Christine Shaw, whose 85-acre ranch, Sandy Fork Pastures, is about 16 miles from Rowdy Girl, says that when she first heard about the sanctuary, “My first reaction was, ‘Good for them.’” The homesteader, who’s in her 50s but asked not to share her exact age, raises chickens, bees, and Texas Longhorns. At the end of the day, Shaw sees both herself and Renee as caretakers of farm animals, only “they’ve found a niche that’s appealing to customers who want to save them,” Shaw says.
Alongside running the sanctuary, Renee’s mission hopes to inspire ranchers to make a similar shift away from animal agriculture—efforts that were featured in a recent documentary, directed by Jason Goldman and executive produced by vegan musician Moby. Instead of raising animals, she wants farmers to have the resources to grow crops, mushrooms, and grains.
When one of 67-year-old rancher Richard Traylor’s cows, Honey, hurt her leg in 2019, the plan was to take her to market, where she’d be sold for meat. But Honey was his wife Cindy’s favorite cow. In a frantic search to save her, Cindy found Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, about a 150-mile drive away. After Renee took in Honey, the Traylors transported their remaining cattle to the sanctuary over the next six months. But it was after their first meeting with Renee and Tommy that they decided to go vegan themselves. “She wears you down,” says Cindy, a 74-year-old counselor.
Online, however, Rowdy Girl Sanctuary has attracted plenty of critics over the years. One Facebook page, called “The Real Rowdy Girl Revealed,” has posted claims that the sanctuary is a “scam” and a “pyramid scheme,” and raised questions about its standard of care. Renee says that the claims are bogus.
“The pain and suffering it caused us cannot possibly be described in this article,” she says, citing the “toxic” page. “The fact that I’ve defied the odds and have been able to do what most people thought was impossible and could never be done just comes with its fair share of intense heat and pressure—and it hurts.”
Though they’ve never been able to find out who’s behind it, Tommy and Renee filed a defamation lawsuit against its creators. In 2017, they lost the case and the court determined the pair had to pay $159,000 in attorney fees, costs, and sanctions.
Right now, Renee is focused on writing a memoir about her life story and sits on the Agriculture Fairness Alliance’s board of directors. The organization is currently lobbying for government subsidies to help farmers transition from raising animals to growing plant-based foods. She’s also hoping to raise money later this year to build a veterinary treatment center that specializes in treating older cattle. (Most cattle are slaughtered young, so Renee says that most vets don’t know how to treat “aging bovine.”)
Renee and Rowdy Girl, who is thriving, remain bonded. “I don’t know where she ends and I begin; that’s just our energy,” she says. As for her and Tommy, the biggest issue the couple disagrees on now is when to retire. “I sometimes feel bad because he wants to relax more,” Renee tells me. “Tommy knows I would take a bullet in the street for this cause, so his loyalty is sometimes at the expense of his need for more recreation.”
She’s even turned his reluctant journey into merch: a gray baseball t-shirt with red sleeves and an illustrated likeness of Tommy on the back. It reads, “I had veganism shoved down my throat, I chewed it up, and I liked it.”