With each stop on the Animal Sanctuary Compassion Tour, we arrive without really knowing what to expect. We didn’t personally know any of the people who operate the sanctuaries and had never visited these places before. Relying on what we could glean from social media, a few courteous email exchanges and what Google searches could provide, who we were to meet at each stop remained a mystery.
Arriving to meet Diane Nicholson of Twin Heart Animal Sanctuary in Tappen, British Columbia we had one extra tidbit to work with—that we would be in good company. We had been in contact with Sue Spahr from the Calling All Vegans podcast about appearing on their show, and the date we were scheduled to go live coincided with the date we were going to be at Twin Heart. When I mentioned this to Sue she excitedly requested that I give Diane a big hug, “because she’s wonderful.”
As we pulled in past the metal gates, we heard the loud barks from Ikin, the Nicholson’s beloved rescue pup, excitedly announce our arrival. Diane emerged from her home, smiling wide, with Ikin close by. Without a moment to execute in the formalities of a handshake, she pulled us in for a big hug. Harry, Diane’s husband and the “handy man” of the sanctuary, followed closely behind and greeted us with bright eyes and an even brighter smile.
We take shelter under the hay barn to chat as the cold rain pours fiercely against the cover. The ground is soaked in mud and a white haze of heavy mist floats over the fortress of hilly mountains. Despite the tumult of the weather, the sanctuary feels quite peaceful.
It’s hard to imagine that only a few months prior, wildfires raged across British Columbia. The encroaching fires required that the Nicholson’s to stock up on hay and feed, in the event the highways had to be closed. They had to make sure they had enough fuel for the generator if power lines went down. They also had to invest in a large trailer, so that they’d be able to load up as many residents as possible at a moment’s notice.
With the cold settling in, Harry suggests that we retreat inside to continue the conversation.
Sitting around the kitchen table, sipping tea and nibbling (okay, devouring) freshly baked vegan cookies we get to know the Nicholson’s as much as we learn about the animals of Twin Heart.
Born of hunting and fishing families, Harry and Diane met 45 years ago and bonded over a love of bikes. In fact, the two met when Diane was hitchhiking and Harry picked her up on his motorcycle! Though they haven’t been on the road together since they started the sanctuary, it’s clear that Harry and Diane share an adventurous and fun-loving spirit.
We ask whether running an animal sanctuary was always part of their plans for retirement. They’re quick to admit it was not, but their love of animals, the right property and some serendipitous timing have brought them to where they are today.
Diane says she was born loving animals. Growing up with dogs, horses and cats, Diane’s first job as a teenager was working with orphaned baby animals at the children’s zoo in Stanley Park. In adulthood, she became a professional photographer, specializing in animal photography.
Twenty-two years ago, she joined PETA and says that the moment she learned the truth of factory farms, she realized that she couldn’t say that she loved animals and support the animal agriculture industry too. She phoned Harry to let him know that she was going to be vegan and he decided to become vegan with her. He adds, “I wish we’d done it 22 years before that.”
When they bought the 8.5 acre property three years ago, the previous was looking to re-home three of her animals – an old mare and a couple hinnies – so Harry and Diane happily accepted them. Not long after, Harry and Diane rescued a Holstein calf being raised for beef and named her Journey.
Diane recalls bringing Journey home and noticing that she craved touch. “It hit me for the first time what these calves go through, from the moment they’re born, until they’re slaughtered for meat.”
That’s when Harry and Diane decided to open up as a sanctuary.
The animals who call Twin Heart home arrived here from many different situations. Legolas (aka Lego) was three days old when he was rescued from a dairy farm (he would’ve been sold for meat). Forrest came a few months later as a companion to Journey.
Tauriel is a sheep who was rejected by her mother, and Diane let her sleep in their bedroom when she first arrived at Twin Heart so that she could comfort her in the middle of the night when she would wake feeling anxious.
Andie and Percy, Twin Heart’s two pigs, grew up in the Nicholson’s living room before getting their own space. Harry remarks how having the pigs live in the home like any other pet revealed to him just how intelligent they are. He learned by experience that they have a whole language of their own — they make different sounds for when they’re happy, hungry, or just saying hello.
