Over there, just beyond a bright orange tractor, are the chicken coops. Behind wire and planks of wood, you’ll find a quiet bunch of brown-and-white bait birds, rescued from a cockfighting ring. There’s a place for the roosters, too; loose hens scratch at the ground, and a pair of ducks snuggle together. Beyond them, pink-and-black pigs wallow in a mud pit while horses graze on the horizon. Two old Holsteins stand in the shade of a wood-beamed barn.
This is Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, home to 59 cows, 28 chickens and ducks, four pigs, three horses, and a playful goat named Pepper. There’s a statue of St. Francis, patron saint of animals, in the front garden. Beyond that is a bright, modest ranch house, and coming through the door is Renee King-Sonnen. Her husband, Tommy, heaps several bags of Purina into the back of their green Kawasaki 4x4. It’s time to visit the cows.
Renee and Tommy drive through wildflowers and past oak trees with low-slung branches. Past storage buildings and barns watermarked from a recent flood. Past a glassy pond where Tommy swears he saw a little alligator. When they finally putter onto the pasture, the cows take notice.
They’re a motley assortment of sizes and colors—brown and black and spotted and shaggy—but right now, they’re all hungry. They see the bags of Purina, and their low bellows intensify. The Kawasaki speeds past the cows, and one by one, they fall in line behind it.
“Keep going,” Tommy warns Renee, from the back seat. “They’ll block you.”
Renee isn’t listening. She’s looking for her favorite. “That’s Rowdy Girl,” she cries, pointing to a black cow with a heart-shaped mark on her head. “There she is!”
Soon the cows bunch together, a mob of thousand-pound animals, Rowdy Girl cresting near the head. The Kawasaki’s wheels squeal. Marshy water splashes up. For a second, the 4x4 is stuck in the mud, the cows close behind. But Renee manages to gun it through the pasture gate—just in the nick of time. She parks beside a tree and Tommy rips open the first bag of feed. The cows pour through the narrow gate, and Tommy and Renee walk among them, greeting them by name.
Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, located about an hour south of Houston in Angleton, Texas, used to be an operating ranch that sold its cattle to the Texas beef industry. How it became a safe haven for nearly a hundred animals starts with a love story between two humans.
Renee and Tommy met in a hotel bar in Lake Jackson, Texas, in 1990. Renee, decked out in leather and fringe, was singing on stage. A friend of Tommy’s had come for a drink, and soon called Tommy to come meet the cute country singer.
By midnight, the crowd was thinning, but then in walked Tommy. Renee came to him like a shot, draped herself in his lap, and crooned “Crazy” by Patsy Cline in his ear. He blushed from head to toe.
“From there, we were inseparable,” Renee says.
Renee has smooth skin and coppery brown hair and is usually wearing bright red cowboy boots. She’s a self-described visionary who often finds a way to get what she wants. Tommy, tall and mustachioed, is the logical sort. His even-tempered calm is a sharp contrast to Renee’s fiery nature.
They first married in 1992, but divorced in 1997. Renee, a recovering alcoholic, had relapsed, losing both her marriage and the performing arts school she’d worked to build. As she tried to stay sober, she threw herself into new endeavors: first a yoga studio, then a holistic wellness center. When the wellness center fell apart, a friend offered to help her become a real estate agent.
By 2009, Renee was working in Pearland, Texas, at Shadow Creek Ranch, a master-planned community. She enjoyed helping people find and build beautiful new homes. It was well-suited to her outgoing personality, and she loved city life.
As she settled into real estate, it occurred to her that Tommy, who’d bought and sold land since the ’80s, would approve of her new profession.
“I always liked her,” Tommy says. “I just didn’t feel like being married to her.”
Tommy lived in rural Angleton on his sprawling ranch, then a cow-and-calf operation, and also managed analytical labs at Dow Chemical Company. One day he was on the phone with Renee’s mother, who asked if he was seeing anyone. Though Tommy denies saying so at the time, Renee’s mother reported that he was still in love with Renee.
“I think you should call him,” her mom advised.
Renee did. The two reconnected, but it wasn’t long before they were at an impasse: They wanted to get married again, but Renee didn’t want to live in the country, and Tommy wasn’t about to leave it. He was nearing retirement, and the chemical plant was a short drive from the ranch.
