A Visit to Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary
On Sunday, three friends and I took a ride to Poolesville, Maryland, which is just a short drive from DC. Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary is a non-profit refuge for farm animals who have been rescued from abuse, neglect, or imminent slaughter. Started fourteen years ago by one amazing couple who live on the 400-acre sanctuary, it’s an idyllic setting where animals interact freely with each other. There are geese, goats, chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, horses, mules, rabbits… and one wild groundhog with enough gumption to sneak inside the chicken house for some of their grub!
Hal was the first animal I got to spend some one-on-one time with during my visit. He is one of two mules at the sanctuary, both subjected to horrible abuse before their rescue. (That he was so peaceful and trusting with me, a complete stranger, was especially moving, in light of what I know of his past.) I was instructed to groom him; and, I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first because… well, I’d never groomed a mule before. I wanted to do it right. I wanted him to like me. Thankfully, Hal was patient with me as I figured it out. I sang some blues to him as I worked the brush down his back and the sides of his body, which he seemed to enjoy. A few times, he took time out from his eating to lift his head and swing around to look at me, as if to reassure me and tell me to keep going. When I was done brushing him, I pet him for a while and, finally, I let my hand rest on his wisdom (“third eye”) chakra. Then I asked him if it would be all right if I touched my chakra to his chakra. He didn’t move, so I rested my own forehead on his and just looked into his eyes. Hal was completely still as we took several breaths, in stillness, together. “Can you feel my energy?” I asked him. I told him I could feel his. It was my beagle Pushkin who first showed me how to breathe with an animal… just be with an animal for a few moments, free of distractions. I have Pushkin to thank (yet again) for an incredible life lesson. And Hal, such a gentle soul, for giving me that time with him.
After our time in the barn with the mules and horses, my friends and I ventured over to the area for the pigs. Often when I have a conversation about pigs and make a comment about how cute they are, people respond by saying that pigs are cute when they’re born but they quickly get pretty monstrous. It’s true — a pig gets enormous. But have you ever given a pig a belly rub? Oh. My. God. When you rub a pig’s belly (vigorously), he grunts with glee and will stretch his limbs and roll over… just to help you find the right spot. Truly, as adorable as a little baby! A pig may be huge, but he will absolutely melt your heart.
Why visit a sanctuary rather than a zoo?
Although you can opt to take a tour, you also can volunteer to help out for a few hours or a day. My friends and I groomed horses and mules, spread hay, and picked up after pigs and cows, all the while mingling with the animals. Working together with my friends was so much fun. And raking up cow patties was FUN… even for this city girl! With the animals, my friends and I created a memory together that I know will last a lifetime.
At the same time, we were able to support a place that respects all animals and, in doing so, promotes a more compassionate world. While zoos may seem pretty harmless, many animals in zoos are miserable. You know how elephants sway from side to side? They don’t do that in the wild; it’s actually a very visible sign that something is wrong, that the elephants are unhappy and hurting. And what happens when zoo animals get older? Often they’re sold off to research labs or canned hunt facilities. Zoos will say they don’t do this; many are able to make this claim because they sell animals to a “middle man” who then disposes of the animals in these unspeakable ways. In contrast, at a sanctuary, animals are given the love and care they deserve, and a way to live out their lives without fear and pain. When you visit a sanctuary, it’s like visiting friends. Happy friends. Healthy friends. Friends who know they are loved.
Spending a day at a sanctuary — whether it’s Poplar Spring or one closer to your own home — will fascinate you. It will give you a glimpse of humanity at its finest, and leave you at the end of the day feeling peaceful and hopeful. As it turns out, an animal sanctuary is quite the sanctuary for humans, too.
*Thanks to Kimberly Atkinson Kelly, Elise Traub, and Cailen LaBarge for sharing this great day with me, and for taking some wonderful photos.