Happy Holidays!

Big Sky Ranch: Sanctuary for Body and Soul

By Calvin Neufeld
Originally published at www.sufferingeyes.com
December 16, 2013 

I visited Big Sky Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Kemptville, Ontario (Canada) on December 14, 2013. The sanctuary was founded in 2002 by Andy Parent, who continues to operate it with a team of dedicated volunteers. Everyone gives their time and labour freely, there is no paid staff. The sanctuary to date has rescued and re-homed over 1,700 animals. Their motto is that all animals deserve a second chance without a time limit. Big Sky Ranch is always in need of donations to continue their work. Visit www.bigskyranch.ca.

I arrive at Big Sky Ranch on an unforgettably freezing December Saturday for their Christmas with the Animals event. The sky here is big indeed, solid bright white and cold.

It is the first time I have visited a farmed animal sanctuary, I have no idea what to expect. A surprising number of cars fill their parking area, I’m pleased, so many people who care. I step out and start towards the barn but quickly turn back to my car to get my toque. My baseball cap isn’t going to cut it today. It is cold.

Properly toqued, I continue to the main barn where I assume I will find the owners of all those cars. It is a vast property: there is also an old farm house, a second smaller barn, and sheltered structures here and there. I see clusters of sheep and goats in paddocks, a few parents and children reaching over fences to feed and pet them; I even spot a bison in the distance, but otherwise the place looks deserted. Doesn’t seem strange to me; it’s cold.

A woman in a puffy black coat comes up to greet me. “You just missed Santa I’m afraid!” she says, with a warm smile full of compassion. I think she genuinely feels sorry for me. “That’s okay,” I say. Santa’s a stranger to me anyway. The volunteer leads me to the main barn to meet some of the animals. There is a heavy sliding wooden door, she slides it; lo and behold, the owners of all those cars.

The barn is filled with people and chatter and laughter and warmth in more ways than one. Tables with coffee and snacks for humans, and treats for the animals. Along each side are individual pens: on one side a deer, a sheep, a dwarf horse, a goat; on the other side a llama, a one-eyed horse, an emu, and the biggest horse I’ve ever seen.

I don’t know who’s who here. I know that the founder Andy Parent is around somewhere, but I’ve never met him. I recently watched a 2009 CTV news feature about his work at Big Sky Ranch. Everything he said in that interview resonated with me. I could see in him a man who had awakened to the suffering of animals and was on a mission of rescue. I look forward to meeting him.

But I don’t see him here in the barn. There appear to be several volunteers – I assume they’re the ones in the Santa hats. I meet Andy’s son Andrew, unusually tall, bright and cheerful. Next to him is a table with “Feed the animals!” cups that you can buy for a dollar. I buy one of each kind (one for pigs, one for horses, one for “everything else”) to take with me as I make my way along meeting and greeting the animals.

In the first pen I find a red-tailed deer named Murphy. He is surprisingly short, he doesn’t look like the kind of deer you see standing beside (or on) the road at night or in early morning. He looks more Rudolph-like. The biggest, most beautiful eyes, an enormous moist (brown) nose, two dark antler stumps atop his head, and fur like a puppy. He loves to be pet. “He could stand there all day being pet,” says a volunteer. I pet his cheeks, his chin, his neck, his back, he lets me hold his whole heavy ears in my hands – they fit perfectly – to stroke them. Murphy – alone of all the animals as I am soon to discover – has no particular interest in the cup in my hand (though I'm told he loves cherry tomatoes and Tim Bits). He just loves being loved. The rest of the animals love being loved too, but I quickly discover that most of them have an undisguised prime directive: they want treats.

I could spend all day with Murphy but I am compelled to move on…by the sheep in the pen next door. Oscar the Suffolk sheep, white-wooled with a big black face. His head is through the gate and he is clearly eager to meet me. I reach down to pet him, he tolerates me for a moment – an obvious generosity on his part – but quickly makes it known that it’s what’s in my other hand that he is eager to meet. Which he does a moment later, with alacrity (a word I’ve just discovered, meaning “brisk and cheerful readiness” – that’s the word for it).

