Last weekend I attended Sydney Vegan Festival to have a stand there and introduce our products and project to a bigger audience and whilst there I was invited to participate in their tent talks, giving a speech about starting a farm sanctuary.
I gladly agreed as I already know there is a great interest in this topic, but very little guidance out there. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked or e mailed me about this subject, as then I could perhaps have enough money to run my sanctuary!
The turn out to my talk was good and afterwards I had quite a few people passing by my stall to ask more questions.
I started my speech with the 'why's' of starting a sanctuary. My own personal why came from a sincere desire to help animals and a deep love for their kind. Ever since I was a child I felt their plight deeply and was upset when I realised my parents had been feeding me their bodies. I often felt I was too sensitive for the ways of this world and consequently would find myself daydreaming about a farm that I would have one day where no animal would ever be hurt. It would be my own safe bubble away from the world.
When I became a mother, I felt a connection with all mothers, I remember the deep love I experienced looking at my baby, knowing I would do anything to protect him and I recognised the depth of pain mothers in the farming industry must feel when their babies are taken from them and often killed. A mothers love is universal, it crosses all boundaries, races and species and I felt it was time to take a stand for mothers everywhere.
I felt a sense of urgency to start my dream sanctuary. I didn't want to let my life slip by having never achieved this important goal and so I remember sitting and making a vision board of what life there would look like. At the time I was living in the Middle East in a failing marriage, paralysed in my mind about how I could move forward. But I held my vision and somehow through many twists and turns, I finally left my marriage, met a new partner and found myself standing at an auction is disbelief when we were the top bidders and I was now the custodian of 18 acres in pristine nature.
Neither myself or my new husband knew anything about animal husbandry or living in the bush, so we set out on the fast track to learning. Shorty after buying the farm we also found out we were pregnant with my third child. So we had a plan to take things slowly. I'd already started designing t shirts printed with my painting of animals and was working on a boutique collection that I planned would support running costs of the sanctuary. There are so many valuable charities out there, that my thinking was, instead of diverting resources from them, I'd start this for purpose company, which I believed would be readily supported, as hey everyone needs clothes and gifts sometimes and if you could buy a gift that supports a sanctuary instead of a big corporation, I presumed it would be a no brainer. But again things took on a pace of their own. I was suddenly asked to take in two, one day old bobby calves and I said yes. It was not part of the plan and we weren't ready but I didn't want to say no to saving two precious lives. So we brought them home and then had to set to work on creating our barn sooner rather than later. Next came the chickens, then 4 days old piglets. The chickens were living in my laundry room until I managed to buy them a coup and the day they moved out and in to their new digs, the piglets moved in. Those early days were full on. The calves were sick with terrible diarrhoea called scours. They come from disease ridden farms and often don't receive their mothers colostrum. They were weak and the vet told me they wouldn't make it. But I wasn't willing to give up so easily. With that came my first lesson. That vets don't always offer the same level of care to farm animals that they do to a dog or cat. If a dog had terrible diarrhoea, then a lot more would be done to help them. With limited offers of help, my next stop was the local farm co op. This is the beating heart of the farming community in my area and I knew, despite our differing agendas that these boys would have seen it all. So I went in asking for advice. I was well received and to this day those boys are my best resource and go to when I need help. They find me an oddity and laughed their heads off when they saw a picture of me having a picnic with my piglets and goats all sat next to me on the rug. But they know their stuff and are always helpful to me. They gave me probiotics and electrolytes and my calves took a turn for the better and started to thrive. Before I knew it I'd accepted another calf and a goat and my barn was finally complete, serving as a nursery for all these baby animals.
My hands were full, being pregnant, with two small children and all these babies and then I learnt my second important lesson. Knowing when to say no. It's still the hardest part of running a sanctuary, but I was at capacity and when calls came in to home more pigs and cows I had to say no. But saying no would keep me awake at night twisting with guilt and anxiety. We still hadn't raised any money through the business and cash was coming out of our rainy day funds, so I knew I had to take a little breather.
At that point all our animals were free ranging. We have natural borders of creek and bush and so far all of our animals seemed only interested in hanging around by our house or even trying to get inside the house! But then suddenly our now three little calves started to become adventurous. They started to adventure through the bush and would come out at our neighbours property who weren't happy. They rightly warned us that we needed to keep our animals secure as if one got out on the road and caused an accident we'd be liable. So our next lesson was that of fencing. As we researched and spoke to the co op boys, we realised that different animals need different types of fencing and fencing became a big investment. We created a large paddock for the cows with electric wires which kept them in, but the pigs would just take a big breath and run straight through it. At this point the cows and pigs also started to fight a bit so we needed to create a separate pig paddock. Pigs need robust fencing, so we had to go for sturdy metal posts, thick dog wire and also an electric wire running at snout height to deter them from simply burrowing out and under the fence with their strong snouts. The pig area also necessitated the building of a pen for them and the digging of a mud wallowing pond. With each paddock we created, we had to consider the access to shade and water and so came our next lesson. Animals get through a lot of water. We run on rain water, but our tanks weren't cutting it, so we had to spend thousands investing in a new big rain tank and new plumbing and piping to ensure we could fill up all of the animals troughs easily. But as most of you will know we're in drought in Australia and we are not getting any rain to fill our tanks, so each time we need to get them filled we have to pay hundreds of dollars from a private water company.
