I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my birthday. I’d been wanting to volunteer at a farm animal sanctuary for quite some time, especially since I’d started following Farm Sanctuary and Edgar’s Mission on social media (in case you haven’t heard of these wonderful organizations, they are two incredible non-profit farm animal sanctuaries located in the U.S. and Australia, respectively). As a devoted dog mom who hasn’t lived without a canine in over 28 years, and as a volunteer with a local pet rescue, I am constantly around companion animals but have rarely had the chance to interact with pigs, sheep, chickens or cows – those creatures our society views as food, not friends. So when I stumbled upon Sweet Olive Farm Animal Rescue, a sanctuary located in Athens, GA, right outside of my hometown of Atlanta, I promptly reached out and made plans to spend the day lending a hand and hanging out with the animals. I was so excited!
The place was beyond amazing. Nestled on 18 acres of rolling hills and green pastures, the charming little farm is home to over 100 rescued animals, from pigs, sheep, donkeys and alpacas to horses, turkeys, chickens and goats. Complete with a beautiful, turn-of-the-century farmhouse and rustic, 100-year-old barn, it’s a storybook kind of place, the type of boutique farm I’d always dreamed of living on when I was a child. Besides several rescue dogs and two very affectionate Great Pyrenees (whose job it is to guard the sanctuary’s more vulnerable residents against predators), the menagerie also includes three grumpy geese, a friendly llama, two giant hogs and four adorable mini horses with shaggy manes. The only animals missing were cows (I admit I have a “thing” for cows). Still, I was in heaven!
Within minutes of our arrival, I was making fast friends with the toothy alpacas and Culprit, an incredibly friendly donkey made even more sociable thanks to my large bag of carrots. Meanwhile, my husband Chris went about unpacking his camera equipment, happily anticipating his myriad photo opportunities. Several volunteers bustled about, cheerfully cleaning paddocks, adjusting fences and moving a feeding trough under the watchful guidance of Hope Wehunt, the sanctuary’s full-time farmhand, who greeted Chris and me with a bright, welcoming smile.
Soon we were joined by the brainchildren of the place, partners Kat Howkins and Susan Pritchett, two successful Atlanta businesswomen who originally started Sweet Olive Farm five years ago to accommodate their sizable pack of rescue dogs. Longtime vegans, the Georgia natives have been together for 11 years and share a tremendous passion for animals large and small.
Always in motion, whether attending to the animals, talking to workers or assisting the volunteers with different projects, Susan and Kat appeared to be women on a non-stop mission, so I felt quite privileged to have the chance to sit down with them and hear their story. Because really, how does one start such an ambitious operation?
“We were living in Ansley Park in Atlanta and our neighbors weren’t too crazy about all of our dogs, so they called animal control on us,” explained Kat in her soft southern drawl, squinting at me from under the brim of her straw cowboy hat. “Around that time we’d been looking for a place because we knew our dogs were driving our neighbors crazy and that we had to find somewhere to take them, at least on weekends. So we rented this property and then a Fulton County Animal Control officer asked us, ‘hey, y’all want a pig?’ He was scheduled for euthanasia and I was rushing around, trying to build some fences so we could get him here. And that’s sort of how it all started.”
Before long, the couple not only had the aforementioned Mr. Thelma, the first of what would eventually become their robust army of 10 rescued pot-bellied pigs, but also a rooster, a neglected llama, an elderly peacock and a grumpy chestnut mare who’d been rejected by a local petting zoo for biting children. More creatures would quickly follow, animals either rescued from dire circumstances, found as strays or simply unwanted by their owners. Some would have died or been eaten if Kat and Susan hadn’t swept in and delivered them to safety.
“We just started getting animals and it organically turned into what it is now,” Susan told me in her soft, tinkling voice. “We didn’t realize that once we got animals here we’d have to be here all the time – they have to be looked after morning, noon and night. It’s all been an education for us because we didn’t really know anything about animal husbandry, so we’d go online and learn all about goats or all about sheep, etc. So we kind of evolved into it.”
Inspired by Edgar’s Mission in Australia, which the couple visited several years ago to serve as a model for Sweet Olive Farm, the sanctuary is indeed run like a well-oiled machine, with the animals at the very center of its universe. Looking around at all of these beautiful, funny and incredibly sentient creatures as they went about napping, eating, and interacting with humans and each other, I couldn’t help but notice how everyone seemed to get along so well (other than the occasional skirmishes between the turkeys and a couple of trouble-making roosters). How was that possible?
Kat explained that she and Susan make a practice of separating the animals into different interspecies groups according to who gets along best. For example, Culprit is scared of pigs and doesn’t like the male mini horses but he’s just fine living with the alpacas, while the pot-bellied pigs, goats, turkeys, chickens and sheep seem to enjoy coexisting in their own paddock. But regardless of their housing arrangements, everyone appeared healthy, well cared for and incredibly content. All their needs are met and they are safe and loved. Somehow, I think they understand how good they have it.