In the end, she came to him. Her high heels broke walking up the ranch’s long gravel driveway, and she ordered Tommy to pave it. He just laughed.
“It was culture shock,” Renee says. “I missed city life terribly. I wanted to be able to go to my yoga classes, to the mall. I felt swallowed up.”
But she was determined to make it work. Stubbornly, she ignored ranch life and stayed inside, keeping up her yoga practice. She ignored the cows as they grazed peacefully in the pasture.
When Tommy asked her to bottle-feed two motherless calves, he hoped to get her interested in ranching. She remained hesitant—until he took her to see them. One of the calves was calm and sedate. But the other, who’d soon be known as Rowdy Girl, was a live wire.
“She was jumping up and down, prancing all around,” Renee says. “I started falling in love with this calf.”
Soon, all Renee had to do was walk out the door and yell, “Roww-DEEEE!” and Rowdy Girl would come bouncing up, eager for her feeding.
The more time Renee spent with the calves, the more she loved them. And before long, she discovered that the cows she’d once ignored had a strong community and different personalities. As she learned about each one, she found herself with them more and more.
“I was naming them, I was watching them, I was following them,” she says. “The cows became my companions. They became my world.”
Renee brought her yoga practice out to the pasture. She wrote country songs and serenaded the herd, strumming her black acoustic guitar. She stopped pining for the city as she sat in the shade of the trees, perfectly still, and waited for the cows to come to her. She noticed their individual details, learned their mannerisms. She was mesmerized by the strong bonds between mothers and calves.
And then she learned about the red trailer.
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.
The sun is about to go down, and the cows have finished their supper. Renee is sitting under a tree, perfectly still. Tommy watches as, one by one, four brown calves creep up to her. He asks if she’s ready to head back to the house, but she puts a finger to her lips. Renee has spent enough time among them to know that cows appreciate quiet. And sure enough, one of the calves lies down beside her. Another stretches out to sniff Renee’s face. Tommy smiles.
Retirement isn’t quite what he imagined. He started metal detecting at 10 years old, and he thought he’d have more time for it now. But he spent today working on an expansion to the chicken coop. He’s had to dip into his 401(k) to care for the animals. The ranch flooded in 2016, and that set him back even further—it’s taken time and money to get things back in order.
Against all odds, he’s also gone vegan. It’s for his health and the environment, he says, though Renee believes it has to do more with the cows than he’ll let on. He has his own Facebook page, where he posts videos of his favorites. One clip features Murray, a black steer, going face-first into a bale of hay, tossing it with his horns and hopping in excitement. There’s another of Charger, a fuzzy brown Charolais, licking Tommy with his long tongue.
Marriage is a compromise, Tommy says. This life is different than the one he expected. It has meant awkward talks with ranching buddies. It’s meant letting go of tradition. But in the end, he’s not sorry how things have turned out. Soon, he hopes, Renee will bring in enough donations that he’ll have time to go metal detecting again.
Meanwhile, running a nonprofit sanctuary is a full-time gig. Renee needs $8,000 to $10,000 in monthly donations to keep the sanctuary afloat, which includes animal care and employee salaries. Though she’s raising money all the time, she advertises specific fundraising campaigns every four to six weeks.
Her days are often full and busy. This morning, Renee aired a Facebook Live video where she read and discussed a book about vegan ethics. She helped train a new employee, a young woman hired to help with animal care (aside from Renee and Tommy, Rowdy Girl Sanctuary has two full-time employees). On a conference call with her marketing team, she came up with a slogan for a new donation drive. She held chickens and talked to pigs. And now she’s out in the pasture with the two things she loves most: her husband and her animals. When they converted their ranch into Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, these cows didn’t just become pets, Renee explains. They became family.
As Renee and Tommy get back in the Kawasaki, Rowdy Girl crowds alongside the couple as if to say goodnight.
“Roww-DEEEE,” Renee calls, just like she used to when Rowdy Girl was a little calf waiting to be bottle-fed. The cow’s ears perk up, and Renee and Tommy laugh.
Rowdy Girl Sanctuary was evacuated during Hurricane Harvey. For updates, visit rowdygirlsanctuary.org.