By MEG CRANE
I’m a city girl, born and raised. That’s something I know, but not something I was aware of until visiting the Forever MicroRanch Sanctuary in rural Saskatchewan.
Jenn Boland and Alex Pinold, the women who run the Sanctuary, were born and raised in the city as well. They met working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as healthcare providers. The connection they had was immediate. They bonded over their love for animals and decided they needed to do something more than go vegan.
So, the couple ditched most of their belongings and moved into the country where, if you want a luxury like wine or chocolate, you need to plan ahead to get it from a store hours away. The adjustment to country living took more than a year. The adjustment to caring for animals instead of humans didn’t take so long. They were surprised how similar caring for miniature horses, ponies, chickens and ducks was to the work they had been doing in the city.
Of course, some elements of caring for farm animals are different. Like, you need to keep an eye on their whereabouts.
April, a goat living at the Sanctuary, really loves people. One day, she wasn’t getting the attention she wanted, so she crossed the highway, walked into the factory across the way and barged into the morning prayer meeting.
Everyone in the neighbouring community heard about it and laughed about the intrusion with Alex and Jenn.
I met a goat once as a child. She chased me and I was afraid. When April ran to my car and stuck her head inside a bag, taking a bite out of several bananas at once, I didn’t know how to react. If I grabbed her, would I hurt her? Would she then hurt me? Would she hurt me just because she wanted the food and I was in her way?
I felt badly that this was my first reaction. I didn’t want to think that way. I love animals. I trust animals more than humans. I know how to act around animals. Well, that’s what I thought.
But I am a city girl. I always have been. I’ve been the caretaker of dogs and cats and a bearded dragon. I’ve been around farm animals at petting zoos. I’ve ridden horses. I love animals so much that I haven’t eaten one since I was 12 and I’ve been vegan for seven years. I cry about harm to animals and I fight for animal rights.
As it turns out, though, I don’t really know animals, besides humans, cats, dogs and bearded dragons.
April wouldn’t bite me. April wants snuggles and snacks. April stands outside the kitchen window yelling when everyone is inside, not paying attention to her. April wouldn’t harm anyone.
It took me a few days to realize that none of the animals would bite hard on purpose. Aggressive is not the word to describe the animals, but that’s the way they came off at first because of my ignorance. The dog grabbing the cat by the neck. The miniature horse chasing another dog. The goats bumping horns.
As much as I love animals, the trust wasn’t there immediately. I was cautious, in part not to frighten them but also in part to avoid startling them into harming me. Then I remembered why they were there. They were there because we humans had domesticated, then abused them. If anyone should be afraid, it was Smith, the donkey whose face was in my palm; Bird, the cat who let me cradle him in my arms; and Lupin, the pig who fell over and rolled on her back when I scratched her belly.
The animals weren’t being aggressive with me and they weren’t aggressive with each other. They were like teenagers play wrestling. They were joking around, blowing off steam and showing off their strength.
Smith, who is a donkey, followed me around the pen one afternoon while I was brushing the hairy animals. When I knelt down, he rubbed his face against mine, nuzzling me for several minutes. Later, he came up behind me and grabbed me by the ponytail. He wasn’t being mean, he was being a donkey.
I was awed by the animals’ distinct personalities, but even more so by my own complete disconnect from the animal world which I care so much about. I felt naive, uneducated and silly for my previous perception of myself towards animals.
I don’t know where all my ideas about farm animals came from since I haven’t spent much time with them. I’ve seen many hay bales, but I’d never before had the satisfaction of unwrapping one with a pitchfork to feed horses.
One particular farm image I did have was of the roosters waking everyone early in the morning. I thought that would be annoying and wondered why the heck people domesticated roosters. I wondered if the early morning rooster crow was a trope.
Around 5 a.m. my first morning at the Sanctuary, I found out it wasn’t when the classic “cock-a-doodle-do” pierced the early morning country silence. I lay there in perhaps the most comfortable bed I’ve ever been in and was surprised to find I didn’t want to shake my fist in anger. I smiled, closed my eyes and listened as the bustling of the day slowly started. It was one of the happiest, most peaceful moments of my life. There were no sounds of cars or planes or trains or sirens. No neighbours starting showers or people outside yelling at their dogs. There was just the slow movement of bodies and the rooster’s song.
Time passed differently there. Things had to be done, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t time to make apple tarts for breakfast and chat for several hours over coffee before getting to work. My friend Jennifer and I had gone to the Sanctuary to build a small outdoor shelter for some of the animals. I imagined it would be a rush to get it done. Instead, we slowly moved the supplies across the yard to where the structure would stand. We counted the boards of wood we had and made a list of supplies that we needed. Then we went inside to warm up and nap, after which we were told there would be no more working that day.
As surprised as I was by my lack of anger at the rooster, I was more surprised to find the feelings of stress and anxiety that so often overwhelm me in the city were gone.
I should note that Jenn had a lot to do. She was up early caring for the animals and spent the day cleaning. But she took the time to get to know us and make us feel welcome. It felt like our presence was appreciated, not getting in the way of her work. One morning we stood in the kitchen so long that breakfast turned into lunch before we headed outside to sweep out the goat’s shelter. No one was upset or felt that we had lost time.
I was only there for three days, but it changed my view of who I am. I am a woman who loves animals but doesn’t know them. I am a woman who has always been in the city, but who hates it. I am a woman who needs to get out there and have new experiences more often.
The Sanctuary is open for anyone to visit, by donation. It’s a 10-hour drive west from Winnipeg, nestled just south of Swift Current. If you’ve got a weekend free, heading out there would be money well-spent.
Meg Crane is a Winnipeg freelance journalist and the editor of Cockroach Zine (cockroachzine.com).