Like Farm Sanctuary and Edgar’s Mission, Sweet Olive Farm appears to be part of a growing trend in farm sanctuaries popping up throughout the Western world, safe havens where barnyard species can live out their lives in peace and comfort without being exploited for their meat, eggs, milk or wool. Instead of living short, miserable existences on factory farms and facing the inevitable terror of slaughter, these creatures can actually enjoy their day-to-day lives, be with their own kind, engage in natural behaviors, experience human love and compassion and grow old. In essence, they are allowed to be who they are.
As humans continue to recognize the sentience of farm animals and begin to make more humane food and lifestyle choices, I hope we will see more and more places like Sweet Olive Farm. Still, a more compassionate world can’t happen without public awareness, and that’s why Sweet Olive Farm is also evolving into a place of learning where groups of local schoolchildren can come to the farm, meet the animals and learn about animal husbandry and farm animal welfare. Susan and Kat hope that as more young children are exposed to farm animals, the more understanding and compassion they will develop and carry with them into their adult lives.
“The kids are our main mission, teaching social responsibility and compassion education,” Kat said. “We tell them we don’t eat meat…(but) I don’t try to tell kids to be vegetarian. I’m just trying to show them that these are animals, and I’ll say thing like, ‘do you really want to eat that turkey after you’ve been here and been around him several times?’ So our goal is really to lead by example rather than being political.”
Running a sanctuary with over 100 animals is not just a full-time, life-consuming venture, it’s also an incredibly expensive one, as Kat and Susan can attest to. With their 501c3 non-profit status soon to be finalized, the couple is looking forward to taking Sweet Olive Farm to the next level through active fundraising efforts that will allow them to increase their volunteer network; build more fences and barns; create an onsite volunteer center; host special events and become a major part of the farm animal rescue community. With two such ambitious, can-do women at the helm of this sanctuary, I have no doubt they will make all of those dreams a reality, and soon.
Volunteering at a farm sanctuary is a great way to give back while spending time with animals you don’t normally get to interact with on a day-to-day basis. For me, it only reaffirmed my decision to live a meat-free life and to continue moving in a cruelty-free direction. Here are some other great reasons to visit one:
It’s good for the soul: Whether you just want to take a tour or volunteer, visiting a farm animal sanctuary is such an amazing experience. You can see how farm animals live with each other and relate to humans, learn their stories and be amazed by their different personalities. Who knows, maybe you’ll even end up sponsoring an animal? Plus, you’ll come away with unforgettable stories to tell!
You can give back: The staff who run these sanctuaries work tirelessly in all kinds of weather and will be extremely grateful for an extra pair of hands. By volunteering, you can help them with a variety of tasks including cleaning, painting and general farm maintenance, or even grant research, event planning and fundraising. Then there’s the extra perk of being able to socialize with the animals!
You might learn some vegan culinary skills: More and more farm animal sanctuaries are offering cooking classes that can introduce you to as well as help you maintain a healthful, plant-based diet. Check the website of the farm sanctuary you’re planning to visit to see if they offer cooking classes and make sure to sign up well in advance.
It’s inspiring and motivating: Being surrounded by so many wonderful farm animals might just inspire you to take action. Volunteering at a particular sanctuary can become a regular hobby or you can reach out to your local and federal legislators on behalf of the millions of animals who aren’t as lucky as the ones you’ve met at a sanctuary. There are so many great ways to help, and there’s no better place to learn how you can be a voice for change.
When it comes to different animals species, human beings are guilty of playing favorites, designating some animals friends while others food. Due to our societal conditioning, we have maintained a serious disconnect between the way we view the animals we eat and the animals we welcome into our homes and families. Most of us see our dogs and cats as family members, as complex, self-aware individuals who have emotions, are capable of suffering and feel pain. But barnyard animals are no different. So why can’t we view them the same way we view dogs and cats?
I believe that if more people knew, understood and empathized with farm animals the way they do with dogs and cats, most of them would give up animal products for good. I want to believe that if they learned (or wanted to learn) the truth about factory farming and the inherent cruelty of industries that exploit animals, they might make more compassionate lifestyle choices. Contrary to what the meat and dairy industries have brainwashed you to believe, it is possible to live a very healthy life without consuming animal products. And while it’s easy to not let yourself think about where that hunk of meat on your plate came from, in reality, it was a living, breathing being who was intelligent, self-aware and didn’t want to die.
The information is out there, and it’s up to all of us to educate ourselves and make choices in alignment with our own morals and principles. To do otherwise is dishonest and unethical. Because in the end, it is hypocritical to claim you love animals and yet continue to eat them. And as I can attest from my experience at Sweet Olive Farm, farm animals are no different from those we call our “pets.” They are amazing, funny, complex individuals who deserve to live out their lives free from harm. We are their caretakers, so it is up to us to create a more merciful world for them. In doing so, we create a kinder world for ourselves.
If you live in the Atlanta area and would like to help the wonderful animals (and humans) at Sweet Olive Farm, please visit their website.
If you live elsewhere, never fear, here are some great websites to help you locate a farm sanctuary near you:
“Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends.” – George Bernard Shaw