Tommy’s great-grandfather was a cattle rancher who owned a slaughterhouse in Houston, and later, one in Alvin, about 30 miles south. Tommy still has his great-grandpa’s spurs, made from Mexican silver coins, and his heavy branding iron, which spells out the first three letters of their last name: “SON.”
“Ranching culture is so strong, and there’s such loyalty,” Renee says. “There’s a need to carry on the tradition.”
Tommy’s ranch was a cow-and-calf operation—he profited from selling his calves to the beef industry. When the calves were six to eight months old, they were baited into the red trailer and taken to the sale barn. Rowdy Girl could stay on the ranch as a breeding cow, but the rest of the calves had to go.
Renee watched the mother cows chase the trailer, following the fence line as far as they could. As evening fell, she listened to the cows call for their calves. She paced the living room as Tommy watched TV.
“Can’t you hear that?” she demanded. “They’re crying for their babies!”
“You’re gonna have to get used to that,” he told her.
Renee stomped outside, slamming the door. As the sun went down, she dropped to her knees and wept. Every six months, the red trailer would go to the sale barn, and every six months, Renee could barely contain her grief.
“Renee, you eat steak. You love filet mignon,” Tommy would remind her. “Where do you think all that comes from?”
True, she had a collection of leather boots and loved the rodeo. But this was different. These were her cows—her pets, her companions. The couple’s arguments intensified.
“You don’t mind spending the money!” Tommy would say, dropping the itemized sales receipts on her desk and pointing out how much they’d made off each calf.
Though she wanted to deny it, Renee knew Tommy was right. She felt like a co-conspirator, betraying the creatures who’d kept her company while she adjusted to life in the country. She thought, How can I be part of this?
By the time the red trailer left for the sale barn in February 2014, Tommy and Renee were fighting constantly. Six more months rolled by, and the couple was at another impasse. She wouldn’t let him take the calves to be sold, but he was about to retire and couldn’t afford to keep them. Renee loved Tommy, but now she loved the cows, too.
Soon she was watching movies like Earthlings and Cowspiracy and reading books about plant-based eating. She went vegan in October 2014—pitting her values directly against Tommy’s heritage. She’d moved to the country for him, but she wouldn’t give in this time.
One evening, Tommy and Renee stood by the red trailer, arguing. She called him a murderer, and he yelled back that she was ruining his business. Weeping, she threatened to follow the red trailer to the sale barn, to buy back every last calf with his credit card. Tommy knew he had to get out of the business or face another divorce.
“I’m going to sell the whole herd,” he said, finally.
“Well,” Renee said, “why don’t you sell them to me?”
She asked Tommy how much he could get for the cows. Placating her, never believing she could get the money together, he offered to cut her a deal.
“All right, Renee,” he said. “I’ll sell them to you for $30,000.”
What he didn’t know was that Renee had an idea. She imagined transforming the ranch into a sanctuary, where livestock could be free to live in peace.
“Just like I never used to see the cows, now all I could see were the cows,” Renee says. “They had a right to be here. And not only that, the ranch could be home to more.”
Tommy said it couldn’t be done, but she’d been in touch with people at other no-kill sanctuaries. She talked to Kip Andersen, one of the filmmakers behind Cowspiracy, who suggested starting a fundraiser. She got advice from cattleman-turned-activist Howard Lyman, who helped Renee remember that ranching was her husband’s culture and more than a black-and-white operation.
In December 2014, Renee launched her blog, Vegan Journal of a Rancher’s Wife. The site became a platform for promoting her Indiegogo fundraiser, and she spent hours posting about it online, telling anyone who would listen. Animal lovers from all over the world caught wind of her story, and donations poured in. Her husband was slack-jawed. Oh, my God, he thought. She’s gonna do this.
Tommy Sonnen is a man of his word. In February 2015, his ranch became Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, a nonprofit named in honor of the first calf Renee fell in love with. In under four months, Renee raised $36,337—enough to purchase Tommy’s herd.