My husband and I just returned from volunteering at the elephant sanctuary and wildlife rescue center at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT)—a dream of mine three years in the making. Being a volunteer there involves strenuous, physical labor in tropical heat and humidity, but it’s an incredibly rewarding experience that allows you to safely interact with animals in a responsible and meaningful way. You truly do make a difference in these animals’ everyday lives, majority of whom were rescued from decades of unimaginable abuse and mistreatment in the tourism and logging industries as well as the exotic wildlife pet trade.Read More
In my effort to move past the pen and paper (or computer) and actively get involved with animal rescue organizations, I set out to find a farm animal sanctuary near Los Angeles. To my surprise, I found several just north of L.A. in and around Santa Clarita. While I knew I’d get an amazing experience out of any of them, I chose The Gentle Barn—particularly after seeing their video of Karma the cow and her miraculous reunion with her calf whom they both rescued. I’ll get to that in a bit.
Arriving at the Farm Animal Sanctuary
After a tolerable 45-minute drive, my boyfriend (who has now been vegetarian since June after reading this article) and I pulled up to the crowded parking area bordering the fence of The Gentle Barn. Normally a full parking lot irks me, but in this case, at a $10 donation per person, I was thrilled to see a full parking lot. More cars meant more people and more money toward an incredible cause.
I could tell from the moment I walked up that the sanctuary operates like a well-oiled machine—having been around for 16 years. I fell in line to sign a waiver (basically agreeing not to hold the sanctuary liable for any injuries and for possibly having a picture/video taken of me for their website, etc.). I graciously paid the $10 donation, got my hand stamped, and moved to the waiting area until our tour group was next. To ensure that the smaller animals don’t feel overwhelmed or overstressed by large crowds, they limit the size of the groups to about 25 people. Each group is assigned a time to enter the upper barnyard that houses the smaller animals.
A Presentation and Karma’s Story
The tour kicked off with about a 15-minute presentation from the founder, Ellie Laks, about how The Gentle Barn came to be, its mission and its vision. She shared the story of Karma the cow whom they rescued from a small farm. For the first day and night since her rescue, Karma would not stop crying. She had passed a veterinary checkup and yet Ellie and her husband, Jay Weiner, could not figure out what was wrong with her. Finally, after hearing Karma’s mournful moos throughout the night, Ellie went outside, determined to solve the mystery.
After re-examining Karma, Ellie discovered her swollen udders, which meant that Karma had left behind her baby. Astonished by the realization, Ellie told Jay who immediately called the farmer. The farmer told him that it was too late, as the calf was already sold for slaughter. But luck mercifully stepped in… the truck transporting the calf had broken down. Jay struck a deal with the farmer and told him that if he could fix the truck, the farmer would have to release the calf to him.
Jay rushed to the farm and to his pleasant surprise, the truck’s gears were simply stuck and just needed a little push up the hill to get going again. Thankfully, the farmer honored his deal and released the calf to The Gentle Barn. (Grab a box of Kleenex and watch the emotional reunion here.)
Karma’s made-for-movie story doesn’t end there. Ellie told us about yet another unexpected discovery—Karma was pregnant again. During her labor, they found all the cows at the sanctuary surrounding Karma in a perfect circle. Once the calf was born, the cows orderly formed a hierarchical line—with the eldest in the front—taking their turns to greet the calf. This remarkable ritual is too often made impossible due to the ruthless practices of factory farming and our self-interests.
Ellie finished the presentation stressing that one person can really make a difference. For every person who commits to a plant-based diet, 198 animals’ lives are saved. She said that a plant-based diet gives you all the nutrients to set yourself up for success.
It was an inspiring, heartfelt speech without sounding like a plea, which would’ve rubbed non-vegetarians and non-vegans the wrong way.
The Barnyard Tour
Empowered with that information, we entered the barnyard, which housed animals ranging from chickens and turkeys (even an emu!), to goats, calves, pigs and llamas.
As soon as we got through the gate, Sassy the goat was there to greet us. I didn’t think her name was fitting because she seemed more sweet than sassy. I guess she has her moments.
