Nestled in the hills west of Madison is a barn like no other. Walk inside and you’ll see organized chaos that includes critters and caretakers. One of the animals, Lily the potbelly pig, arrived a few years ago when she was too heavy to walk and had to be brought in on a sled. To make matters worse, Lily was blind as a result of her owner’s neglect.
Lily and the rest of the farm animals in this barn are part of Dana Barre’s dream project. Barre is the founder and executive director of Heartland Farm Sanctuary in rural Verona, Wisconsin. Since 2009, Heartland Farm Sanctuary has been welcoming with open arms injured, orphaned, abandoned and abused farm animals. It is now the largest shelter in Wisconsin for farm animals.
“I do remember growing up as a kid, I always had a soft spot for animals,” Barre said. “Wisconsin is home to between 50 and 60 million farm animals and yet at the time Heartland was founded, we were the only farm animal sanctuary in the state.”
Barre welcomes visitors from across the country. She begins her tour with stories of heartache and ends with heartwarming tales. Baine, a small goat, is harnessed to a makeshift wheelchair after being born without the use of his back legs and limited use of his front legs. The University of Wisconsin Engineering Department worked with volunteers at Heartland Farm Sanctuary to design and build a special wheelchair cart for Baine. He’s a favorite at the farm and is pampered each day with a bath and blow dry.
Barre was a stay at home mom when she had the idea to open a farm rescue shelter. She had given up her 10-year career as an actuary and went back to school to get a master in counseling. She was convinced her idea could be life-changing.
“Every couple of rescues we’d have to learn to care for a whole new type of farm animal. The idea that animals and people could rescue each other really appealed to me and that’s why Heartland was founded”, Barre said.
Heartland Farm Sanctuary now helps special needs and at risk youth, veterans and a lot of other people who could find comfort in being with their animals. Barre believes in the principle that animals and people really aren’t so different from each other. Both have needs to be fed and sheltered and want to feel safe, secure and loved. Barre believes the animals turnaround and rescue their caretakers in terms of whatever they might be dealing with. Barre knew her barnyard therapy idea could be good for both animals and humans.
While the concept may be simple, feeding her pet project is not so easy. The public is welcome to drop off cash or food donations and a couple of local grocery stores offer her expired produce. It never seems to be enough though. For for every animal they take in, they have to turn away 20 to 30 animals. The future of the rejected animals is unknown and many must be euthanized.
“There are days where we are wondering how we’re going to get through to see the next day because it can be such a strain on our resources, and on our people too. Taking care of abused, neglected and abandoned animals is hard work,” Barre said.
At the core of this rescue mission is its volunteers. They are what make Heartland Farm Sanctuary tick. Sweeping floors, mucking pens and feeding animals is all done in a day’s work by volunteers.
Every day working at Heartland reminds Barre of the state she is proud to live in.
“We live in a state where farming is so central to our culture, to our economy, to who we are as people, and I love it when people come out and they’re fascinated, they’re fulfilled, and there’s something very deep inside that touches them about being at Heartland,” Barre said. “I have to say I don’t know that I’ve given anything else so much effort in my life.”
At its core, Heartland Farm Sanctuary is a safe place for anybody who needs help and comfort.