Renee King-Sonnen is no ordinary Texan. The fiery, impassioned former cattle rancher is on a mission to live a more sustainable, compassionate life – for herself and her animals. To that end, she became vegan, transformed her husband’s beef operation into an animal sanctuary, and is now dedicated to mentoring other farmers looking to transition from animal agriculture to plant-based food production.
The inspiring and touching story of Renee King-Sonnen and husband Tommy Sonnen has been made into a documentary, Rowdy Girl, premiering at this year’s Hot Docs film Festival in Toronto. Directed by Jason Goldman and executive produced by musician Moby (a renowned vegan himself), Rowdy Girl is an eye-opening and inspirational look at activism at its finest, where shared humanity, understanding and compassion are the chosen tools of change.
SEE Change sat down with Renee King-Sonnen to learn more about what inspired her to adopt a new lifestyle and renewed mission, the challenges she faces each day, and what keeps her hopeful about tomorrow.
People often think about becoming a vegetarian (or vegan) but don’t do it – until a powerful event pushes them over the threshold. What was your aha moment?
My aha moment was a combination of aha’s that finally led me to that pixie stick moment when the last aha caused the cultural conditioning and traditional programming come tumbling down around me. My first aha moment was when I started bottle feeding Rowdy Girl, the calf that started my vegan awakening, in 2009. As I was feeding her, she was feeding me an invisible line of communication to the cows – I could see them vividly while feeding her because I began to see that they were all just like Rowdy Girl—they were her community.
My last aha moment happened five years later when I was going crazy from watching slaughterhouse videos in order to make sense of what we were doing as a cattle ranch. Tommy had told me that those videos were all PETA propaganda but that wasn’t the case—I discovered it was all true and was crying and a wreck daily over the course of a couple of months in the end. On Oct 31, 2014, I watched a mini doc about carnism by Dr. Melanie Joy—Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows. There was a storyline about a family eating beef stew when the lady of the house said they were really eating chopped up baby golden retrievers.
The last straw began to loosen but wasn’t all the way out until I went to my mother-in-law Effie’s that evening for a Halloween Block Party with the family. She was serving “beef stew” and I lost it. I told her “I can’t eat that!” Why?” she said. “Because it’s got floating dead hacked up animal bodies in it, and I can’t eat it”. Everyone in the living room stopped talking and looked at me wide-eyed as if I had just cussed my mother-in-law out. Aghast, Effie said, “What did you say”? I repeated myself. My husband Tommy was mortified shaking his head. Effie said, “Well, Renee, you can pick it out”. I said: “No ma’am there is no more picking it out for me.”
I went vegan right then and there – down the rabbit hole I went—through the veil of cultural programming and traditional upbringing. Boom—carnist no more and vegan forever.
Why did you decide to be a part of this documentary? Why now?
Jason contacted me around 2018 about his interest in the Rowdy Girl story. I decided to be part of this journey with him because Jason came to our sanctuary and visited with us on a couple of different occasions before we were expected to commit. I wasn’t sure really because we were and are contacted frequently by documentarians that engage with us and nothing ever happens, or it doesn’t feel right. He got to know Tommy and I, and we got to know him. He was genuinely 100 percent interested and invested in telling our story from an observational POV. He explained to us that he wasn’t interested in interviews but wanted to capture the essence and heart of my work as an animal rights activist and rancher advocate from the perspective of being a former cattle ranchers wife gone vegan.
You’re in the heart of Texas, where your efforts prove extra difficult. Why hasn’t that stopped you?
The animal agriculture good ‘ole boy system is what makes my efforts difficult. I don’t look at the state of Texas to be so difficult really, others do. It’s an interesting perception, really. As a Texan through and through I’m imbued with the Texan unspoken rules of “live and let live” and “good fences, make good neighbors”. I’ve gotten more flak from some of the crazy vegans in the world then I have from Texas cattle ranchers. It was mostly the cattlemen and cowboys that came to our aid when we were evacuating from a 500-year flood event, Hurricane Harvey in Angleton, TX in 2017.
I’m not your typical vegan, in that, when I went vegan on Oct 31, 2014, the only other cattle rancher I knew that went vegan was Howard Lyman who said publicly on Oprah in 1996 that “mad cow disease would make AIDS look like the common cold.” Now that bold statement did get the attention of a group of Texas cattle ranchers that sued him and Oprah, but they lost.