The goats we realised we're much happier free ranging and never wandered off property so we created a pen within a safely fenced area for them to sleep at night, which would keep them safe from predators, but during the day they wander freely, munching there way through the land.
Our next major intake of animals we're lambs. We took 5 in total but only 2 survived. Watching them suffering and dying was a very emotionally draining experience for me and with it came another big lesson, the need for a quarantine area. New animals can bring disease in to your property which could wipe out your whole herd. I put the lambs in a separate area and after the sick ones died I bleached the whole space and burnt off their hay. I'm still not sure what killed them. The vet said it was just a rough start to life and they had gone too long without milk, in the freezing cold by the time they were found. But ultimately we didn't know what caused their demise.
I'm a self-confessed germaphobe/hypochondriac and so again this was another important lesson that animals can carry diseases that can be passed on to humans.
Until your animals get a clean bill of health it's important to handle their excrement and urine carefully because of illness such as Q fever that can be passed on to humans. I'll admit that I became paranoid for a while with the lambs as I had a small baby and two small kids and so I implemented strict hygiene practices of stepping in to bleach water with your gum boots after being in their area, using a mask when cleaning their bedding and thoroughly washing hands with anti bacterial soap after handling them.
Which brings me on to the next lesson of finding a good vet and keeping on top of your herd health. I've been to a few vets and have finally found one who treats the animals in the way I want them to be treated. I was shocked when I approached one vet about desexing my pig and was told he'd just put him between his legs and lop off his testicles with no pain relief. I eventually found a vegan vet who desexed my pig in the same way you'd desex a dog, but he was far away. Luckily though a new vet moved in to my area who is great and gives her all when she treats my animals. Keeping on top of their health is important and involves vaccinations, regular anti parasite treatments. trimming of hooves and specific treatments whenever needed. I now have the vet come out to do a regular health check and treatments every 3 months to ensure the ongoing health of my herd.
Another thing I learnt is that an important measure in keeping your animals healthy is cleanliness. I muck out the barn which the cows have access to at night every day. I also rake the pig muck every day and do a fortnightly rake out of the sheep and goat pens and clean the poo from the chicken coup everyday in addition to a complete clean out at least once a month. If you leave excrement to build up then parasites start to build up and as the animals eat a lot from the earth, they then get infected with these parasites. The same with their water. If you don't clean their troughs out regularly then flies lay their eggs in there and algae starts to build up. So daily cleaning is a must. You also have to consider then what you do with their waste. We have now created a composting station, where you build piles up in stages and the leave them to cook, so you can then use this compost to fertilise the land. This may be a good point to mention a brilliant resource for all questions sanctuary related called 'open sanctuary'. From waste management to enrichment for chickens, these guys are doing a great job on supporting people on a sanctuary journey.
You may have realised by now that all this is a lot of work. So it's important to understand how much time you have to put in to this. And it leads me to another lesson I have learnt on this journey and that is that you can't reply on volunteers. I naively presumed that I could run the sanctuary with the help of volunteers. But I soon realised this was not possible. I have only found one reliable volunteer so far who I love and appreciate dearly, but the rest have come two or three times at best, with most proving to be day trippers. I don't blame anyone for this and recognise that people come with good intentions, but life gets in the way. Or maybe some found it wasn't as glamorous as they hoped, mucking out pig poo. But either way, finding help has been a constant struggle. When the time came to birth my baby, we realised that help was a non negotiable and we are blessed to have a little cottage on our land. We had planned on renting this cottage to generate funds for the sanctuary, but over time we have understood that it's best used for live in volunteers. So now we have people who come and stay for a stint to help us here on the land. The shortest stint anyone has done is 6 weeks and the longest is 3 months. They have pretty much all been great experiences so far and we've been blessed to welcome awesome people to our slice of paradise. But it is another consideration, that it takes time and effort finding the right people all the time, who are invested in the cause, not afraid to get dirty and with a genuine love for animals.
People often ask me about volunteering for a shorter period but that doesn't really work. In those instances by the time you're trained someone up, it's time for them to leave again. It takes some time to find a flow with the daily duties and so the longer someone can stay the better. It's the same for day volunteers, at times it becomes frustrating as you spend longer training them up and showing them the ropes than if you'd just done the work yourself, meaning day volunteers take up more time than they save. So if you've ever wanted to volunteer at a sanctuary, I would encourage you to consider the commitment you are really willing to give and if you can't give a chunk of time then it's best to not put your hand up to help, unless it's for a specific group working bee day. I am a member of a sanctuary support group and I hear this same scenario from all sanctuaries who reiterate my own thoughts and struggles with the volunteer situation. However, there are some who are lucky enough to have found awesome volunteers who have fully committed themselves to the their sanctuary and the cause.
