It was a cold and snowy January morning as the icy wind howled and blew fiercely, sending shivers through even those with the strongest fortitudes. It was on this morning, as well as the other 364 days of the year that the feeding crew arrived to make sure that all of the critters at Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary on New Milford Road in Ravenna had enough to eat that day.
It may be raining hard sometimes. It may be dark sometimes. But it doesn’t matter. The creatures still have to be fed. And some of those animals have already walked a hard road in life. Abuse. Neglect. Exploitation. Sometimes all manner of mistreatment or even abandonment and starvation before being rescued.
Such is the story of Buckeye, a 4-year-old, black, standard-bred gelding who was rescued from a severe starvation and neglect situation. “His owner had tried to euthanize him herself by overdosing him with penicillin by main-lining it in the artery in his neck,” said Annette Fisher, founder and executive director of Happy Trails. “We sent him down to O.S.U. Equine Hospital [in Columbus] where he underwent leg surgery and he ended up staying in the hospital four months. It took more than a year to rehabilitate him,” she said. He has since made a complete recovery and has been adopted by a wonderful and caring family.
Originally from Barberton and now residing in Portage County, and with a background in advertising and her own ad agency, Fisher is passionate in her cause and tireless in her efforts to rescue farm animals from a life of abuse. But her mission started accidentally – she wanted a horse. From the time she was a young girl. And to ride it in the country. So she did.
Fisher said, “We bought this place and there was nothing here. No buildings. It was woods all the way to the front. There was no fencing – nothing – and I went and got a horse, and fixed [this place] up enough so I could bring this horse home.”
Then came the chance encounter in 1999. “I met a lady at a tack swap and we were comparing notes as to how hard it was to go on a vacation and have someone take care of your farm animals while you were gone,” Fisher said. The woman explained that she was going away and asked Fisher if she would mind looking after her animals for a few days. Fisher agreed.
“I went down to learn how to take care of things. In her barn she had all kinds of animals. But there was a small area, not very big, and she opened it up and it had those big cobwebs that were hanging down, that had those big, giant spiders in ‘em. And there lay this little pig. It was a potbelly pig and her little front legs were all stuck up underneath her,” Fisher explained.
When Fisher asked what happened to the pig the woman told her that somebody brought it there about six years ago and dropped it getting it off the truck. She thought its legs were broken. When Fisher inquired what the vet said, she was told the woman never took it to the vet.
Fisher was horrified that the poor pig was lying there in its own filth and waste and that the woman just threw the food in with it. While the woman was on vacation Fisher began stuffing straw around the pig – whose name was Janice – and got a bowl to put the food in. When the woman returned and asked how much she owed for taking care of the animals, Fisher said that all she wanted was the little crippled pig.
Fisher took Janice to the Barberton vet clinic and after X-rays, found that the pig’s legs were not broken after all. But they had atrophied from the years of neglect and the horrific conditions the animal was kept in. Fisher asked the vet if Janice was suffering, should she be euthanized. The vet replied, “No, this is the best the pig’s ever had it. She’ll tell you when it’s time to go.” After some anti-inflammatory for Janice’s arthritis and her joints, she was brought to her new home where a little log cabin was built for her.
It ends up that she lived for seven more years. Fisher went on to explain, “She was the catalyst for starting everything because it got us thinking: ‘What do other people do with some of these animals that are hidden in their barns, or what do the humane societies do with them, when you come across that starving goat or that abandoned horse or the pig with the broken legs – who’s taking care of those animals?’ That answer, sadly was pretty much nobody.”
Fisher said, “The humane societies weren’t set up to take farm animals, they didn’t have the facilities, didn’t have the funds, and they didn’t have the knowledge to do any of that. So that was the start of it.” From there Fisher started contacting the humane societies and let them know they would support them. It expanded from there to supporting sheriff’s departments and law enforcement agencies because a lot of counties in Ohio do not have humane officers.
Fisher works closely with the court system and is considered an expert witness here in Ohio testifying for farm animal cases. The main intake criteria are the animals have to come in through a humane office or sheriff’s department from a situation of abuse, neglect or abandonment. But most important is that charges need to be filed against the owners. If not, they won’t accept the animals. Otherwise, they are part of the problem, especially if it is a hoarding situation.
Fisher said, “We don’t take in animals that people simply don’t want anymore. If you don’t want your pet goat or your old horse, we’re not like a placement service. We’re not an animal broker or a retirement home.”
In Guernsey County there was a group of 14 horses that were neglected, and the humane officer just wanted somebody to take them in. It would cost about $1,000 per horse for vet exams, vaccinations, de-worming, hoof trimming, etc. When asked if they were filing charges, the officer, who said no, was just going to help the owners. Fisher told the authorities that as soon as they pull those horses out, the owners are going to fill that corral again and someone just went through all that expense for nothing. They would have to file charges first. They refused, and she wouldn’t help. So another rescue group agreed to take all the horses. The following year they sent Fisher another picture – same house, same corral, different group of horses – and the exact same thing happened.
“If you don’t make people responsible for the suffering they inflict on the animals, they will turn around and do it again, and again, and again,” Fisher said. “All you do is just keep taking the burden off of them and dumping it on sanctuaries or animal rescue groups. They go through the expense, the time, the trouble, the rehab, the adoptions for these people to go, ‘Oh, we’re let off the hook.’ And that’s part of the problem.”
Happy Trails started out serving the state of Ohio then expanded to serve any state that requests help. They adopt out anywhere in the U.S. with animal groups in 18 different states, all the way out to Nevada and California. Most of the rescue help given is in the surrounding states. The nine-acre property supports between 100 and 150 animals at any given time, and still operates mostly with volunteers. For the longest time, Fisher did most of it herself.
