We arrived at Free to Be Me Animal Sanctuary after a flat but beautiful drive through Saskatchewan. We followed Melissa’s directions to take the main street out of Moose Jaw “until it turns into a dirt road,” and sure enough were welcomed by a cheery yellow sign bearing the silhouettes of familiar farm animals.
Melissa Pierce and Louanne Shropshire are the dynamic mother-daughter duo behind Free to Be Me Animal Sanctuary. The 80+ acre property was previously owned by Louanne’s father, who operated it as a grain farm after a short stint as a pig farmer. Even at a young age, Louanne cared deeply about animals and their wellbeing. She recalls a time as a child when she refused to pour poison into the groundhog holes, much to her father’s displeasure.
Likewise, Melissa remembers her childhood as rescuing frogs, and bringing birds with broken wings home because she “knew her mother could fix them.”
We trudged through muddy pastures — the result of several days of heavy rainfall — but happily basked in the sun as Nooxie the alpaca greeted us with a sniff of the hand, while Hope the goat sniffed out other areas. We said hello to the miniature ponies, honked back at the African geese and tenderly trod through the chicken coop, watching out for the ducklings scuttling about.
Similar in openness to The 10 Acre Woods, many of the animals interact with one another and share the same pastures (even though they have their own pens) and seeing them all get along and engage with us with such friendly curiosity was a real joy.
Many of the red and white barn structures at Free to Be Me have been there for decades, and have housed hundreds of rescued farm animals.
The animals arrive here from various situations; pet-owners surrendering potbelly pigs when they’ve outgrown their “teacup pig” size, wildlife centres at capacity, or local neighbours who notice strays or neglected animals. Melissa and Louanne have been at this for so long that they’ve even had calls come in from as far as Alberta; and if they can help, they will.
Building a sanctuary first took shape nearly 15 years ago, when Louanne was at a community sheep pasture to pick up a sheep with a crooked face. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed another sheep laying on a pile of manure who had been left for dead. She held her gaze a moment long enough to notice some movement in the sheep’s head and she pleaded with the farmer to let her take this full-grown sheep too. The farmer scoffed but agreed in exchange for $10. Kiko is still alive and living well at the sanctuary today.
Louanne and Melissa have an affinity for taking care of animals with special needs. What was surprising and encouraging to learn, is that several of the animals with special needs were willingly surrendered by the farmers themselves. A more common fate for livestock that are designated as “failure to thrive” (as in, they can’t perform the duties required of the farm’s business) is that they are either left to die in the field, immediately sold off or sent straight to slaughter.
The two most recent animals who arrived at Free To Be Me with special needs ended up there voluntarily surrendered by their farmers. Hope the goat was born with a twisted leg, and rather than simply sending her to slaughter, or letting her die in the field, the farmer actually called Melissa and asked if they’d be willing to take her in.
Once Hope arrived, Melissa and Louanne diligently bottle fed her, put her in a cast and helped her learn how to walk and now she’s fully mobile and makes sure that we know it — she followed us around for the whole visit!
The latest high-needs arrival was Willy the cow who was born on a cattle farm with a severely deformed face.
A year ago, the farmer had reached out to Melissa to see if they would take him in and they agreed, but the farmer never followed through. One year later, the farmer reached out again, so Melissa and Louanne went to pick him up right away.
When they brought Willy to Free to Be Me, they quickly realized that he had pneumonia. Louanne spent every night with him for three weeks straight, hand-feeding him and helping him get back up when he’d collapse. Louanne says it was clear to her that he wanted to live, so she wanted to help him.
Now, Willy happily plays in the field, grazes on grass and enjoys the occasional watermelon for an extra boost of energy. Melissa adds: “When Willy plays, your heart just warms. You see that he wants to be here, he wants to be alive.”
It’s clear that the animals at Free to Be Me are fighters. Some even having to make their own escape in order to survive.
Mikey and Millie were rescued as piglets after the transport truck they were traveling in — one that was bound for the slaughterhouse — broke down and they managed to escape. Although they were severely dehydrated and sunburnt (livestock endure horrific conditions en route to their deaths; they travel for days with no food, water, or shelter from the elements), Melissa and Louanne nursed them back to health and now they’re practically inseparable.
Our visit to Free to Be Me Animal Sanctuary brought to mind some interesting paradoxes about how we view farm animals.
For one, we can recall countless situations where humans have been outraged (and rightly so) over seeing a dog locked in a hot car while their caregiver runs an errand. And yet, we don’t express the same outrage for the hundreds of thousands of animals that endure worse conditions daily.
Another is how quickly humans can be to judge animals that don’t match their idea (or image) of what animals deserve love and care — like pets — and those that are as good as garbage — like livestock animals with special needs. In Moose Jaw, any animal with a hoof is considered livestock and therefore not subject to the same animal rights laws as household pets (the same is true in most other jurisdictions). Farmers can easily say, “well, those animals are bad for business; they cost to much to care for and aren’t worth the bottom line” and they’d be right.
Is that a business you want to support?
We asked Melissa and Louanne what they hope to achieve in their work of rescuing farm animals and giving them the lives they deserve. After a pensive moment, Louanne confidently asserts: “We know we can’t change the world but we can change our corner of the world.” Imagine if we all worked towards changing our corners of the world for the better?
Free To Be Me Animal Sanctuary is located in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. You can arrange to visit the sanctuary for a tour (by donation), or for a group tour (like classroom field trips) by contacting them on their Facebook page.
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.