On the dreariest of winter days, I head a few miles west of Madison, until snow-covered hills dip and roll as far as the eye can see. Only an occasional country estate interrupts this pure landscape, whose wetlands, forests and farmland mark the edge of Wisconsin’s Driftless Region, an area untouched by glacial movement.
Near a sign that announces prairieland restoration, I veer onto an icy lane of gravel that leads to the weathered panels of an enormous barn. Outside, all seems desolate and detached from life, but a short, slick walk downhill is the beginning of a much different story.
Inside the barn, a former horse-boarding stable with 26 stalls and outdoor riding arena, is a Noah’s Ark of sorts, a lifeline for about 60 two- and four-legged critters whose time on Earth easily could have been much shorter and less pleasant. One example is Cherish, a gentle filly brought here in late 2011 because of a broken hip, malnourishment and dehydration. She was a victim of abuse and neglect at a farm where many dead animals also were discovered.
The nonprofit Heartland Farm Sanctuary, the first refuge in Wisconsin dedicated to homeless farm animals, in 2010 took in its first residents: Clark and Diana, two Nigerian dwarf goats, relinquished by a breeder. “Now we turn away 10 for every one we take in” because of space limits, says Dana Barre, founder and executive director.
The work and setting simultaneously benefit disabled, ill and at-risk children. Dana is a mental health counselor who decided to help challenged youth and animals through one organization. “I thought it could open up a whole new area of learning and healing between children and animals,” she says.
Some of the animals are suitable for Heartland’s Farm on Wheels program, which transports agreeable creatures and their stories to the elderly and youth. For some, it’s their first opportunity to see or touch farm animals.
Learning how an animal survived hardship has potential to inspire humans, Dana says, and during visits of an hour or two, children also learn to give back. “It’s so important for them to feel they have something to contribute,” she explains.
During summer, Heartland offers a day camp for ages 7-12, and each week mixes care of animals with connections to nature.
In the sanctuary’s odd menagerie are horses, llamas, goats and more. About one-half of the creatures are birds – geese, ducks, turkeys, chickens – and some were surrended by urban owners who took on more than they could handle with backyard flocks (or unwittingly raised roosters, which typically are illegal inside city limits).
Some of the larger animals, such as sheep, began life as “bottle babies” and later were rejected by flocks because they bonded too closely with humans. Beatrice and Maxine, farm pigs found rooting in a Milwaukee garden, were assumed to have fallen off a cattle truck during transport for slaughter. Two pot-bellied pigs – to their owners’ dismay – grew too easily from little-and-cute to obese-and-unmanageable indoors.
“All these animals have ‘forever homes’ here unless adopted by people for only companionship,” says Kristin Roosmalen, Heartland’s assistant executive director. Adoption agreements stipulate the animals won’t be bred or used for work or food production (eggs from poultry are an exception).
The business operates on about $150,000 per year and 25 rent-free acres (until 2020). Nearly 40 volunteers and five part-time staff address the shelter’s daily needs. Volunteers include newlyweds, bird rehab experts, scout troops and 4-H clubs.
“I like the mission – helping kids and rescuing animals,” explains Matt Hamilton of Madison. “Farming is hard work and looks good on a resume,” says Kane Kampmeier of McFarland. “This kind of community service is a lot more interactive than many of the other options,” says Nick Lohr of Two Rivers. This trio of Edgewood College students made a recent trip to Heartland because of a class requirement to provide at least five hours of weekly community service.
On each barn stall is a list of tasks that include cleaning and feeding twice daily. Companionship also is important, if the animal is willing, but even when that doesn’t happen, Dana finds value in other interactions and “the promise of a better day for the people as well as the animals.”
For more about Heartland Farm Sanctuary: heartlandfarmsanctuary.org, 608-395-9741. Any visit requires a reservation. Online is a wish list of items needed at the facility; monetary donations can be designated to benefit a specific animal or general operations.
Groups of children with adult chaperones from as far away as Chicago visit Heartland for volunteer workdays. To set up a class field trip or workday, call 608-219-1172.
Heartland’s largest fundraiser of the year is Moonlight Masquerade, which includes dinner, entertainment and auctions. It is 5-11 p.m. April 13 at the Marriott Madison West; tickets are $60 per person or $100 per couple. Reservations are accepted online until March 22.
The nonprofit this year presents its first conference for mental health counselors, physical therapists, animal rescue workers, educators, researchers and others. Dates are July 13-14 in Madison; details are under discussion.