Livestock get a new lease on life


HUNKER, Pa. – Poet Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe said, “Ambition and love are the wings to great deeds.” His quote couldn’t fit anyone better than the operators of Ooh-Mah-Nee Farm in Hunker, Pa., who recently rescued 3,000 chickens from the ruins of Buckeye Egg Farm in Hartford, Ohio.

The tornado that swept through southwestern Ohio Sept. 20 hit Buckeye Egg, trapping more than 1 million laying hens without food or water.

As a last resort, officials for Buckeye Egg and the Ohio Department of Agriculture discussed incinerating the 12 laying houses, but EPA wouldn’t allow it because of the possibility of a toxin release from the PVC conduit. Buckeye Egg then considered loading the chickens into dump trucks to be gassed and disposed of in a landfill.

“Our first priority was always to rescue as many birds as possible,” said Steven Wagner, senior production manager of Buckeye Egg.

When Cayce and Jason Mell and Cayce’s mother, Margaret Raphael, owners of Ooh-Mah-Nee Farm, heard about the disaster, they immediately contacted Buckeye Egg to begin rescuing the hens and relocating them to their livestock sanctuary in Westmoreland County, Pa., east of Pittsburgh.

Several farmers and animal protection agencies came to the farm to rescue approximately 60,000 hens during a three-week effort. The rescue was finally called off when it became too dangerous for rescuers to enter the battered buildings.

The 600,000 chickens that remained trapped were euthanized with carbon dioxide gas and sent to a company who makes ingredients for livestock feed and pet food. The Pine Grove Landfill in Fairfield County accepted the mix of building debris and close to 300,000 chicken carcasses.

“We knew it wasn’t possible to save all of them. There were just too many and the extent of the damage to the buildings was incredible, but seeing all of these people helping to rescue the birds was just as incredible,” said Cayce Mell.

Wagner says he was glad to see so many people concerned about the welfare of the animals, but it was also good to see people from opposite sides of the spectrum working together.

“(Ooh-Mah-Nee Farm) was a delight to work with. We were able to bridge the differences in philosophies and put the birds in front of our differences. From an industry standpoint, I saw a different side of the animal protection groups and I think they also saw that the birds were cared for,” said Wagner. “We earned respect from one another.”

Wagner said saving the birds was the one bright spot in the disaster.

“The chickens went through a great ordeal, and we are now learning a lot about chicken vet care and doing a lot of egg collecting,” said Cayce.

If you’re wondering what Ooh-Mah-Nee Farm is going to do with 3,000 birds. Well, after they are nursed back to health, they, like all the other animals at the sanctuary, will be up for adoption.

Prospective new owners are evaluated by Ooh-Mah-Nee. Once they are approved, adoptive owners must sign an agreement saying the animals will not go back into production. For the most part, adoptive owners must keep the animals as a pet.

“If an animal ends up with us, it has already had a tough life. We think they have earned their retirement,” said Cayce. The farm does not charge a fee to adopt the animals.

The sanctuary was started in 1995 when Cayce and her mother gave up the city life of upstate New York for a more peaceful country life in Pennsylvania. Margaret was a children’s film maker and Cayce was a college student studying photography. Cayce met her husband, Jason Mell, a skateboard designer and manufacturer from Mount Pleasant, Pa., and found their common bond – compassion for animals.

“We knew nothing about farming. We had a great love for animals but didn’t realize what it would take to do what we wanted to do,” said Cayce. “When we first moved here, the local farmers liked the idea of what we wanted to do. They were a great help to us, teaching us how to build fences and barns and how to raise hay.”

Ooh-Mah-Nee is now a safe haven for more than 500 animals, including cows, chickens, turkeys, hogs, goats, sheep, rabbits and potbellied pigs.

Margaret has started an organic produce enterprise and plans to open a restaurant called Ooh-Mah-Nee Natural Foods by Christmas.

Though Ooh-Mah-Nee Farm is now a nonprofit organization and has a special rescue fund, it still relies heavily on the family’s organic business for funding.

“This is the first year we’ve gotten donations. We are now looking into grant monies,” said Cayce. “We have gotten donations from $10 to $2,000 from people who have heard about what we do. We know there is support out there.”

Cayce says it is important to them to help anyone who has adopted animals as much as they can, even if it means help with buying feed or building materials, veterinary care or transportation. Jason will soon load about 600 of the Buckeye Egg chickens into a rented truck to deliver them to people in Indiana, Missouri and Minnesota, among other states.

Ooh-Mah-Nee Farm was featured on Animal Planet’s Wild Rescues, after the show learned of one of their rescues. They received a call from a woman in Massachusetts who wanted to dissolve her dairy goat business. To help support her business she was selling the kids for meat, and she felt she could no longer ethically do that. Cayce and Jason went to her farm and brought back 45 goats, many of which were already bred, and helped her shut down her business.

“Soon after that rescue, we began to get a lot of calls from people all over the country who wanted our help,” said Cayce. “We realized this would have to be a full-time job.”

The farm has a network of volunteers from the University of Pittsburgh and also employs three people full-time.

Cayce recalls one of their most devastating rescues.

“We got a call from a humane officer about a farm in Derry with over 200 dying sheep and goats. When we got there, we couldn’t believe our eyes,” said Cayce. “There were dead sheep and goats in this woman’s house and all over the field. There was excrement all over the floor of her house, and the ammonia level was so bad it fogged up our camera lens.”

All but 15 of the sheep and goats have since been adopted.

Just last July, Ooh-Mah-Nee received a call about an overturned stock trailer on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Cayce and Jason brought the 23 surviving cows back to the sanctuary.

Ooh-Mah-Nee Farm is planning a grand opening in the spring, when they will open a gift shop and a museum documenting the transition of family farms into large scale farms. Cayce says they are encouraging school groups to visit the farm and are also looking into grants to become an educational center.

To contact Ooh-Mah-Nee, call 724-925-2241 or send an e-mail to

“Each one of these animals has an incredible story. Everyone who visits Ooh-Mah-Nee is affected,” said Cayce. “No matter where you come from, everyone is sympathetic to animal cruelty and can relate to the animals. They are their greatest advocates, we’re just here to help them along.”


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