If there is one thing you should know about Tara McKean of The 10 Acre Woods Sanctuary, it’s that her energy is as big as her hugs.
We arrived at The 10 Acre Woods in Anola, Manitoba — after several days of driving through a very long stretch of Ontario — to open arms and a loud hello. We had barely stepped out of the van before Tara McKean, “mother hen” of the Woods, reminded us that we were welcome to stay the night, enjoy a hot shower and do laundry while we were there. Her kindness instantly made us feel like we were at home.
Tara wasn’t the first resident we met at The 10 Acre Woods.
It was Fernando the turkey who strutted up to the side of the van as well pulled in – and called loudly to let anyone who would listen know that we had arrived. He circled the van proudly puffing his chest forward and strutting slowly to make sure we got a good view of all the colours of his feathers.
Not far behind (but just far enough) was The Rock, a guinea fowl, Fernando’s loyal frenemy who stalks closely behind but anytime Fernando turns around to have eyes on him, he crouches low to the ground and huddles into a rock-like shape.
It’s cold and wet in Anola; for the first official day of fall it feels more like the first day of winter. But before we have time to worry about the weather, Tara sweeps us into the barn to bottle feed Sheldon, a kid (baby goat) with a neurological disorder that has him bouncing from acre to acre.
Sheldon weaves in and out between our legs as we stroll through the chicken coop, and visit the newest arrivals at the sanctuary: 12 rabbits who were brought in when the Winnipeg Human Society had to turn them away due to a lack of capacity.
The 10 Acre Woods finds loving homes for animals when they can, after some diligent background checks. Tara candidly shares that anytime someone calls up to ask about taking in an animal (especially a goat), she first asks them if they want it for meat. She asks the question directly and without leading: because those who do want the animal for meat will say so, and those who don’t are horrified by the question.
The former don’t last much longer on the phone.
All visitors are invited directly into the animals’ enclosures but with a no-feeding policy; so that the animals’ relationship with humans is not about being fed, it’s of a genuine curiosity and engagement.
As a non-profit, The 10 Acre Woods relies on donation-based public tours and unique specialty programs (like goat yoga, essential oil classes or craft workshops) to cover the costs related to taking care of the animals. They have no paid employees; Tara works the farm full-time, her 17 year old daughter Tiana helps out after school and on weekends. Her husband Mark (who works as a full-time mould & asbestos inspector) also helps out on evenings and weekends, and is the man behind their social media, including a YouTube channel that has nearly ten thousand subscribers.
As other guests arrive during the public visitor hours, Tara tells us quickly and in passing that all of the donations received from today’s visits are going to us and our Animal Sanctuary Compassion Tour.
Nicole chokes back tears of gratitude but before she can squeak out a word of thanks, Tara is off greeting the visitors.
A short while later, Tara calls to the animals with the same high-energy vigour and voice as she does with her human guests. They all trot towards us in response, then gallop in so excitedly we’re convinced they’re smiling – the goats, chickens, geese, sheep, llamas, and potbelly pigs – it’s like a children’s storybook coming to life before our eyes.
It’s remarkable to see all the different animals happily sharing the same space and food. It’s clear that when Tara says that everyone is welcome here, she means it.
After making the rounds, we help Tara, Mark and Tiana load dozens of bags of oats into the barn. The feed was donated by a local farmer; an indication of just how respected, and connected, The 10 Acre Woods is in the community. The feed will last them the year — a welcome donation especially as the winter months close in.
Tara doesn’t quite know what to do with herself with all the extra hands here to help; she had single-handedly loaded the feed into her truck at the other end. We can’t quite imagine having to do this on our own. Expecting that there was more work to be done, Tara announces that she is just as cold as we are and invites us into their home for some tea and coffee.
Tea and coffee quickly turned into Tara’s personal mission to identify all of the vegan-friendly food they have in the cupboards and within minutes we’re feasting on corn chips and salsa, potato and onion pierogies, steamed veggies and crispy onion rings.
The McKean’s dogs Toby, Maggie and Atlas take turns getting snuggles as their black kitten Knix (who they found at the side of the road “hog-tied” around her two hind legs) careens between the kitchen chairs.
Gathered around the kitchen counter we learn more about how The 10 Acre Woods has evolved in the last twenty years. Before they were a sanctuary, the McKean’s property was a hobby farm. With over 30 years of working with youth, and their experience as a foster family for kids in the system, Tara saw first-hand how the kids in her care were calmer and more focused the more they spent time with the animals. They also become more comfortable expressing their emotions in a healthy way, as if they could open up to the animals they spent time with.
As Tara describes, she’d always tell the kids in her care that she “doesn’t care who you are or where you’re from just be you. And if you don’t know who you are, this is a safe place where you can figure it out.”
Over time, Tara began inviting groups of kids in the system to visit with the animals. Then people with PTSD started coming, then kids with developmental disabilities and now even seniors come to visit.
As Tara says, “there is an incredibly powerful therapeutic and healing benefit to spending time with animals when people are given the time to connect with them.”
Animal therapy continues to be a large part of the healing that happens at The 10 Acre Woods. Fernando is comfortable traveling (he seems to be comfortable anywhere he gets attention), frequenting the local seniors’ homes, bringing them joy and reminding them of happy, previously lost memories. Earlier this year Fernando (and The 10 Acre Woods) was even awarded a certificate of acknowledgement by the Legislature for animal therapy support.
Before settling in for the night we glance at the newspaper article that hangs proudly on the fridge. From a distance, you can see several candid pictures of some of The 10 Acre Woods’ residents in a frame around the article’s title: Everybody’s Happy Place.
After all the animals and humans we met here today, that’s the perfect way to describe The 10 Acre Woods.
The 10 Acre Woods is located in Anola, Manitoba. People can visit the interactive petting farm for by-donation public tours, to participate in special workshops and activities, or rent the sanctuary for private events like weddings and family picnics.
This article is part of a series from The Animal Sanctuary Compassion Tour; The Seva Life’s 10,000 kilometer road trip across Canada and the United States to visit and volunteer at animal sanctuaries and raise awareness about compassionate living.