After a long but fun day at DC VegFest, we woke up the next morning excited for our next adventure. Becca had brought her school mascot (Talon) along for the trip and we went down to the National Mall to take a few pictures (he travels like the little gnome on tv!) Afterwards, we had lunch at Sticky Fingers and then hit the road for our next stop—Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary.
Only about an hour’s drive outside of Washington, DC, Poplar Spring is a 400-acre animal sanctuary nestled into the western Maryland countryside. Along the way, we passed impressively large homes and developments, until the road eventually got narrow and we were driving on this small, dirt road in the middle of nowhere. It was a bit overcast, and we feared rain storms, but luckily they were few and far between and mostly drizzle. We turned down the road, this time onto their main road—and about a mile down saw the many, many cars that had already arrived for their 14th Annual Open House and Fundraiser.
A short walk took us up to their tents, where they had us sign in and get a map and program for the day. Along the way, we got distracted by a brace of ducks being fed by a visitor—and over to our left, we saw some goats, so we decided to make their home our first stop.
Not wanting to overwhelm the animals, visitors were stopped at the gate to the pasture and let in a few at a time. It took us just a few minutes of wait time, and we headed up the hill to meet the goats. The first one we saw, sitting peacefully at the top of the hill and chewing his cud, was Cracker Jack. I could tell by his disposition that A. he wasn’t fazed at all by the people walking around and petting him, and B. he was not planning on going anywhere anytime soon. We spent some time in that pasture, as there were many goats to be petted—and many that enjoyed all the attention. Some that didn’t want to engage with humans moved off to the back of the lot, near the fence line. There were at least two volunteers there the whole time, answering questions and talking with us and to the animals. One of the inquisitive goats was nibbling on a volunteer’s belt when I arrived, and then after a short jaunt around the pasture, came back to gnaw on it again!
Goats are extremely inquisitive by nature and are highly intelligent animals. They have prehensile upper lips and tongues, so they can grasp on to things easily (such as a belt or button). They are considered to be browsing animals, which means they naturally eat leaves and fruit from high growing plants like shrubs. Of course, at the sanctuary they are very well tended and get to eat all kinds of good food; but their natural curiosity can get them into trouble as they like to taste anything they think resembles plant matter.
After visiting the goats, we walked up to see the sheep. They were in their barn, so we couldn’t pet them, but we did get a chance to see them. Sheep, like goats, are herbivores, but they are considered to be grazers. Like goats and cows, they are also ruminants, so they have four compartment stomach systems that break down their food so they can regurgitate it and chew it again. They also have an excellent sense of smell—those are their scent glands right in front of their eyes. One interesting fact to keep in mind the next time you meet a sheep—they have long term facial recognition, and can differentiate emotion based on facial expressions.
Next, we went over to the chicken coop. The volunteers were particularly friendly, and I was so excited to be able to hold one of the cute little chickens. They were happy to find the animals adopted by visitors so they could get a chance to say hello to their sponsored animal. It’s wonderful to watch chickens in their natural surroundings, since so many of their relatives live much less fortunate lives cramped into filthy conditions in factory farms. Full disclosure: I wanted to be an ornithologist when I was a kid, so the birds are some of my favorite farm animals. We were lucky enough to also see two turkeys, both of whom were older and arthritic, but so much more beautiful to see live on a farm than part of my Thanksgiving meal! (If you’ve read my post about becoming a vegetarian, you’ll know that visiting with turkeys helped guide me on my path to veganism)
In natural conditions, a chicken may live up to 11 years old. Unfortunately, in factory farm conditions, a chicken raised for meat—called a broiler—will only live to be about 6 weeks old. Did you know that wild turkeys can run up to 25 miles per hour? Because of overbreeding at factory farms, the turkeys we usually see today have such large breasts that they can barely hold themselves up, let alone engage in natural behavior such as running. If left to their own devises, both chickens and turkeys like to roost in trees at night. Turkeys and chickens are also highly social animals and love to have their feathers stroked.
A visit with the pigs was next—and boy, do they have a lot of pigs on this farm! Some of the pigs, the ones that were older and too large to move around much, were in a barn–but the majority of them were out in a large pasture that we were allowed to visit. Even these guys were quite massive—we saw two smaller pigs—and enjoying every minute taking mud baths (they don’t have sweat glands, so they can’t cool down like we can) and rooting in the ground. In the past several years, researchers have concluded that pig intelligence ranks right up there with dolphins, chimps, and elephants. They’ve studied pig cognition and found they have wonderful memories (of good and bad) and have even sequenced the pig genome. If we are so intrigued by the intelligence of this animal, why are we over breeding and slaughtering millions every year? It’s amazing to me that despite our cruelty, these docile animals are affectionate and interested in human companionship. More disclosure: Charlotte’s Web was always one of my favorite books, and that was because of Wilbur—he was Some Pig!
By this time, it was nearly 4pm and we needed to think about our trip home. We washed up, got some drinks and snacks, and headed out to the car. Before leaving, I decided to adopt Abby the chicken for my mom, since it was just a few days away from her birthday and because she’s a recent vegetarian. I had so much fun meeting the animals and connecting to each individual that I petted. Animal sanctuary visits are a great opportunity to support grassroots rescue and to connect with animals and other like-minded people. It also gives both adults and children an idea of what these animals do in their natural environments, and are a great way to teach people that these animals deserve a dignified way of life. A visit to Poplar Spring is a great outing for the entire family. To find out more information about their programs and animals, please visit their web site, http://www.animalsanctuary.org/
Click here to watch a video of our trip to Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary.