Salem couple opens doors to rescued farm animals
Lucy, a piglet only a few weeks old, tumbles off a transport truck onto a treacherous Illinois highway. A family stops alongside the road after spotting the pint-sized pink hitchhiker, and saves her from the speeding traffic. Though the fall bruised and scared her, it helped Lucy evade a more frightening fate.
Three months later, we cruise down Highway 37 and the country roads outside of Salem. We pull into the yard of Uplands PEAK Farm Sanctuary. There we meet Lucy. Waddling around the fields, she is one of six pigs relaxing in the fall sun and welcoming newcomers like ourselves to their farmland home.
Mark and Michelle Pruitt, ages 51 and 40, founded the state’s first sanctuary to rescue and care for farm animals in October 2013. Uplands PEAK (People, Earth and Animals in Kinship) Farm Sanctuary is a non-profit organization that is now home to six pigs and two goats, as well the Pruitts and their five companion animals—three cats and two dogs. Still working through the obstacles of starting a small business, the Pruitts have received support from groups in Indiana and outside advocates. In turn, they’ve opened their gates to the community to offer experiences such as volunteering, farm animal education programs and events to raise awareness of factory farming.
Gene Baur, who founded the first farm animal sanctuary in 1986 and continues to encourage sanctuary start-ups, says farm sanctuaries are the response to factory farming. The number of farm animals slaughtered has dropped five to ten percent in the last 10 years.
“People are changing,” he says. “They are eating less meat, doing meatless Mondays and becoming more plant-based. Farm sanctuaries help people take the steps towards a change.”
THERE IS NO strict schedule to a day on the farm, except feeding times. At 7 a.m. the humans rise, drink coffee with their usual breakfast of oatmeal and then feed the cats and dogs. The farm animals are anxiously waiting at the gate at 8:30 a.m. for breakfast. During the day, Mark tackles tasks like refurbishing the shed or barn, and Michelle settles in for a day of computer work as she plans events, applies for grants and keeps up PEAK’s social media. At 4:30 p.m., dinner is served to the four-legged occupants, and Mark and Michelle continue working into the night, checking in on the animals one last time around 8 p.m.
The Pruitts parent the animals 24/7, working around their individual feeding and health needs. Mark knows their personalities and their bowel movements, the best indicators of health. “They are like children,” he says, “except they are 500 pounds.”
Three years ago, Michelle sat in her living room watching a YouTube video on veganism. She recently finished reading Farm Sanctuary by Gene Baur, a book about factory farming and the rise of farm sanctuaries in the country. The information she learned shocked her, and became vegan cold turkey. Mark followed soon after. The two, who are a Match.com, self-proclaimed “online dating success story,” were drawn together by a mutual desire for a non-corporate life. The idea of a farm sanctuary seemed a promising way to build an experiential community.
So, PEAK was born. The name Uplands PEAK represents both the Hoosier Uplands area and the Pruitts’ message and values. “Our primary mission is to rescue and rehabilitate animals,” Mark says. That mission is not easily accomplished. But the Pruitts blindly threw themselves into the venture of starting the first and only farm sanctuary in Indiana and one of eight in the Midwest.
“I wouldn’t in a million years have imagined that I would be doing this,” Mark says, laughing out loud, arching up his eyebrows at Michelle and waiting for her answer.
“Same for me,” she responds, nodding. “I mean I have always loved animals, like a lot of people, but never made the connection with animals that you eat. Once we went vegan, we just wanted to do all that we could for them.”
This mindset is not lost throughout Indiana. Volunteers from Indianapolis, Louisville and Bloomington flocked to the sanctuary even before animals were there. On average, the Pruitts received 10 to 20 volunteers during a volunteer day. “We knew we had something and knew people were really invested in getting this place up and running,” Michelle says.
In their first six months at the farm, they acquired six rescued pigs, and two goats, more than enough for the beginnings of a small family.
All eight animals at PEAK have come from neglectful, abusive or harmful situations. “As soon as you say you are starting a sanctuary, you get contacted about every animal you can possibly imagine,” Michelle says. Sometimes people call them with a pot-bellied pig or an unwanted rooster from a backyard-chicken start-up. Since these animals aren’t in danger, just inconvenient, they don’t fit the farm’s mission, and the Pruitts offer to help relocate them. As of yet, they haven’t had an emergency where they had to immediately rescue an animal.
When a new animal arrives, they take care of medical issues like check-ups and spay and neuter services. In some cases animals require more attention, such as Erica the pig when she underwent several surgeries. One surgery even required transporting the pig to Purdue University, because local veterinarians did not have the resources to perform it here.
THE 20 ACRES OF LAND, and one large grasshopper-green barn, once used to store old cars, needed more than a few touch-ups since the purchase. So, the Pruitts hold Volunteer Days, encouraging people to spend a day working on the farm.
