I’m intrigued: What makes a person care for societies’ unwanted animals, 24/7? I’m sitting with Kelly and Fox from Sugarshine Animal FARM Sanctuary at an outdoor table but it’s getting harder to concentrate because of an insistent nudge in my back. I turn around to face two smoky almond eyes belonging to a large white goat with alarmingly pointy horns.
‘Oh, that’s Rueben,’ Kelly says, ‘he wants a pat. He’s a big sook.’
Giving Reuben a pat seems like a good idea, so I oblige. Then off he wanders to a tree, stands on his hind legs, and stretches up lazily to nibble leaves from an overhanging branch.
Actually, I’m having a Dr Doolittle moment: upon entering the farm gate I was mobbed by animals. Then when walking down the hill to the shaded table for our interview, an elfin-faced dog named ‘Pencil’, a black Labrador, two sheep, a greyhound, a baby goat, plus roosters and hens, joined us as if part of the consultation.
Sugarshine cares for unwanted farm animals. Some, like male bobby goats and bobby calves of no use to the diary industry, are slaughtered following birth but are occasionally rescued. Pigs face a perilous future: pet “mini-pigs” become big and inconvenient, a sow without the required 12 nipples is “unproductive”, racing piglets short life as cute and funny entertainment expires.
‘I’ll never forget the expression on the mother cows face when our bobby calf was dragged away from her,’ says Kelly. ‘No doubt it was anguish. Farm animals don’t just stand in the paddock eating grass. They are cheeky and have moments of joy. They get grumpy and have bad days.’
Some animals arrive at the farm traumatised. “Willy Joel” a full-grown male pig was terrified of humans when dropped off anonymously at the farm gate. ‘I sneaked a little pat,’ said Kelly ‘and he squealed. We’ve made a conscious decision not to judge people as we don’t know what was going on in their lives.’
The animal community is part of the rehabilitation process.
Willy Joel teemed up with a lonely pig named Petunia. ‘Now he loves pats, cuddles and chats,’ says Kelly. ‘There are a lot of beautiful interspecies relationships that go on here. We have a rooster “Zander” in love with a goat “Forest”, he’ll snooze on the goat’s back.’
Kelly purchased the property that is Sugarshine but became overwhelmed with the responsibly involved. She advertised for a housemate and Fox, with a background as a RSPCA rescue officer, came along. They compliment each other’s very different personalities, they say.
But, why animals? And why devote your life to caring for them? Both reveal an affinity for animals since childhood. But, there have been formative life experiences as well. Kelly endured abuse as a child when she could not protect herself. ‘Now I have these really vulnerable animals and I’m able to protect them.’
Fox speaks of a troubled home life leaving at age 15 to care for a rescued springer spaniel (“Ashka”). ‘She saved my life more than once. Just by her existing, it left me wanting to keep existing.’
It’s clearly a grinding daily task and a financial strain to meet the needs of over 90 animals, even with volunteer help. But it’s not a one-way exchange.
‘There’s no better anti-depressant than pigs,’ says Fox. There are daily joys, too. It was a thrill, they say, when the ducklings came back from the dam by themselves for the first time yesterday.
And there’s something else: ‘As humans we worry so much about what other people think but non-human animals are more connected with themselves and do what they need to do – not so many hang-ups. “Oh, my hair!”’ Fox laughs.
Stroking or cuddling an animal increases levels of the bonding hormone oxytocin and decreases levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, for both the human and non-humans involved. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientific-american-mind-explores-the-psychology-behind-keeping-pets/ In one study, mothers’ brains, imaged in an MRI machine while viewing pictures of their children and their dogs, experienced the same brain activation pattern for their children and their dogs, but had not when viewing pictures of other people’s children or dogs.
Kelly and Fox say their approach has rubbed off on their local vet; he now considers other treatment options for sick or old animals that would normally be euthanised.
After several hours at the farm talking, feeding and patting, we wind up in one of the animal enclosures, idly chatting. I notice how at ease I feel. I’d studied zoology as well as psychology at university, when I was more concerned with native animals than for domesticated animals. I hadn’t seen the latter as individuals like Kelly and Fox clearly do, with needs, feelings and personalities. Now, after meeting them and hearing their stories, it’s hard not to feel concern.
Long after the interview, a comment Fox made stays with me. I’d asked how their farming neighbours viewed what they do? ‘Some of them are helpful,’ she said. ‘Others threaten to shoot our animals if they get into their paddocks. That disturbs me. You wouldn’t want someone to shoot your friends, would you?’ Indeed!