My biggest lesson on this journey has to be that funding tends to be a constant struggle. I spent so much time focusing on the sanctuary that I didn't have time to build up my for purpose online shop, who's role was to finance this whole venture. Everything cost a lot more money than we anticipated. We currently spend roughly $2,000 a month on feed and water. Then of course you have land costs, fencing, building of structures and veterinary care etc. We estimate that this first years running costs have totalled $50,000 and as it stands we cannot afford to take in more animals. I like to keep things upbeat, but I decided in this blog post to be raw and honest and the truth is that we have come close to selling up on more than one occasion. So many people write to me telling me that running a sanctuary is their dream. It was and still is mine too. But it comes with a huge weight of responsibility. When the volunteers don't show up, you have to make sure all the work is done. When the money is running dry, you have to find a way to find some because you have lives depending on you. The truth is, I'm no where near even covering the investment I put in to the stock for my shop. I'm now selling a lot of it off at cost price just to recoup the money I invested, because I need it for the animals. At sanctuaries we face all the same problems as farmers. We are in drought, the grass has dried up, there is no hay to buy and food bag costs have gone through the roof. But we make no profits from our animals and we have no government support. Recently I have seriously wandered if I can afford to keep going, but I keep on telling myself that failure is not an option. I have to find a way to make this work.
So whilst I feel so blessed to be here doing what I do, whilst I frequently catch myself muttering to myself how blessed I am, whilst I sit in utter contentment in the company of my animals, it's important to understand that effectively running a sanctuary is two full time jobs. There's the physical part of the up keep of the sanctuary. The coordinating volunteers, vets and making sure you're always fully stocked for feed. And then there's the funding part which is another full time job. Finding ways to finance your sanctuary and keeping on top of your social media and the many many e mails and messages you get sent every day.
This is why if you've every e mailed me asking for in depth information or to meet up to discuss starting a sanctuary, or to arrange a time to come and visit us here so you can meet the animals, I'd like you to know that I'd love to connect with you and give you some time but the truth is I just don't have the capacity! I do everything myself and on top of running a household and being a mother of 3 I simply don't have the time or resources to meet up or to arrange special visits here. Which brings me to this last important lesson and that is that running a sanctuary takes over your whole life! Free time becomes scarce, it's very difficult to travel and your day to do day will be consumed with all that running a sanctuary requires. And we are a relatively small scale sanctuary with roughly 20 animals! It doesn't mean that it's not hugely rewarding, but it demands a huge commitment.
But sanctuaries are needed. The animals within sanctuaries become ambassadors for their kind. When people connect to their stories, they provoke a shift in consciousness and encourage people to make positive life choices. They allow people to see their kind as individual sentient beings, rather than just 'food animals'. They touch hearts and minds. And at a time when consciousness is rising, at a time when we're facing climate catastrophe, we need more platforms to encourage people to see things through a different lens and to welcome compassion, love and sustainability in to their lives.
When I gave my talk at Sydney Vegan markets a man in the audience asked me whether I really believe that given the expense involved etc that running a sanctuary is an effective use of resources and my answer was an unequivocal yes! We can't save every animal. Even if I rescued a million animals, there would still be billions behind them that I couldn't rescue. But the ones who I do rescue as I stated have a big impact and social media is a great platform for creating a wide reach. I don't have the resources to be open to the public, but we do organise special open days and at those times people tell me they have never seen farm animals like mine. Ones who are so friendly and so playful. It's because they are loved and have never had to fear humans and they stir people to see animals through a different light. And anyway, we all need some more kindness in this world and we should all do whatever it takes to make the world a kinder place. These happy stories give people like me and others hope and they create optimism for a better future.
So if it's your dream to start a sanctuary, go for it! It's rewarding and it's needed. But do your due diligence.
Seriously consider how you're going to finance things as that will be your biggest headache. Think carefully about the land you get. Does it have easy access to water? Does it have shade? Does it flood? Does it have exisiting fencing or structures that will help you save on costs.
Who's going to help you run the sanctuary? Do you have space for live in volunteers? Perhaps it would be a good idea to start by partnering up with a like minded friend so you have support on this journey.
I hope this article may have helped, offering a real and raw insight in to starting a sanctuary, which is a topic that interests so many.
I would love it of you could please support our sanctuary by visiting our online shop as we really do need help at this stage to be sustainable and even if you can't buy, sharing this or encouraging others to follow us on social media will help us scale our reach.
If you have any questions please write them in the comments!