We walked over to the area where most of the goats were hanging out. Many were just standing around, some by the wading pool, others wandering around with the other animals.
The animals were pretty much free to roam within the barnyard, except the pigs had a pen with several barn houses. There was also a row of barn houses outside the pen for the much larger, 1,000-lb. pigs. It was interesting to see that even with multiple sheds, the pigs in the pen were social sleepers, cuddling side by side with each other.
We also met two calves that narrowly missed the slaughterhouse after a girl asked farmers at the Orange County Fair if they’d be willing to release their animals to a sanctuary. Only one farmer said yes, sparing the two calves from brutality and death.
Feeding the Donkeys and Horses
For just $5 for a bag of carrots, I was able to walk through the stable of horses, starting with a few donkeys with the most enviable eyelashes. I felt guilty because by the time I reached the end, I had to skip some of the horses because I ran out of carrots. I was a little too generous at the beginning, spoiling some with more than one serving. Next time I go there, I’ll start at the end and finish at the start—I’m sure a lot of the horses at the end feel gipped.
Mooing with the Cows
Our tour wouldn’t have been complete without visiting the big cows. They were housed outside of the barnyard and away from the stables. We picked up a couple grooming brushes from a bucket and entered the pen. The cows were wearing eye masks to shield them from pesky flies (I initially thought they were used to keep them calm).
Since it was nearing closing time, most of the visitors had already gone home. We stopped to brush Faith, a cow that was born blind, and another cow (can’t remember the name). We brushed their hair for a little bit, but didn’t stay long. At that point, I felt like the cows already had enough of people petting them—not that they made any indication that they didn’t want us there.
There was a food stand that served vegan hotdogs and vegan kielbasas. Unfortunately they were out of hotdogs by the time we got to it. We topped the kielbasas with relish, mustard, ketchup and onions and enjoyed our vegan meal on one of the picnic tables. I was never a fan of real kielbasas but I thought the vegan version was pretty delicious—maybe it’s also because I was starving.
Giving guests the opportunity to sample vegan fare is a great way to help advance The Gentle Barn’s mission. People who wouldn’t normally consider a plant-based diet might find that they actually like the taste of vegan food and may be open to something like Meatless Mondays. A little bit is better than an all-or-nothing approach.
A Lasting Impression
I think about how many times Ellie must’ve given that presentation to each tour group, and how much passion she had each time she shared it as though it were for the first time. It’s that relentless passion that has helped her create such a magnificent haven for these animals.
What was once a weed-filled land is now a sprawling six acres of lush trees, spacious enclosures, stables and sheds. The love, compassion and empathy grown there have helped the sanctuary and its inhabitants thrive. Ellie and her team’s efforts to help animals and people seem to help their mission resonate more strongly than if they were to focus solely on animals. (When I posted pictures of my visit on Facebook, it got a lot of Likes from people who never Like my posts. I think it had a lot to do with me prefacing it with The Gentle Barn's tagline: "A sanctuary for abused and special-needs animals who help heal abused and special-needs children.").
Lessons Learned from The Gentle Barn
The sanctuary is a place of healing to those who live there, and to all those who visit. You can’t help but feel a sense of peace. More than that, the positive energy from the good that is done there is contagious. Maybe it’s because I love animals so much, but for me, it was an enlightening, uplifting and inspiring experience. It also set me on my gradual journey from vegetarianism to veganism.
Aside from being pecked at a couple times by the emu (whom I was told wasn’t normally like that), all the other animals were extremely chill. Despite the horrific treatment many of them endured at the hands of humans, they’ve learned to forgive and actually enjoy the company of complete strangers. So much could be learned from them, if we give them a chance to teach us.
Compassion and empathy starts with our children, which is why The Gentle Barn is right on point with their mission. If we can raise children to see animals as intelligent, social, caring and feeling beings, we can teach them to love and respect them—not see them as a food source. Only then can we end this cycle of violence, apathy and carelessness toward all living things.
Note: This post was written in August 2015 when I was still building content for my blog.