The Ups and Downs of Running an Animal Sanctuary

Running The Gentle Barn isn’t always easy, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.


For 17 years, The Gentle Barn has been rescuing animals who are pregnant and who have suffered unmentionable acts of cruelty. We bring sick animals home and watch as they overcome and recover. We also help children find themselves in the barnyard while allowing guests of all ages to open their hearts to animals and nature. Each day is a blessing and a miracle that we feel honored to be part of.
However, this is not a job we can leave when we are done for the day. We give 100 percent, whether it is late at night, on our days off, or during our vacations. We love these animals and worry about them constantly. Sadly, there are times when animals get sick, and we are up nights agonizing over them.
There are also times when our animals leave us. Even though we know they had wonderful lives, they still leave a gaping hole in our hearts when they go. Sometimes, we rescue animals who are too sick and too far gone to survive, and we cannot give them the living apology they deserve.

Keep moving forward
We have no time to stay in any one moment for too long. Take this week, for example. A cow named Dudley had been in the hospital for close to three months. This week, Dudley came home, and we could not stop crying from happiness. As we were celebrating his homecoming, our horse Princess went lame. At 32, she had arthritis and a swollen knee that we had been treating with acupuncture, but it flared up and she was struggling. We had a veterinarian treat her, but even with the acupuncture and pain medicine, she was still having a hard time. We hung our last hope on one final acupuncture treatment, and when it did not work, we made the difficult decision to help Princess out of her body. Then, as we were trying to grieve over this loss, our staff called and said our horse Lazar was not feeling well. We checked on him and found him shaking and struggling to breathe. His heart was racing, and he had an extremely high fever. We knew we had little time before Lazar was too weak to stand in the trailer, so we drove him immediately to the emergency hospital. Now, Lazar is in the hospital with pneumonia fighting for his life.
At first, living on this emotional rollercoaster was hard because I wanted to mourn and give each animal that passed his/her due time to say farewell. When an animal was ill, I wanted the world to stop so I could stay focused on them. When there was a new rescue, I wanted to hold them, love them, and make them my whole world until they were healed. But I have constant demands on me, and I don’t have the luxury of crumbling in grief. I can’t stay at the hospital with Lazar because I have to work during the day, so I see him at night. I can’t crawl into bed all day with the newest rescue and hold them until they recover. I must rely on my volunteers and staff to help me.

Balance beam
My life has turned into a balancing act, and I have finally figured out how to make it work. I figure if I have only a short time in each moment, then I need to make that moment count. When Dudley came home, I jumped up and down, cried with joy, and smiled until my cheeks hurt. I shared his homecoming with everyone I met that day and immersed myself in that jubilation. When Princess passed away, I wept loudly. I held her head in my arms and stroked her neck. I told her how much she meant to me and how much she was loved. Nothing was left unsaid. When the doctor gave her the injection that would free her from her failing body, I closed my eyes and connected to her spirit. I encouraged her to lift easily and effortlessly out of her body. I imagined her floating out like a golden ray of light that brightened the entire sky. I congratulated her on her great job as a horse, promised to remember her always, and whispered farewell. Later, when Lazar was brought to the hospital, I worried and prayed, and have been visualizing him breathing with ease and coming home.
Each morning our pigs cry for breakfast as if they had not eaten in months, knowing full well they are fed at the same time each day. Mid-morning the goats, sheep, and cows lie down to meditate with closed eyes and earnest faces. Early afternoons, the horses run and play, with manes flowing and tails raised high, with so much joy that their sorrow and abusive pasts no longer exist.
These animals have taught me how to live in each instant, and I am grateful for the lesson. That is what my life has become—a string of moments that have my complete devotion. I have no time to dwell in the past nor do I have the luxury of thinking about the future. I take what comes and dedicate myself to it, then move to the next. Step by step, moment by moment, I move along until strung together they all become my life, my journey, and my story.
Ellie Laks is the Founder of The Gentle Barn Foundation and author of the book My Gentle Barn, Creating a Sanctuary Where Animals Heal and Children Learn To Hope.
Photo courtesy of Joey Julius

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