We’re here today to volunteer, so we sign in and check the day’s to-do list: clean out the barn, scoop poop and pick up walnuts. It’s flannel-shirt weather. Mark, in jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and boots that possibly used to be a hunter green color, leads us to the main task of the day—cleaning out and restocking the barn.
We’re volunteering alongside other animal-lovers, aspiring vegans and a young girl who just wanted to pull the pigs’ tails. In 2013, Mark and Michelle painted, gutted and divided the barn into two compartments, transforming the bigger side into the animals’ stalls. The smaller side was still occupied by the previous owners’ goods.
We spend the morning transitioning out rickety shelves and old two-by-fours, re-flooring the ground with sand and opening up the barn to store farm machinery during winter. We work for two hours and then pull out lunch while Mark throws un-cracked walnuts to the eager pigs.
The Pruitts fundraise through events planned a couple times a year, including PEAKsgiving, an all-vegan catered Thanksgiving meal. For these gatherings, the Pruitts offer guests a chance to stay the night in the bed and breakfast, a room within their house with its own bathroom and entrance.
Both the humans and the animals at the farm welcome general visit days, where interested helpers can call ahead and spend a day on the farm; the only rule is no animal products can be brought to the property.
Kristen Lund, a first-year doctoral student at the University of Evansville, is visiting the farm for the second time. She remarks on the growth of Lucy, comparing her to a photo she took with the pig months before.
“I think it’s awesome having the sanctuary right in the middle of farm country,” Kristen says, trying again to pose with the sniffing pig. “It’s a great way to spend time with animals that you don’t typically see.”
OVER THE LAST YEAR, the Pruitts have learned the ins and outs of farming life. They overcame obstacles of the animals and farm equipment, battled the unexpected winter and established an online presence.
The winter of 2014 is one that no Hoosier will ever forget. The constant below-freezing temperatures hit Indiana hard, and PEAK got the worst of it, complete with lows of -10 degrees.
That winter, the Pruitts focused all their energy on keeping the animals safe and warm. Thick snow froze and covered the farmlands. There was a constant struggle to ensure the animals were warm, while keeping the water and hoses from freezing.
Nevertheless, the Pruitts made it through the rough winter with five happy and healthy pigs.
Mark acknowledges the hardest part of running the sanctuary, at least at the beginning, was that neither he or Michelle had any experience with farm animals or knew anyone who had ever lived or worked on a farm.
For hands-on training, Michelle attended a seven-week internship in the spring of 2013 at the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary in New York, and Mark tagged along to learn about fencing and animal care. Now, the hardest part is keeping up with the monetary requirements of eight animals and the farm in general.
An anonymous offer of $15,000 in matching funds by opening day kick-started the fundraising. In 2014, a $5,000 grant from the Humane Society of the United States helped with expanding and readying the farm for animal upkeep. All the money collected through events, donations and fundraisers goes directly to the animals and “behind-the-scenes” costs like $3,500 yearly for insurance, $400 a month for animal feed and a couple hundred dollars a month for utilities.
Erin Huang, director of the Indiana Humane Society, says the farm is well-thought of in the animal welfare community. “Organizations formed for the purpose of rescuing animals certainly have a noble goal,” Huang says.
Gene Baur mentions a number of “mom and pop” sanctuaries have been popping up all over the country. A vegan animal-rights activist, Baur is now the president of Farm Sanctuary, the world’s largest farm animal rescue and protection organization. He is encouraged by the growing interest in the cause.
“The most important thing is getting the word out,” says Baur, who travels the world speaking about the practices of factory farms. “We are getting people to see that they are farm animals and not commodities.”
The Pruitts have taken Baur’s message to heart.
While Baur, the Pruitts and other animal rights activists see many problems in today’s farming culture, many in Indiana pride themselves on their commitment to responsible farming.
The Certified Livestock Producer Program, a relatively new program from the Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA), seeks to train and reward outstanding farm management practices.
The program builds from consumers’ desire to know how their food is produced and provides resources to help farmers share this information with the public. Those certified must go above and beyond industry standards in all aspects, including animal care.
DURING THE BREAK in our farm chores, Mark talks about the farm’s role in the community. In modern farming, he says, it has become more rare to see animals outdoors. On our drive to PEAK that day, we passed many family-owned farms. “You passed long barns, right?” Mark asks. Those small barns hold about 20,000 chickens each, he says. “I bet you didn’t see any did you?”
Being able to see, touch and experience farm animals draws people to PEAK, he says. Recently, while giving a presentation to a group of Indiana University students in Bloomington, Mark asked his signature question: “How many of you have ever actually touched a live farm animal?” Even in a group of vegans and animal rights activists, only two people raised their hands. Mark believes the experience of being in close proximity to free farm animals will change hearts and minds.