In the time it takes me to think how do I serve him the food in this cup, he has the cup in his teeth, the food-stuffed bottom jutting from his lips as he now tries to figure out step two: get food out of cup into mouth without dropping. I try to take the cup back to get the food out for him, but no, he’s not letting go, his jaws don’t negotiate. This isn’t one of my pugs at home, I have no authority here. It takes me two feeble pug-parent tries at getting the cup back to feel suddenly humbled, me the wimpy human, before the sheer physical strength (and determination) of these gentle but powerful animals. “You win!” I say, and leave him to it. A second later that cup disappears like a magic trick. A volunteer is standing behind me, laughing at the whole thing, she says she had heard he was eating cups but hadn’t seen it herself before. She jokes that the sheep is probably thinking to himself, “Why do they keep feeding me all these seeds with my cups?”

The volunteer, who later describes herself to me as “a 55-year-old woman who spends her spare time shovelling poop, feeding, shovelling, feeding, then repeat,” offers to take a picture of me with the Cup Snatcher. I pose with a cup in my hand (held at a safe distance), but it's an act, the cup is for the horses, I hope Oscar doesn’t resent the little white lie for the sake of the picture.

Next to Mr. Cup Snatcher I find a very (very) short dwarf horse named Shadow. He is shorter than Oscar the sheep, but before I can get his picture I'm distracted by the gentleman in the end pen, a handsome (and he knows it) goat with large horns and a surprisingly dextrous mouth determined to get my attention. I turn my camera to video and start recording just as he succeeds in stealing my toque out of my pants pocket.

The goat's name is Peas. Like Murphy, Peas loves to be loved. I’m kneeling in front of him, petting his cheeks and his ears the length of my grandfather’s feet, and on top of his head are horns like samurais that could gut me in one motion if he chose to use them so, but he uses them only to rest against my chest as I scratch his chin. Again I have the sense of myself kneeling, pathetic as I am, before a creature more powerful and deadly than I, who is humbling himself before me.

The thought of a person betraying the power that this animal lovingly, trustingly gives me makes my stomach turn.

But on I go to the next pen, across the way. It is the back of a stable in which is housed the biggest horse I’ve ever seen. There are a couple of large holes for him to poke his head through for treats. His lips reach out like an elephant’s trunk exploring my fingers and finding only disappointment. Next to me is an apparently abandoned bag of baby carrots, already half gone. I steal a couple (apologies to whoever I stole them from), and know enough to reach up and insert here:

In the pen next to the giant horse is an emu, complete with Jurassic Park feet. Years ago, in the honeymoon phase of our lives, my wife Sharon and I spent a month hiking through Australia. We spent most of that month listening to Australians warn us about which animals were most likely to kill us and how (and how quickly). Among Australia’s abundant lethal animal population is the Cassowary, a large flightless bird equipped with raptor claws and powerful legs and a sharp beak, any or all of which, I am told, can kill a person if the bird so intends (in other words, if the bird feels threatened enough).

The emu standing before me – Ellie – is twice the size of a Cassowary or more. Her claws, I can't help but picture rapping on a steel kitchen countertop (we’ve all seen the film). Legs like narrow tree trunks. A body of feathers that looks to weigh a hundred pounds. Long powerful neck, a pointed guillotine for a beak. Head and eyes in constant motion, the watchful stare unbroken.

I take some food pebbles in my hand and reach forward – I would like to say fearlessly, but I am acutely aware that one good peck might take a finger with it, so rather I reach forward in cautious curiosity. The great big bird is quick and precise; she pecks every bit of food from my hand without so much as pinching me. I grab a second handful of food and take out my camera to film it. I notice immediately that the camera distracts the bird, makes her less trustful in taking the food from my hand. She’s watching me closely. She’s wondering what I’m up to. Clever girl. No doubt cleverer than I am capable of realizing.

A volunteer afterwards tells me, "Her size is intimidating but she is very kind. Most animals despite their supposed reputation respond to kindness and return it in full measure. I love seeing her rest her head in the inside of Marc the Ranch Hand’s coat on his chest. She doesn’t approve of his hat and removes it every time!" Ellie made headlines when she was rescued almost three years ago ("Lost emu finds home in Ontario animal sanctuary," CBC News, February 2011); the sanctuary has been her home ever since.

Next to Ellie the emu is a gorgeous horse named Princess, boasting a rich, luscious coat of red-brown silk-smooth hair. She is hugely affectionate (motivated in large part by her love of carrots and food pellets – I don’t blame her, I love my food too). Her head is massive, I can only see one side at a time. On her left, a beautiful black eye the size of a jumbo marble. On her right, a clean grey hole where the other marble was lost to an infection. A volunteer proudly shares how quickly Princess recovered from her trauma, how easily she adapted, and how now she’s as happy as can be, which is clear as day to every one of us.

