state of panic, experiencing our first disaster recovery when the Brazos River started flooding over its banks, leaving us devastated and in shock.

At the time, this was a historic event with the river cresting at its second-highest level ever, only exceeded by the flood of 1913. The ironic nature of this climate event is that it was not raining at Rowdy Girl Sanctuary and the sun was shining, yet doom was headed our way because of the extreme rain that was pouring down along the dams and lakes north of Brazoria County. The entire Brazos River Basin had been inundated with rainfall the spring of 2016 so all the lakes and tributaries were full and there was nowhere for the water authorities to channel the water. They had no other options so they started releasing the overflow from the lakes. They knew they were releasing too much for the downstream communities to handle, but they did it anyway because all the new construction upstream towards Houston and Sugarland had consumed the former pastures and rice fields which was always the safety net that prevented the type of water event that no-one had prepared for. They had to make a choice—flood Houston and Sugarland or the southern communities of Brazoria County along the Brazos River Basin. Some call this progress, I call it manmade climate change, greed and overpopulation of humans.

We took the birds and the dogs to the Brazoria County Fairgrounds where our pigs and loyal volunteers awaited. For the next several weeks, this was to be our headquarters—that and the pasture where all our cows and baby Stormy were located. It took 6 weeks for the flood waters to subside and for us to move back home. And when we were finally able to go back home, we had no house to come home to. We bought an RV and lived there for 10 months with all the dogs and cats while our house was remodeled. We resumed our work and kept pace thanks to a lot of volunteers, donations, and angel supporters who believed in our work.

Little did we know that one year later, after a total remodel and just getting back to business as usual, on August 17, 2017, Category 4 Hurricane Harvey would move in to destroy us yet again and with even more devastation because this time it was rising waters coupled with the fury of a hurricane with record winds of 140 mph. Hurricane Harvey was classified as a 500-year flood and was the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in Southeast Texas and United States history since reliable rainfall records began in the 1880s. Harvey dumped 60 inches of rain in Texas that August. Our home and pastures were destroyed again. The trees had lines of flood waters measuring 3-12 feet and all our fences were submerged in the flood waters. We were displaced, this time for 40 days and it took us 24 months to recover.

After the 2017 Harvey flood, we knew we were going to have to move. We couldn’t put ourselves, our animals, and all of our supporters through this again so we appealed to a foundation that believes in our mission, and plans were made to start looking for land in Central Texas. We, along with our board of directors, embarked upon a mission to find the perfect piece of property for the new Rowdy Girl Sanctuary. We settled on 147 acres in Waelder, Texas just 50 miles from Austin, 65 miles from San Antonio, and 120 miles from Houston. We signed the papers on April 30, 2019, and prepared to make plans for a methodical move to our new home. That wasn’t to be the case at all. On May 15, 2019, we flooded again and this time instead of moving the animals to the fairgrounds, other pastures etc., we prepared to move them all to the new Waelder location. The only problem with that scenario is that the fences were practically nonexistent and we had to crowd our 60+ bovine family members into closed quarters resembling a feedlot. Frantically, I rushed to quarterback yet another disaster recovery fundraiser to help us get the $36,000 we would need to fence the perimeter of our new property so that the cows could graze freely without roaming into nearby cattle ranches. We are surrounded by cattle ranches on every side and the thought of our friends getting mixed up with neighboring cattle bought and sold for slaughter was not an option. As always, our amazing donors came to our rescue and, within days, ONE DONOR donated $36,000 to give us the funds we needed to properly fence our new sanctuary location.