Diane got Yoda, the week-old goat of a backyard dairy operation, for about the price of a haircut. When Diane went to pick him up she quickly saw that Yoda was suffering from entropion; a birth defect where the eyelids turn under so every time he blinked he was scratching his cornea. Once in Twin Heart’s care, his condition was corrected by a vet and although he can’t see straight ahead, he’s no longer in pain and loves to roam about with the other animals.
Then there was Eve, the ewe (female lamb) that Diane rescued on Christmas Eve. When she brought her home to Twin Heart, Diane learned that she was suffering from aspiration pneumonia, so she stayed with her around the clock until she could get her to a vet after Christmas.
When the vet saw Eve, they said she wouldn’t survive the condition. Happily, she’s about to celebrate her second birthday this year, but that’s only thanks to Diane spending two solid months with her on the recliner in the living room with the humidifier on to help her healing.
It was through our conversation with Nicholson’s that we learned about 4-H a “network of youth organizations whose mission is engaging youth to reach their fullest potential while advancing the field of youth development.” One of the ways they do this is through their agriculture club, where children are given the responsibility of raising a baby farm animal (typically sheep, pigs and cows).
The kids take care of the animals like they would any other pet: they give them a name, they raise them, sleep with them when they’re sick, look after them, they bathe them, train them, and love them. And then, after about 6 months, the kids enter their animals into an agriculture fair and sell them at auction for slaughter.
Diane has been at these auctions, and the stories send chills up our spine. “Basically you’re training these children that it’s okay to betray your friend in the worst possible way, as long as you make money doing it.” She has seen young kids run out of the tents bawling at the end of the show. Harry adds, “They’re carrying their blue ribbon and their friend is going to get his throat slit.”
Rain, another sheep at Twin Heart, was raised by a 4-H club member who didn’t want to see their friend get killed, but whose parents didn’t want to keep the sheep as a pet. Diane hopes that by rescuing animals like Rain, more people will become aware of the traumatizing and cruel nature of this part of club, for both the child and the animal.
Reflecting on their journey so far, Diane adds, “We started our sanctuary to show humans that these animals have personalities; that they love and want to be loved, and that they, like us, wish to live in peace.”
In their 22 years as vegans, Diane and Harry have seen the movement go through its share of growing pains. In the last several years especially, they have observed that while veganism is becoming more popular, there seems to be an increase in the hostility and aggressiveness of some activists, especially online. The compassionate activists are still there, but the angry ones seem to be a little bit louder.
As we were transitioning to a plant-based diet and lifestyle, we were exposed to voices in the movement that were less forgiving (people who intentionally make you feel lesser than for not being vegan, or for not being a “good enough” vegan). Were it not for our persistence and finding a voice of activism that resonated with us (compassion), we could have easily abandoned the movement.
Diane’s reflections reminded us why the Animal Sanctuary Compassion Tour was important. For her personally and through Twin Heart, Diane is focused on providing animal education. The more that people can know the facts about animals; from their behaviours to their physiology, the more we can understand and evaluate our relationship to them.
Today, Twin Heart relies heavily on the support of individual donors to help cover the costs of the sanctuary. The Nicholson’s have invested deeply into building and maintaining Twin Heart and love to connect with fans and followers online to give them a behind the scenes look at sanctuary life.
With bellies full and hands warm, we venture back out into the pouring rain to help with some end-of-day chores around the sanctuary. We see just how hard and relentless the work is — no matter the weather or how you’re feeling, the animals need to be fed and taken care of.
To run a sanctuary can sometimes feel like a thankless job, so your heart needs to be in it. Diane and Harry’s hearts are definitely into the work. But in the trying times they are carried by the spirit hearts of their twin boys, Joshua Cade and Cole Stuart, who passed away 35 years ago, in the moments after birth. More than just the namesake, Twin Heart is a demonstration of the power of love and hope in the face of struggle.
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.