The birth of Gentle Barn, vegan animal sanctuary

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» The birth of Gentle Barn, vegan animal sanctuary

Ellie Laks dreamed of owning an animal sanctuary from when she was seven years old. This is her story of making that dream a reality, despite having no land and no funds.

I have always been an animal lover. As soon as I could walk I’d go out in the woods and lakes by my house to play with animals. I would spend time with the wild rabbits, frogs, ducks and butterflies. They were my friends growing up.

Ellie at the sanctuaryAs I got older I noticed that sometimes animals needed help, and I’d bring them home if I found them injured, lost or hungry. By the time I was seven my plan was to have a house full of animals. But my parents didn't want this, and told me that when I grew up I could have as many animals as I wanted. So I said that when I grew up I would have a big place full of animals, and I would show the world how beautiful they are.

I turned vegetarian when I was 11 once I found out that ‘chicken and rice’ was the same thing as ‘chicken’ the animal. I became vegan 17 years ago when I discovered the link between the dairy industry and the veal industry.

Making the dream a reality

It took me a long while to start The Gentle Barn because I didn’t have land, or grow up with farm animals, or have any funds.

15 years ago I passed a petting zoo I had never seen before, so I went in to check it out. The scene was gruesome as the animals were suffering so much at the abuse and neglect that was happening there. I turned to leave, but there was an old goat blocking my exit. She looked deep into my eyes and I felt that she was begging me to help her.

I asked the owner of the petting zoo if I could take her and she said no. I asked her if I could buy her and she said no. So I told her that I already told the goat I would help her so I was going to stay there until she let me take her away. I stayed there for 12 days.

On the 13th day the owner said, “Lady, take this goat and get out of here!” I took Mary home and saw her health improve dramatically. When I saw how happy and healthy she was in my little half-acre back yard, I went back for more animals that were suffering at the petting zoo.

Months later, I looked out of my window to my back yard, now full of animals, and I realized that I had started my childhood dream. I had started The Gentle Barn!

Helping animals thrive

We take in animals who have experienced extreme abuse or neglect, who are often destined for slaughter. Often no one else wants them, because they are too old, too sick, too lame or too scared to be adoptable. The majority of the animals that we save come in traumatized and scared of humans. We work extensively to heal their bodies and hearts, and teach them that they can trust us. Sometimes it takes a few months, and others, a few years. 

One story that comes to mind is of a cow named Karma who we rescued from slaughter. The first day she arrived she would not stop crying. The vets brushed it off, and said that maybe she was just anxious. But I knew there was something wrong with her – she was desperately trying to tell us something. As she was dripping milk, I wondered if she was crying for a baby. My husband Jay went back to where we rescued her from, and sure enough they had hidden her calf. Jay was able to rescue the baby as well, and bring him back to reunite with his mom.

I am most proud of this rescue because not only did we save two lives, rehabilitate them and give them the life that all animals deserve, but we listened to her and knew that she had something important to say.

Helping children thrive

I was very lonely as a child and it was always animals who saved me in my darkest times. So I always had this concept that once I saved the animals, they would help me heal other people in the world who are struggling.

Once our animals are healed, happy and ready, they work with us to give hope and inspiration to at-risk, inner city, and special needs children. We connect the kids with the animals' stories, show them that they are not alone, and that there is hope of recovery from whatever they are going through. The animals inspire the kids that they too can learn forgiveness, joy, confidence, and happiness. It’s a gentle circle of healing: we save the animals, the animals help heal the kids, and the kids grow up to be kinder to animals.

Family life

Living at the Gentle Barn and raising my children here has been both magical and hard. My kids now have an animal's perspective and an inherent empathy to animals that most kid have to learn. It has also connected them to animals and nature that will effect who they are for the rest of their lives. They have witnessed births and deaths, they have named animals and been an integral part of their healing. They have learned about animals, their language and their anatomy.

But there have also been times when my husband and I travel or are busy with very difficult rescues that takes us away from our kids when they might need us. It has been an interesting balancing act between being parents, being married, and running a sanctuary.

Most days we make it work. Even though we are exhausted, we are living our dream every day and changing the world for the better.

By Ellie Laks

The Gentle Barn is currently located in California and Tennessee. The Gentle Barn is open to the public, and available for school field trips, private tours, and special needs groups. Go to for more info.  "My Gentle Barn" can be found wherever books are sold.

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