Driving inland from the Oregon coast we watched the landscape change from wet and lush to dry and arid. As we arrived in Sisters, Oregon, did our best to admire the outpost-like nostalgia and Old West town vibe–only a day earlier, we learned that our neighbour’s house had caught fire and that it spread to our home as well.
Thankfully no one was hurt, but the ordeal caused us a fair amount of stress and worry. We were staying at a campsite outside Bend, and had been contemplating whether we needed to end the trip and return home to deal with the aftermath. While emergency crews were working to secure the property back home, we decided to continue with our next scheduled sanctuary stop and would re-evaluate the tour once we had a better picture of the extent of the damage.
Nestled at the end of a neighbourhood enclave, Harmony Farm Sanctuary sits on 10 acres that include a family home, a beautiful newly-built barn, walking trails, and several large enclosures.
As we pull into the driveway and park next to one of the enclosures, Eleanor Pigby, a former “production pig,” snorts and sniffs a friendly hello. Robine Bots, the Founder of Harmony Farm, is close behind.
“Our whole mission is to enhance our innate sense of kindness, compassion and empathy for all sentient beings,” Robine says as she describes Harmony Farm.
Her words feel like kismet and we are reminded why we decided to do the Animal Sanctuary Compassion Tour in the first place and that we must do our absolute best to see it through.
Robine established Harmony Farm Sanctuary four years ago, but it was in 2012 that the wheels were set in motion. Robine’s daughter had been begging the family for a pet micro pig and eventually Robine’s father obliged. They got Pig Floyd as a piglet and the breeder had said he’d grow to be around 25-35 pounds. What Robine and her family didn’t know was that this was a lie all breeders told prospective buyers of teacup or micro pigs so that they could sell them when they were still the picture perfect image of a cute pet.
Like so many other potbelly pig owners, the Bots family became frustrated when Pig Floyd grew into his pig personality: bossy, loud, and messy. As Robine began to research pig behaviour, she was shocked and saddened to learn the truth about micro pigs. Many are underfed to keep their small size, and are bred at only a few months old to stunt their growth. What’s more, 98% of pet owners get rid of micro pigs within the first year of having them.
“This is what my guilt has created,” Robine jokes as she motions around the expansive property that her father* helped to build. Whether that’s true or not, the 10 pigs and dozens of other animals that now call Harmony Farm Home are glad either way.
The residents at Harmony Farm come in from all different situations. Sometimes Robine gets calls from the sheriff’s department about stray or abandoned animals, or local residents refer farmers to Robine if they want to get rid of one.
Robine tells us that she does a lot of placements and exchanges with other shelters and sanctuaries behind the scenes, trying to place animals in forever homes whenever possible.
“Most sanctuaries are full, and the hardest part is not being able to say yes to them all. They all have compelling stories, but for us it’s important to give every single animal the care they need.”
Harmony Farm is almost always hovering at capacity but when an animal does arrive, they are usually there to stay.
Several turkeys strut out of the barn to inspect our visit. As they gather around us it feels like a welcome party and for the rest of the day we’re focused on the farm and not the fire back home.
Robine points a turkey out to us who goes by the names of Lurch, Fabio or Dr. Turkleton, depending on his mood. Robine got him three years ago from someone who was selling him as a Thanksgiving turkey. When she went to pick him up the woman was relieved to learn that Robine had no intention of eating him, saying that “he was so friendly.”
We continue with our tour and meet residents including Goose Springsteen, Vincent Van Goat, and Moodonna, a former dairy cow.
In her 13 years, Sweet Mama Moodonna would have given birth to 11 or 12 calves, all of which were taken away so that she could be milked and they could be sold. When she arrived at Harmony Farm, Moodonna was pregnant but very ill. Robine had hoped that she would finally be able to care for her baby when every other one before then had been taken away. When she did give birth in October of last year, her baby was stillborn.
“Watching her grieve over her baby was the saddest thing I’ve ever witnessed,” Robine recalls, choking back tears.
“We left her baby with her and she spent the whole day grieving and licking the baby clean. The sounds coming out of her were unlike anything I’ve ever heard. I have no doubt that she was mourning.”
Out of respect to Moodonna, Robine hand-carried the calf to a burial site on the property.
“I was heartbroken for her. She watched me carry her baby out at the end of the day, and watched me bury him. I felt like she was a part of the process and got to properly say goodbye.”
Moodonna has since taken a liking to Norman, a by-product of the dairy industry himself. Although he has the energy of a 1,000 pound puppy, Moodonna can be seen cleaning Norman in between bites of hay from the trough they share.
Robine works as a mental health counsellor and gives children the opportunity to learn from the animals. By interacting with the animals and helping to take care of them, the kids learn about qualities like compassion, patience, assertiveness and respect. Really, it’s about learning behaviour from animal behaviour.
“When I am working with a kid who can’t set boundaries, I have them feed the horses because they all mob you at feeding time. They child learns how to be assertive, not aggressive.”
Robine also gets weekly school visits from a group of kids with special needs. Although she doesn’t teach about veganism, she does help them see how animals are just like humans. Often kids will jump off the bus, point to the pigs and say something like “look at all that bacon!” Robine kindly tells them that none of these animals are going to be bacon and the rule on the farm is we’re not going to call any of the animals meat.
“I’ll have them observe the pigs and ask them to name the emotions they see. I talk about them as sentient beings. When you teach people to have compassion for themselves, then it’s easier for them to have compassion for others.”
The helping works both ways too. Robine tells us about Love Bug, a horse that was used to pull a cart who, at the end of her utility, was being sent to auction to be sold for meat. When she arrived at Harmony Farm, Love Bug was filled with ticks, parasites, and fleas. She had closed off emotionally and although Robine spent six months giving her love, she didn’t see a change.
Then, one of Robine’s clients – a teenage girl with depression – would go out to just sit with Love Bug for their sessions. Now, they’re bonded for life and Robine credits the girl for saving Love Bug.
Robine does have adult visitors come to the farm for private tours too, and many leave with a curiosity and interest in plant-based living, even if it’s just participating in Meatless Monday. “Our goal is to build compassion and help people realize that the plant-based lifestyle is the future,” she says.
“I always remind people that we’re animals too. We’re no better than them. I wish everybody would know and just be aware of what’s going on.”
Everyone who comes for a tour is encouraged to do the Loving Kindness Meditation. It’s a simple mantra that is meant to generate compassion in those who practice it. The meditation typically involves repeating the phrases may I be safe, may I happy, may I be healthy, may I be at peace. At Harmony Farm, visitors are encouraged to replace “I” with whatever they want.
Robine smiles when she thinks about how many kids have chosen to replace “I” with “the animals.”
“When you teach compassion on purpose to people, it changes them,” she says.
After spending a day with the colourful cast of Harmony Farm, we were reminded that spreading the message of compassion was too important a mission to end the Tour early. Fire or no fire, we were going to see this project through.
Harmony Farm Sanctuary, located in Sisters, Oregon, is a non-profit dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating farm animals and striving to cultivate compassion for all beings. You can schedule a private tour or make a donation to help support the animals.
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.