Farm animal sanctuary opens in Portage County

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RAVENNA, Ohio – Annette Fisher always wanted a horse. Now she’s got two – and three ducks, three potbellied pigs, seven dogs, 10 rabbits and 11 chickens. She’s also looking forward to the upcoming arrival of nearly 40 sheep and a 700-pound pig.

In the past three years, her barns have also been home to a pony, several Arabian horses and countless chickens and ducks.

Fisher and her husband, Russ, operate Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary, located on New Milford Road in Ravenna.

“Each animal that lives here is special,” Fisher said, noting that each has been rescued from abuse, neglect or abandonment. The sanctuary houses animals that have been rescued by the Portage County Animal Protective League, rehabilitates them and then offers each animal for adoption.

The sanctuary works in conjunction with the Portage County league as well as local veterinarians, the Akron-based Friends of Pets program, Heaven’s Hope Horse Rescue in Cortland, Wild Mustang Ranch in Braceville Township, and Ooh Mah Nee Farm Sanctuary in western Pennsylvania.

How it started. Growing up, Fisher’s farm experience was limited to visits to her relatives’ farms in the Atwater area. She didn’t know much about farming but always loved animals.

Three years ago, she and her husband decided to move from their home in Akron to a more rural setting. Everything snowballed from there.

“I always wanted to live on a farm, and I guess this is my big chance,” she said, adding that she wanted to use her time to help animals that needed extra care. The Fishers, along with dozens of volunteers, are learning as they go.

“We are here to promote responsibility and proper care of animals. We’re not here as a dumping ground for unwanted animals,” she said.

The sanctuary specializes in farm animals, and “doesn’t do dogs and cats,” Fisher said. However, they do offer their farm as a foster home for dogs with ailments through the Friends of Pets program.

“We hate to turn anybody down, and find that we can use our network to find more homes,” she said.

The farm accepts horses, pigs, ducks, chickens, sheep, goats, rabbits and cattle.

Personal investment. The Fishers operate the 10-acre farm, and two other volunteers serve on the board of directors. The sanctuary earned nonprofit status earlier this year.

“Russ and I have paid for every animal’s medical care up until this point,” Fisher said, “but now we can apply for grant money to help us.

“Obviously cost is an issue with this, and the money has got to come from some place,” she said. Volunteers help with donations of supplies and time. Students from Hiram College have also volunteered at the farm.

Fisher estimates they have paid nearly $20,000 in animal medical bills since the farm opened. Other costs include spaying and neutering, fencing and building materials, feed and other supplies. Both Fishers have been employed off the farm up to this point – Russ drives truck and Annette owns and operates a bridal shop in Akron. In mid-September, Annette put her shop up for sale so she could work full-time at home.

“I really enjoy what I’m doing with the animals. It doesn’t even seem like work,” she said.

A growing herd. The Fishers realize that “99.9 percent of all farmers and people who live in the country take excellent care of their animals.” The sanctuary exists for the small percentage who do not, according to the farm’s mission statement.

Animals are turned over to the sanctuary by Portage County authorities after abuse or neglect is proven. The farm has no legal jurisdiction and cannot make abuse judgments or seize animals. Court rulings that order the animals to be returned to their original owners are not contested.

“It’s hard to see them go back, but we know that they’ll be taken care of or we’ll see them again,” Fisher said.

Animals are cared for by volunteers at the farm until they reach their optimum health. The sanctuary operators realize that not every animal will heal completely, and that not all animals are going to get adopted.

“Our goal is to let them be the best animal they can be and to find them a good home,” Fisher said.

Adoption demands. However, animals aren’t turned over to just anyone who says they will take them. A formal application process must be followed, including an on-site visit to the potential home to be sure the proper care and facilities will be provided.

“We have found that if a person is willing to take the time to fill out the application and let someone visit, they are rarely turned down,” Fisher said.

Adoptions at Happy Trails also have restrictions. Adopters must sign a contract stating that they will not harm the animal, use it for profit, and will provide the animal with veterinary care. Animals adopted from the farm may never be slaughtered or used for meat.

Each animal also comes with a list of requirements that the new environment must offer. For example, a duck with mobility problems must have access to a pool or pond for therapy, an enclosure to protect it from predators, and safe housing with a heat lamp. Fisher and other volunteers determine the needs of each animal based on its injuries or condition.

Barnyard pals. Animals that call Happy Trails home include Camry, a horse whose previous owner forced her to carry too much weight, resulting in a weak back and legs; Janice, the potbellied pig, whose legs atrophied due to being confined to an area too small for her; and her companion, George, also a potbellied pig, who was rescued from being beaten by a group of teens in an Akron park.

Chickens rescued from Buckeye Egg Farm in Xenia after last year’s tornado also stay at the farm as a representative of those hens available for adoption. Others rescued with them are housed at another sanctuary in Pennsylvania.

One of the farm’s most talked about residents is Shelby, a 3-year-old Belgian who was rescued as a foal from an estrogen production farm. She was named reserve champion Belgian mare and first place in her division at the 2001 Portage County Fair.

“When we first brought her home, she was like a 500-pound dog on a leash and hard to control. It’s really fun to see how far she’s come, and how far all of the animals come with a little care and help,” she said.

Volunteers also set up a booth at the fair to educate the public of Happy Trails’ mission and goals. The Fishers’ phone has “rung off the hook since the fair, with people wanting to know more,” Fisher said.

Public perception. “We were afraid to be perceived as an activist group, but we found that 19 out of 20 people we talked to at the fair agreed with what we were doing,” Fisher said.

Fisher became a vegetarian five years ago, and says she understands and accepts the idea of meat production, but “would like to see the way they treat some of the animals changed.”

Visitors at the fair agreed that the farm’s operators were just “using common sense,” Fisher said.

The farm’s practices have met opposition though. A neighbor filed a complaint with the county, requesting that a law be upheld that requires animals to be housed at least 100 feet from the neighbor’s house. No other complaints have been reported, according to Fisher.

Volunteers. Aside from animal care, volunteers are always needed to help with mailings, fund raising and planning events.

The farm hosts public tours at the beginning of each month, as well as tours for schools and senior citizen groups. The animals are also used for animal therapy.

“We dream about how we can expand,” Fisher said, noting that plans are in the works to build a large multi-purpose barn and increase fenced area.”We might be small, but we can still play a large part in animal rescue. Any animal we can help is one step closer to our goal,” Fisher said.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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