“We have a very small paid staff now,” she said. “We have a facilities manager who lives on the property so someone is here 24 hours a day. There is our head animal care-taker, who sets protocol and is in charge of the feeding staff. She meets with the vets and blacksmiths, the sheep-shearers, all that kind of stuff. And three part-time people who do the actual feeding and watering of the animals. It took us a long time to get to the point where we could actually get the help.”
Tabatha Fisher [no relation] has been working part-time as a feeder for several months now and is studying biology as a pre-vet student at The University of Akron. Her primary duties and responsibilities are to feed and water the animals, which are on a strict diet, especially the horses, and that includes different medications. Her job is to make sure that they all get what they’re supposed to get and how much they’re supposed to get.
“I like working here,” she said, “it’s awesome, I enjoy it a lot. This fits in perfectly because I’m getting hands-on experience. Working here, I realized, you really need to have a love for animals and be OK with working in the elements because that’s all you are.”
When asked if she was developing an emotional attachment to any of the animals or was getting to know them as personalities, she replied, “Yeah, personality wise, yes. For instance, the pigs. Everyone has a different personality. They’re stubborn, sometimes they don’t want to eat what they’re supposed to, so I have to go in and warm up bread or carrots, or different things just to get them to eat. We have a miniature horse named Kachina who is a little diva. She loves attention and her little other miniature pony, who is her partner in crime, Sivalli…you can’t give one a treat without the other. Especially Kachina because she throws a fit.”
Tabby said she gets a sense of accomplishment by being at Happy Trails. “Knowing that I get to give them a second chance and to help them get a second chance of knowing that all humans aren’t bad is probably, like, the greatest feeling in the world. That’s what I really like,” she added.
Thomas Ehmann has been volunteering for several months and does watering chores among other things. It first began when his sister was volunteering for an internship. “I started coming along just to help out and stuff, getting water and cleaning stalls. I just got really attached to all the animals, so I love coming out here to see them and to help them out with whatever they need.”
Over the years, Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary has rotated through a combination of goats, sheep, ducks, chickens, geese, potbellied pigs, farm pigs and horses, including mini-horses and draft-horses. And the mix changes weekly because there are adoptions. “All the animals are up for adoption once their court cases are done,” Fisher said.
“We are not like a retirement home where they stay here permanently. The only ones we have like that – four or five, maybe – are part of the nursing home farm animal visitation program. They’re the only ones who are here on a permanent basis. The mini-horses and goats are perfect wheelchair heights.”
Then there is George, the pig. He has been there from the beginning and came in as a friend for Janice. George was found as a baby in a park in Pittsburg by a man out walking his dog. The man came across some boys beating something with sticks and he thought it was a puppy. So he went to rescue the puppy.
“When he got there he saw it was a pig so he turned it in to the local humane organization and they in turn called us. So we went to Pa. and picked up the baby pig. George became a friend for Janice and he is still here.” Fisher said.
As far as the length of time an animal resides there, Fisher said one horse came in and was adopted within five days. Another horse was there almost five years. “It all depends on the animal itself,” she said. One way to help provide for the animals while they are there is through the animal sponsorship program. “If a person sponsors a particular animal, they get a personal invitation to come out [to see their animal]. If it’s a pig, they get to give the pig a belly rub and they get to sit with it and to go experience it in person. So it’s not some vague notion that ‘I’m giving to some cause out where I’ll never see it.’ We want people to see our progress. We want to be a very transparent organization. We encourage people to come out and see the animals that they are helping,” she said. Tour season is May through October.
Fisher went on to explain that Happy Trails is a 501(c)3 organization and all donations are tax-deductible. People can either specify where they want their donation to go toward or they can just say that it can be used where it is needed most, and to whatever animals, or expenses or projects that are going on.
“People are welcome to send in a check with a note if they’d like to. You can go through our website. You can go through PayPal on the website. People can call in with a charge card if they prefer because we do take charges over the phone. With every donation they get a thank-you and a tax receipt,” Fisher added.
Happy Trails also accepts material donations such as old blankets and sleeping bags. They have “wish lists” of needed items. “People can visit our website, or, if they want something more updated, they can call the office and say, ‘Hey, what do you guys need?’ and we can give them a list to pick from,” Fisher said. And the group is looking for skilled people on a regular basis. “If someone is a skilled carpenter or somebody is handy at helping to repair fences…something is always breaking. The roof always gets a leak in it, in this barn, or that barn.”
In addition to the annual compassionate thanksgiving vegan dinner buffet held each November in honor of the animals, a new fundraiser has been added this year – Art Barn 2013. “It’s like an art gallery.” Fisher said. “We are collecting art pieces – anything from fine arts, to ceramic, to stained glass, to pottery. Signed books and CDs, collectables and antiques. It’s not a silent auction; it’s all going to have a price on it for sale. It’s a wine and hors d’oeuvre kind of thing. People can come in and look things over and it they buy something 100 percent of the proceeds go to the sanctuary. All of the items are donated,” Fisher added.
The Art Barn 2013 event took place March 9, 4 to 8 p.m., at the Acker-Moore Memorial Banquet Hall, 3733 Fishcreek Road, Stow. Tickets are $20. Call Happy Trails at (330) 296-5915 to purchase tickets by phone with a credit card or through PayPal at happytrailsfarm.org.
Happy Trails Farm Animal sanctuary is located at 5623 New Milford Rd., Ravenna, Ohio. Visit: www.happytrailsfarm.org.