At Orland’s Farm Sanctuary, the animals are in charge
At first glance, the large brown barns off Newville Road in Orland seem as if they’re part of a typical farm—that is, until you get close enough to see a herd of cows, sheep and donkeys mingling in the same pasture.
The first building on the left after arriving at the Farm Sanctuary is labeled “The People Barn.” But don’t be fooled—the sanctuary is all about the animals that have been rescued and restored to health.
There is also an office building, which is connected to a few hospital pens where new arrivals and sick patients come to rest. A huge white turkey named Wiley roams free around the building searching for scraps, as volunteers prepare the afternoon snack for the “iso-sheep,” a group of sheep with special medical needs. Nearby, a white rabbit called Sombra lounges in the hay with her best friend Goldie. They’re staying in the hospital while swamp coolers are installed in their usual pens. Sombra has lost the use of her hind legs due to a neurological problem but still receives physical therapy daily.
Beyond the administrative building are barns where the iso-sheep and donkeys keep cool, while the pigs and birds find refuge in the duck pond. Beyond that are barns filled with different breeds of animals.
The Farm Sanctuary in Orland is one of only two in the country (the other is in New York) dedicated to rescuing injured and abandoned farm animals, as well as educating people on cruelty in the farming industry.
The newest additions to the farm are three 5-month-old calves that were rescued from a meat farm. Billy, Casey and Phoenix were too weak to walk after birth and would have been sent to the slaughterhouse almost immediately if the sanctuary hadn’t stepped in.
“It was so satisfying to see that we can help them and offer them love and a chance at life,” said shelter manager Leanne Cronquist, as she stroked Billy’s now-large belly.
The calves all suffered from contracted tendons and malnourishment, but leg splints and loving care have transformed these frail animals into healthy calves. In a few short months they will join the main herd and live out their days grazing the sanctuary’s acres of grassland.
This farm-animal-protection movement started in Delaware with the help of 44-year-old Gene Baur, the current president of Farm Sanctuary. Back in the ‘80s, very little attention was paid to the practices of the factory-farming industry. Baur became concerned, and the California native began visiting slaughterhouses to assess the problem.
During one visit to a factory farm on the East Coast, Baur found a live lamb tossed on top of a “dead pile” in the stockyard. He rescued the animal, and Hilda became Farm Sanctuary’s first ambassador and lived there for 11 years.
The organization was modest in those days, compared with the capabilities it has today.
“In 1986 our budget was about $8,000,” Baur said. “There were just a handful of volunteers lending their time and money.”
One woman let the group use her house as a shelter before a farmer in Virginia donated some land in 1986. The group stayed on the farm for three years, working other jobs to support themselves. Some sold vegan hot dogs outside of Grateful Dead shows to raise money.
In 1989, the group purchased 175 acres in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and founded Farm Sanctuary one year later. Today there are more than 70 employees and a budget of more than $5 million. The nonprofit organization assists in animal-cruelty investigations as well as relocates animals to safe homes across the country, mostly through calls from animal control and people involved in animal-cruelty cases.
And it’s worked on the political front, as well. In 1995, Farm Sanctuary helped pass a law in California that banned the dragging, pushing, holding or selling of downed—that is, critically ill or injured—animals at stockyards and slaughterhouses.
The Orland site is the largest such sanctuary in the country. In 1993 a local woman donated 50 acres of land and established the California chapter. Over the years, the sanctuary has accumulated about 300 acres, and currently houses some 400 animals, the majority of which will live out their years on the farm.
“It was important to have a presence in California because it’s the No. 1 agricultural state in the nation,” Baur said.
People from around the country take part in the organization’s Volunteer Internship Program. Aside from the full-time staff of 12, the sanctuary brings in half a dozen interns a month who live on the farm, do chores and get to know the animals. One of the only requirements is that they maintain a vegan lifestyle while living there.
Ashley Curtis migrated from Minnesota to spend the summer at Farm Sanctuary. Her favorite animal, she says, is a rambunctious and friendly one-eyed goat by the name of Chilly. So far her experience has taught her that all animals have a personality and show signs of affection.
“Now I really know the meaning of a cow lick,” she jokes.
The delight that the animals bring is not limited to the employees and volunteers. The sanctuary offers tours during which children and adults can meet animals like Li’l Gary, a three-legged sheep, and Lily, the 600-pound pig. There are also educational displays about the factory-farm industry and information on a vegetarian diet. There’s even a cabin visitors who want to get the whole farm experience can rent.
One unique celebration is the Thanksgiving feast, where turkeys are the guests of honor. The sanctuary staff and anyone else who wants to spend a vegan-friendly Thanksgiving can watch turkeys scramble over homemade vegan pies.
Cronquist spends all year caring for the feisty fowl. And her three years at the Orland location have helped her appreciate animals of all shapes and sizes, even a temperamental 300-pound pig named Stacey.
“With this group of animals there is a unique moment every day,” she said.
She spends her average day preparing meals, cleaning barns, socializing with the animals and attending to any animal’s medical needs, all under the hot summer sun. She enjoys watching new arrivals become strong and independent.
“Working on a farm is a rare experience these days,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to step outside the comfort zone.”