The reason I have not stopped or been convinced to halt my mission is because I really do believe that, at 65 years old, my mission has found me. My life story is full of family violence, alcoholism, recovery and rebound. I figure if I can get through all that and still be standing strong, confident, convicted and more determined than ever to be the voice of Rowdy Girl then I can get through anything that comes my way. I’m at a stage in my life where “to thine own self be true” resonates deeply. I had to learn that sacred principle the hard way, but I’ve learned it and being true to my calling is the greatest compliment I can offer to my Creator.
What do you wish other ranchers knew that they may not?
That we’ve been programmed by culture and tradition to farm animals and, with every decade that passes, factory farming gets worse, not better. There is no doubt in my mind that every livestock and dairy farmer that isn’t a mega corporation is being abused by this system as well – the ones that control the food system today is abusing all of us. The small farmers are being gobbled up by big ag and the farm bill is geared towards accommodating bailouts, insurance fraud and egregious subsidies to animal farmers to breed and grow grains for animals; but if you want to farm plants for humans there is hardly any help.
The Farm Bill is coming up this September and, if every farmer in the United States would come together and make their voices heard through their congressmen that they want to grow plants not animals, and we got the government to get behind farm transitions to plant based operations instead of more breeding facilities that harbor: 1) diseased chickens (avian flu outbreaks), 2) Pandemic outbreaks—COVID 3) Methane digester explosions, i.e., the 18,000 cows that just blew up in Dimmit, TX.
Staying on the present-day course could cost farmers their lives or their livelihood – farmers are being attacked by nature, pandemics, and technology that is not only creating disasters in confined breeding facilities, but Mother Nature is swarming our earth with increased floods, droughts, and freezes that are forcing farmers to choose other alternatives to pass down to their children.
Farmers used to be proud of their heritage but now with increasing Big Ag Mega Operations they are being forced out to the almighty corporate dollars. Farmers are at risk at putting not only their future but the future of their children who will inherit these present-day liabilities at risk. The future of farming is doomed in the current system.
The upcoming Farm Bill will be passed in September of 2023 and sets precedent for the next 5 to 10 years. The Farm Bill could remedy these issues and keep farmers farming on their land as well as keep future generations safer if the Farm Bill would afford farmers a way to grow plants that feed humans instead of incentivizing farmers to breed and commodify more animals on land that needs rest and animals that are slaughtered more in one year (70 billion) than the entire population of the world (8 billion).
What is your hope for the next 10 years?
That we will be on a path of healing our planet and everyone, including the animals. I hope that the anxiety ridden, bleak future of more pandemics, floods, droughts, and technological explosions will come to an end. I hope our broken food system is restored and that the farmers, their families, and relationship with mother earth and our creator comes back to neutral. I hope that the animals that are bred, commodified, exploited, and sold for food will be free and that we will have begun to live in harmony with them on our planet instead of using them. I hope that we cease to exploit our natural resources and that we allow nature to reclaim her rightful place on earth.
Livestock farming pushes nature to a degree where it doesn’t work, and nature is pushing back. I hope we will be able to afford healthy plant-based foods and not have to worry about diseased and abused farm animals that become diseases and a reflection of that same violence in our society.
I hope that our society in ten years will view farmed animals differently and see their sentience and rights to life as a fellow earthling are just like ours. My earnest hope is that society will have a genuine reverence for all life and seek to restore and revitalize our planet and the animals we have abused, tortured and consumed in the name of food that is totally unnecessary.
To sum up: The next 10 years will be critical for the survival of our planet and health of our communities. We cannot continue down the same path of unsustainable animal farming and dangerous agricultural practices. Our planet is dying, and our communities are struggling to survive. The vision is clear: a bold shift toward plant-based farming practices that prioritize sustainability, safety, and the well being of all earth’s inhabitants. It’s time to act urgently and boldly, to stand up to Big Ag, and demand change to the Farm Bill. The future of our planet and our children’s lives depends on it. Let us come together, harness our collective power, and create a new, hopeful future that is just and sustainable for all.
Rowdy Girl is playing on April 29 and May 3, 2023 at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. The film will also be streaming online May 5-9 (streaming only available in Canada).