Today, as if to illustrate his point, Erica gets a scratch behind her ear and collapses onto her back, rolling over for a belly rub. Michelle runs up the slight hill towards the fence, arguing with William the goat as he attempts to jump over it. The goats head butt and fight each other for food, and the pigs sleep 18 hours a day and lovingly nudge every visiting human that comes up for a pet.
“We want people to come out and experience the animals,” Mark says. “That’s how change happens.” “From that connection,” Michelle adds.
Mark believes it becomes more difficult to eat animal products when you come face to face with what will be on the plate, knowing it has eyes and breathes.
“She,” Michelle corrects, “Let’s leave out ‘it.’”
Although most of their neighbors are traditional farmers, the Pruitts chose Salem for its location in the crossroads of Southern Indiana. They have room to expand the farm, creating more space for chickens, sheep and cows. And it’s only a 45-minute drive from their old home in Louisville, an hour and half from Bloomington and two hours from Indianapolis.
“We wanted to be somewhere that was an accessible day trip for people, because visiting and volunteering is obviously the backbone of our existence,” Michelle says.
To the Pruitts, the farm is an opportunity to teach their neighbors about the vegan lifestyle through education and experience, not an advocacy mission.
“We are not marching down the streets of Salem with signs saying, ‘Throw out your meat!’” Mark says.
Animals are their own best advocates Marks says as we pile our tools back into the shed and head back to the house. “They are going to convince people more than I ever will,” Michelle says. “And that’s just really the opportunity that we try to give them.”
It took us a tank of gas and a map to get to Uplands PEAK Farm Sanctuary; it took the animals a little bit more.
Andy and Annie
Young pigs Andy and Annie spent the first couple months of their lives waiting for illegal home-slaughter in a backyard. The two pigs escaped the backyard and found themselves running around the streets of rural Minneapolis. After being picked up by the city's Animal Care and Control officers, they were then transported to a local shelter. An organization, Chicken Run Rescue, took them in before they were placed under the care of a foster man while more permanent plans were being made. The Pruitts drove 7 hours to pick up the brother and sister, and bring them back to their new home on the farm.
Brandi, Isaac, and Erica
Brandi, Isaac and Erica, sibling pigs from Albany, New York, lived in a small concrete paddock that was holding well over the maximum number of animals. The pigs rarely saw daylight, suffered from several issues of neglect, including malnutrition, sun burn, and diseases. By the time the police arrived to seize the animals, 50 were already dead. Brandi, Isaac and Erica were kept by Woodstock, the New York sanctuary where Michelle Pruitt interned for almost two months. After the court case for the animals was over, Woodstock called to ask if the Pruitts would be able to take in the three, the couple was more than willing. In 2013 the Pruitts took in the pigs and today, they roam the sprawling lands of PEAK.
William, a 2-year-old pigmy-mix goat, was tethered alone in a backyard in Louisville. He wasn’t a victim of abuse, but goats are pack animals and need company, and being tied up, he was also prey for other animals. Family members of William’s owner eventually called PEAK and asked for the young goat to be given a better home. The Pruitts took in William this past May, and he has benefited greatly from the open space and another buddy goat to play with.
Early in the summer of 2014, a local townsman discovered a barn near Salem with six goats, six horses, and one donkey. The goats had been nailed in the unkempt, dirty stall for a year. Though there was hay in the barn, it was too high for the animals to reach. After a search and seizure, two goats, Twiggy and Luke, were found underweight, losing hair and quite dirty. The horses went to a horse rescue, along with four goats, but Twiggy and Luke were brought to PEAK. Luke, who was older, died shortly after arrival, but Twiggy is happily staying at PEAK. He is considered a foster animal though, as the court case is still going on against the original owner. The case is not yet resolved, but for now, Twiggy is comfortable and recovering wonderfully at PEAK.
Lucy, as said before, fell off of a transport truck when she was just a few weeks old. She was picked up by a man in Illinois, and arrived at PEAK in July of 2014. She is now the star of the farm, showing up in many home videos, and making new friends with each person who visits PEAK.
After the publication of this article, the Pruitts took in their tenth rescued farm animal, another pig named Tulip. She is a traditional farm pig, and was born on a factory farm in Northwest Illinois about ten months ago. Taken away from her mother at the premature age of a few weeks, she and 97 other piglets were waiting to be slaughtered inside buckets at the farm. Thankfully, a kind group of people stepped in and rescued the piglets, however, Tulip was the only one to survive. She was then being well-taken cared of by her owner, however, that person believed that she would do better living at the farm sanctuary rather than the in the backyard of her owner. There is also a movement going around to ban the housing of farm animals in the backyards of commercial residencies. But now, she is doing well and making friends with the rest of the PEAK family.