Finally, I visit Lucky the llama, who seems to prefer her own established boundaries, she’s curious but otherwise not interested in food or being pet (it's nearing the end of a people-and-food-filled day for these animals), so I just film her for a moment looking beautiful. The volunteer tells me about another llama – Dexter – who would sometimes spit at her for fun (never mean-spirited) and was accurate up to 20 feet.

Having met everyone in the main barn, I take my last food cup, the one for the pigs, and trot outside into the extreme cold, walking like a penguin in my slippery old running shoes, across the way to a smaller barn with another sliding door. I slide it, and am surprised that no one (human) is in this barn, everyone apparently is congregated in the other one where the treats and goodies and coffee are. So I am afforded a few solitary moments to meet the barn’s first resident, a pig that couldn’t possibly be shorter. He has long thick white bristles covering his body and face so completely that I can’t seem to make eye contact. He’s indifferent to petting but when I hold a palmful of food beneath his snout – basically, with the back of my hand on the floor – he has no difficulty communicating his delight at eating, his ready, eager joy. To me, he seems positively pug-like, here is body language that I recognize instinctively, and the appetites are the same too.

Next to him is another llama (thankfully not Dexter), for whom I regretfully have no food (Dexter might have judged it fun to spit on me). As I pass in front of him, not wanting to give him false hope, his long neck follows me. He lets out an earnest whine, the same sound any one of my three pugs makes when she’s denied something she is eagerly anticipating. (Same sound I make, I imagine, in the same circumstance.) The llama knows as well as I do that he's just been dealt an injustice.

Finally, at the back of the barn: a wide pen in which I find fast asleep the two largest (longest, widest) pigs I have ever seen. Their breathing is deep and rumbly, like a rolling boil; their size is inconceivable to me. They are bigger than cows. A volunteer enters with two visitors, I am relieved to have a witness. I exclaim to them “They’re bigger than cows!” to be sure I’m not deluding myself. They agree, it’s plain to see. The volunteer informs me that one of them, Arnold, who uses his mammoth ears to cover his eyes as he sleeps, weighs 1,000 pounds. He was bought as a baby by someone thinking he was a little pot-bellied pig, but he just kept on growing…

Comfortably tucked behind his behind is the head of the other sleeping pig, Arnold's deep friend and protector, Lulu. She has a vast patch across her vast back, where her skin is painfully dried and covered in long, large cracks. Sometimes her skin bleeds, the volunteer tells us. She was the last pig out of a burning barn, that’s the story that brought her here. I imagine myself into her experience as I stare at the permanence of the reminder she lives with. But she is here now, happy, comfortable, cared for, safe, and snuggled into the backside of a companion. All is well for her now, at least, as it is for every animal here.

Back out in the cold, I run into Andy, the founder of Big Sky Ranch. He looks just like a farmer in winter looks – thick, wild, unkempt and unconquerable to the elements. I feel warmer in the presence of a man who looks like he could never feel cold. I recognize him from the CTV interview, but he looks older now. I know he has leukemia, but here, today, despite signs of wear, he is strong, alive and animated.

I introduce myself and thank him for the work that he is doing. He is modest, and turns the conversation to his delight at seeing so many young people here. “It’s the new generation,” he says. “They’re the ones who will change everything. They’re seeing this now, they see what’s possible, they understand its importance. Change like this, it’s generational.” When he was young, he explains, it was nothing at all to leave a dog chained out on a freezing day like this. Now it would be called abuse. The next generation will inherit what we have learned, about our relationship and responsibility to all animals, and take it even further. 

He adds, “And it isn’t charity, what we do for the animals. We owe them.”

As we speak, a family comes running up, calling out “It’s an emergency!” A cat has been discovered nearby, apparently lost outdoors, starved and frozen and terrified enough to pose a threat to anyone attempting to rescue it. I say to Andy, as he heads away to help, “The work never ends here, does it?” and he agrees, waving goodbye.

Next I head into a large lean-to structure with a blue tarp covering the opening, to keep in the heat being belched out of some fire-based heating apparatus. It looks like a miniature cannon in the corner, long snout pointing our way, with a propane-fueled rocket-like inferno neatly and safely contained inside. Intimidating but effective.

