Through Dr. Bronner’s support of The Gentle Barn my family and I had the pleasure of visiting there during their annual Thanksgiving Day vegan dinner, along with hundreds of others who attended the event. The Gentle Barn is located on a beautiful six-acre property in Santa Clarita, California—with wide open pastures for horses and cows and storybook-styled red and white barnyards for their smaller animals such as pigs, chickens and turkeys. The sanctuary, with panoramic views of mountains, has every farm animal you can imagine. This peaceful setting is the perfect place for rescue animals to live out their purpose and for visitors to open their hearts to these animals, learn about their stories and reconnect with nature.
A place like The Gentle Barn goes beyond just letting visitors pet and feed the animals. Every animal has a story, and no visitor leaves without knowing their stories. By sharing their stories, The Gentle Barn makes visitors’ experiences more meaningful. When I heard Ellie Laks, the founder of The Gentle Barn, speak at the Thanksgiving event I immediately wanted to learn more about her and what inspired her to open The Gentle Barn. I recently sat down with Ellie to learn more about her and the organization she founded:
What is The Gentle Barn and how did it begin?
I started rescuing animals when I was 7 years old. I grew up in the East Coast and always found myself helping animals. Whether it was a bird, squirrel, cat, dog, I would bring them home and when I went to school my parents would put them outside. I would get upset and would tell my parents that when I grow up, I will have a house full of animals.
About 18 years ago I was visiting a petting zoo in CA and witnessed the horrific condition the animals were in. Ponies were forced to give rides in extreme heat with no water, animals were forced to entertain and were not properly cared for. I wanted to run out of there and as I was exiting I saw a goat by the door who looked like he was begging for help. I couldn’t leave him behind so I asked the owner if I can take him and the owner said no. So, I went home that night, felt defeated but decided I was not going to feel that way and went back. I kept going back for 12 days straight until the owners agreed to let me take the goat home. That is how my rescue for farm animals started.
Why do you do this work? How do they stay inspired?
Animals always saved me and I found peace and solace with them. I always felt very passionate about animals. So much so that I was teased about it in school, which isolated me further and made my passion for animals grow stronger. The goal of Gentle Barn is for people to connect with animals and change the hearts and minds of those who spend time with the animals. The goal is not to rescue as many animals as possible but to instill empathy and compassion in the visitors so they carry that in them in their daily lives.
The animals are what keeps me inspired. I have the same passion today as when I was seven. The animals have gratitude, they are healers and we do our best to show this to the visitors that come through The Gentle Barn.
What kind of animals do you have at The Gentle Barn? What can we learn from them?
We have mostly farm animals—horses, cows, llamas, pigs, chickens, etc. We want visitors to know that animals are healers, they have compassion and love to give. They have various traits and ways to connect with us that we don’t see. We live in a concrete jungle driven by technology—we live without being connected to animals and nature. We’re eating, living and wearing violence. In order for this world to improve and for human survival, we need to reconnect back to nature and all its elements.
What sort of community outreach programs do you have?
The goal of The Gentle Barn is to get in front of as many people as possible so we run various programs. We work with schools within a 50-mile radius, so on weekday mornings we have visitors from school field trips. In the afternoon we host an At-Risk Youth program where many of the animals share similar pasts as the children. The children see first-hand how these animals have overcome their pasts and these animals end up serving as role models for these children. While the children overcome their own past through this program, they also become more empathetic and compassionate towards animals.
Do you have an interesting story or a favorite story to share?
We rescued a cow named Karma from a backyard butcher who we were trying to shut down for some time. On her first day at The Gentle Barn, Karma kept crying all day long and all night and we couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t take her crying anymore so in the middle of the night I went down to the barn to see what was going on and that is when I saw that she was dripping milk, she was crying for baby. The next day we went back to the butcher to get the calf who was already sold and loaded onto a truck. The truck was not working so my husband, Jay, made a deal with the driver that he will fix their truck if they let him have the calf. They shook on it and he fixed the truck and was able to get the calf off the truck. Karma was reunited with her baby and we have never seen anything like this—her baby collapsed twice at the sight of her mother! Eventually she was able to nurse. This was one of the most memorable moments we had at The Gentle Barn.
During this time, Karma was also pregnant and gave birth shortly after to a new calf. We had about 20 cows that we rescued when the new calf was born. While Karma was giving birth, the cows formed a perfect circle around her and when the calf was born, the cows formed a perfect line and one by one greeted the new calf. It was amazing to watch and we saw first-hand how family-oriented cows are—and they all took part in raising the little calf.
What do we want people to understand and take away from this project?
Come and fall in love with animals. Meet them, learn how to cuddle with a chicken, know what resilience, forgiveness, trust and love really means and really is.
Do you promote veganism/eating less meat?
We promote evolving into a plant-based diet. We gently introduce the idea by first telling a story of each animal in a matter-of-fact, neutral way which describes the conditions they went through and gives people an understanding of what that animal survived, in hopes that it will instill compassion and empathy. Every Sunday I give a presentation in our amphitheater about eating a plant-based diet and it ends with a vegan lunch. We take a gentle approach to introducing veganism without making someone feel uncomfortable.
How can people learn more about your organization?
I have a new book out called My Gentle Barn that is a memoir recounting my personal journey towards founding this organization. You can find it on our website here.