Animal sanctuaries provide rewarding opportunities for volunteers and vacationers.
Wind rattles the barn doors as it sweeps across the open pasture where llamas — like all faithful sentries — keep a watchful eye. Daisy the Cow calls for her morning meal, piercing the din of volunteers filling hay bins and water bowls.
“It’s time to bring out the pigs!” exclaims Alecia Torres, shelter director for Heartland Farm Sanctuary, an oasis for 80 rescued farm animals near Madison, Wis.
“Just a few more minutes,” someone responds. “We’re almost done making their salads and peanut-butter sandwiches!”
I put down my knife amid a pile of quartered purple grapes, wipe my damp, cold hands on my jeans, and begin to hand Torres some paper grocery bags. They’re filled with grapes and sandwiches as well as handfuls of lettuce and halved bananas with the peels still on.
Suddenly, a volunteer appears in the barn’s hallway accompanied by a rumbling 800-pound pink-and-black-spotted pig named Maxine. Quite literally a pig in a blanket of warm straw moments ago, Maxine sees the bag in Torres’s hand and eagerly follows her to a covered straw patch next to the barn.
Watching Maxine’s black tail turning in a gentle circle as I follow on her heels, I can’t help but smile. I’ve never seen a pig eat from a paper bag.
“Eating from the bag slows her down, and it is also fun and a form of enrichment,” Torres explains. “People don’t realize how smart pigs are. They need activities to stimulate their minds, just like dogs.”
Watching the scene from across a neighboring fence and yearning for her morning grain, Daisy lets out another mooooo — startling me out of my pig-watching trance.
There’s no time for spacing out here; a daunting list of chores fills an immense dry-erase board hanging on a wall near the barn’s “kitchen.” The space is full of no-nonsense, kind-hearted Midwestern women of all ages who are chopping salad veggies for chickens, ducks, and turkeys — each of which have specific dietary needs.
Since food prep is well under way, Torres sends me outside into the steady drizzle with a rake to clear wet straw from the chicken coops. It’s a cold morning, so most of the animals — including sheep, donkeys, llamas, geese, a miniature horse, and some sweater-wearing goats — are snug inside their respective shelters where it’s warmer and dry. But I’m not alone.
An enthusiastic pot-bellied pig named Lucy follows me around the damp grounds, rooting in my piles of straw. Watching her gleefully foraging for scraps, I can’t help but think we’ve both found our happy place.
Putting Animals First
I felt good vibes while visiting Heartland (www.heartlandfarmsanctuary.org) because, like most animal sanctuaries, it’s designed to be a positive place. No matter what happened on the animals’ journeys, once they arrive they’ll spend the rest of their lives in a safe and caring environment. Here they can heal, emotionally and physically, while developing relationships with humans, members of their own species, and other animals.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are about 10,000 animal rescues and sanctuaries currently operating in North America. These refuges give new lives to farm and companion animals; exotics such as reptiles, bears, and tigers; and retired or rescued elephants and other circus performers. Some offer tours and onsite lodging, but many are not open to the public.
What they all share is a fierce dedication to animal welfare. At Chicken Run Rescue (www.chickenrunrescue.org), “the health and happiness of the chickens are top priority,” cofounder Mary Britton Clouse tells me while holding a rooster named Magellan. The bird and his brother, Brighton, arrived at the refuge after being used and abandoned by people performing a ritual.
Since its founding in 2001, the nonprofit microsanctuary near St. Paul, Minn., has rescued more than a thousand chickens — including many refugees of the backyard-chicken craze and injured birds with special needs.
The sanctuary is not open to the public, but Clouse welcomes volunteers devoted to developing relationships with the birds as a way of cultivating compassionate eating practices. “We really hope people will live with the birds, rather than think of them as something to put in a cage,” she explains.
The lessons in humane education pay off for both birds and humans. Many volunteers have fostered, then adopted a chicken, freeing up space for Chicken Run to care for more rescued birds.
Saving Them All
The largest companion-animal refuge in the United States, Best Friends (www.bestfriends.org) provides asylum for dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, parrots, and pigs. Its creation in 1984 was a response to the euthanizing of dogs and cats in America’s overfilled shelters and represented a watershed moment in animal-welfare advocacy.
Located near the Golden Circle of Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks, the sanctuary attracts an estimated 30,000 visitors each year.
Most people stay in nearby towns, but the refuge offers cottages, cabins, and two fully equipped RV sites for rent. These allow a rescued dog to stay with visitors for a sleepover, which helps the animal eventually adjust to its forever home.
The sanctuary offers tours as well as opportunities to walk, feed, and groom the animals; visitors can also assist in cleaning chores. The experience can be transformational.
“I’ve always loved animals, but I started adopting those with special needs after my stints at Best Friends,” says Sherrie Bencik of Kalamazoo, Mich. Bencik first toured Best Friends in 2000 and now returns annually to volunteer. She’s even brought her two elementary-age kids to help work with the cats. Children between the ages of 6 and 9 can also attend the summer day camp, which features free activities designed to instill a love of animals.
By partnering with rescue groups and shelters across the country, the sanctuary’s “save them all” message has yielded significant results. Its programs have helped reduce the number of animals euthanized in shelters nationwide from 17 million to about 2 million annually and have profoundly influenced American culture, says cofounder Cyrus Mejia. “When people can no longer say, ‘It’s only a dog,’ that is social change.”
This originally appeared as “Safe Havens” in the October 2017 print issue of Experience Life.