In here I find Pauline, Big Sky's Office Manager and Volunteer Coordinator. Behind her are several tables covered with collars and leashes and dog bowls on sale as a fundraiser. Everything is priced low – collars, $2 each; leashes, $5. This is a place of modesty, through and through; I think they could do with a little more immodesty, but it only increases my respect for them. They’re in this for its own sake, not a drop of greed in their veins.

Pauline and I chat for 30 minutes or more. She is a short, warm, cheerful woman (at one point Andy comes dashing through, teases her, she smacks his bottom as he passes). As with Andy, I feel instantly at ease in her presence. When you meet one, it is easy to recognize a person who has no defences. They have a childlike openness, a bright-eyed, eager expression, immediate, instinctual friendship. All trust, no fear. I quickly recognize in her the same depth of spirit and ready affection that I have experienced in each of the animals at the sanctuary. This is a healthy place, I think to myself.

Our conversation flows effortlessly. We discuss my mother’s book, Pauline has begun to read it and this leads her passionately into stories of her own experiences with animals. “There is so much we can learn from them,” she says. “If only we would respect them, listen to them, be more humble, we’re not God!

She tells several stories of the intelligence of animals, from her own life and from books she has read by Temple Grandin. A parrot who had learned not only to speak fluently, but also to hold and express resentment over unfulfilled promises; and who had learned how to spell more quickly and cleverly than the trainers could teach it. “We’re the ones who don’t realize how smart they are!” she says, and I agree, with stories of my own about J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello and Franz Kafka’s Red Peter. Conversations like these are a rare treat for me, genuine, symbiotic and purposeful.

Her own journey towards vegetarianism is ongoing. “I was raised, you see, with a very strong tradition of how you feed your family: number one, the protein (a meat); then two veg; and finally potatoes. That was a meal. But then,” she continues, “for me and Andy both, it started with pork. When we saw the level of intelligence of pigs, we just couldn’t eat them anymore.”

I think about how strongly I can relate to that – I too have seen the intelligence in their eyes, their expressions, their behaviours, their voices, and wondered how and why they are so often portrayed as filthy stupid beasts-better-off-as-bacon.

But of course, I also wonder why intelligence should be the measure of whether or not we kill and eat other animals. I am about to express this, but before I have completely formulated the thought, Pauline continues:

“And after the pigs, it was chickens, turkeys. They’re not as intelligent as pigs… and when I think about that, it makes me think that what we do to them is almost worse. Pigs remember more, they can understand more, but for chickens it’s always now, fresh, the suffering is always new.”

There is a pause for both of us, as we recognize the truth of her words. Again, before I have formulated my next thought, Pauline continues with better words than I could have come up with myself:

“But that’s also what’s so wonderful about them. That’s what we can learn from them. We humans – well, I don’t know about you – but we carry things from our pasts that keep us miserable. But these animals here, every one of them has experienced some of the worst things imaginable, and yet here and now they are happy because here and now is good.”

“And love. They love. What they can teach us about love…” She goes on, and our conversation continues, every word uplifting me. I mention the reference in my mother’s book, about Charles Darwin, a man we immediately associate with the notion of “survival of the fittest,” but in whose book The Descent of Man the word “love” appears ninety-five times in his observations upon animals, compared to only two instances of “survival of the fittest.” There is, in other words, a deeper survival mechanism at work in nature that we would do well to humble ourselves before; possibly even learn from those in a ready position to teach us: the animals.

Every being here is a reminder of horrors-beyond-belief, but there is joy. Il y a de la joie, as my grandmother loved to say. I have learned more of real value in an hour here than in years of studying philosophy. Evidence for the truth of George MacDonald’s words – among my mother’s opening quotes in Suffering Eyes – “It is better to love a little than to understand everything.”

I am the last visitor to depart. As I say my goodbye, I know that a handshake won’t do. Hugging Pauline feels like the most natural act in the world. For a moment, she rests her head against my chest. Exactly as her goats and sheep and horses have done today. Total trust and affection.

My hour’s drive home goes by in a flash of happy recollection. I am chilled to the bone, blasting full heat in the car, and radiating with the warmth that comes from first-hand experience of the body-and-soul-restoring work, people, and (other) animals of Big Sky Ranch Animal Sanctuary.


Read also: Suffering Eyes Donates First Proceeds to Big Sky Ranch Animal Sanctuary