It Started With Saving One Cow
The Gentle Barn is a safe home for the animals “too old, too sick, too lame, or too scared to be adoptable.”
Since childhood, Ellie Laks saw animals as sentient beings, able to heal and be healed just like people. “I would always bring home lost and injured animals. By the time I was seven, I knew I just wanted to be surrounded by animals.” That desire in her soul to create a life driven by empathy, compassion, and peace became reality twenty years ago with the founding of The Gentle Barn.
Santa Clarita, California is a warm and dry canyon region approximately 35 miles north of Los Angeles where the remnants of the old west, including acres and acres of farmland, thrive. And that is where the Gentle Barn opened, first populated by a group of animals Ellie rescued from an abusive petting zoo and her first cow (and longtime Gentle Barn ambassador), Buddha. Today, 130 animals are living there, cared for and deeply loved by Ellie, her husband Jay Weiner, a dedicated staff, and many devoted volunteers.
Then the healing starts with “veterinarians as well as acupuncture, acupressure, chiropractic, ice therapy, water therapy, ultrasound, deep tissue massage, energetic healing, nutritional supplements, and lots of love.”
The Gentle Barn works with police departments, animal control units, and other rescues. “We have a very specific niche: animals that are too old, too sick, too lame, or too scared to be adoptable,” explained Ellie. They do a physical and emotional assessment of the animals, who are usually very afraid of people and quite ill. Then the healing starts with “veterinarians as well as acupuncture, acupressure, chiropractic, ice therapy, water therapy, ultrasound, deep tissue massage, energetic healing, nutritional supplements, and lots of love.” Volunteers offer around-the-clock company to build trust and let the animals know they’ll be OK. Full disclosure: I was on goat sitting duty for Sun Dance at the Gentle Barn. We played, snuggled, and he ate books I tried to read to him.
The animals then can be adopted out, or, they have sanctuary at the Gentle Barn for the rest of their lives. And that’s when Ellie’s care for her wards enmeshes with her care for community. “When they’re ready, we partner with the animals to heal people with the same stories of abuse and neglect, and connect children to the love and magic of animals.” At-risk youth, people with special needs, and school and institution groups visit the barn and care for its residents to learn the power of forgiveness, courage, and hope.
“When they’re ready, we partner with the animals to heal people with the same stories of abuse and neglect, and connect children to the love and magic of animals.”
In Southern California, The Gentle Barn is model for harnessing the power of social kindness to enhance lives. On the socials, it’s a model for using the power of story to develop an international community of like-minded people who share their own inspirational stories of connection and redemption. Both of these powers were in full effect in 2015, when another cow needed them.
“Five years ago, I told husband for my birthday that all I want to do is rescue a cow. I didn’t want a party, I didn’t want gifts, not even a birthday card. I just wanted to rescue a cow,” recalls Ellie. What she thought would be a local effort became a national movement. Ellie got a call from a woman in Tennessee who reported a cow who lost its foot and was in “tremendous, excruciating pain.” After finding a bovine surgeon and company to make a prosthetic foot, Jay said to Ellie, “Happy Birthday. We’re going to Tennessee.”
The rescue of Dudley and the journey of his surgeries, prosthetics, and therapies created a beloved cow star. Because he’d be better suited to living on grass (as opposed to the sand of Santa Clarita), a new Gentle Barn location was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Dudley has since passed, but he left a beautiful legacy. There are now thirty animals at the Knoxville location. “Everything that we do, every child that we heal, every animal that we nurse back to health, every person whose heart is opened is done in Dudley’s memory,” said Ellie.
Two years ago, the country was captive by the St. Louis Six — six cows that made news escaping a slaughterhouse sentence. Public protests compelled the slaughterhouse to give the cows a few days reprieve for someone to offer sanctuary. At the 11th hour, none appeared. So Jay boarded a red eye to St. Louis and got the six to a hospital and then a foster home. Ellie flew out to meet them, and she “just knew they were here to share a message with the world. To change the world. And we had to help them.” The Gentle Barn community, via GoFundMe, allowed for a third Gentle Barn to open in Missouri just three weeks later. And now, thirty rescued animals reside there.
Behind the Insta-worthy pictures and heartwarming videos is the enormous amount of physical and emotional labor taking place in three states. Each location has a Sun Chlorella Healing Center. The Center in Los Angeles is a separate 15-acre property ten minutes away from the Barn while the Tennessee and Missouri Centers are on-site. All new animals are triaged, quarantined, and socialized there first. Sun Chlorella is algae superfood which helps detox, aids in recovery and quickens strengthening. “Every single animal get Sun Chlorella every day, regardless of species,” explains Ellie. All the rest of the healthcare and maintenance is individualized. “We use Puremedy, a healing salve, for skin conditions and CBD for mobility and inflammation.”
“Veterinary care for farm animals is an evolving process and it’s not where I’d like to see it yet,” she continues. “Most veterinary hospitals are serving the meat and dairy industries. So it’s about production; it’s about getting animals back to health so they can go to slaughter. So they’re treated in a certain way, with a certain amount of cruelty.” Given the Gentle Barn’s mission of nursing its beloved animals back to health and earning their trust, finding compassionate care can be challenging. “We have to find veterinarians that are willing to…they might not be willing acknowledge them as sentient beings like we do, but at the very least, they should not be abusing them and hitting them.” Ellie and her team talk to the doctors, interns, nurses, and the clean up staff to make sure they understand that these animals have to be treated kindly. “That’s a whole art in itself. We have volunteers that stay there, and we stay there. And once we establish those relationships, it’s amazing.”
For example, Dudley spent five months in a Knoxville hospital dedicated to production — they didn’t know the extent of the intelligence and affection of cows. “Dudley could be taught without a kick or punch. Give him a peppermint candy or cookie, and give him a few more seconds to respond,” Ellie remembered. “He made a huge impression on that hospital. And I happen to believe that the care of all subsequent farm animals will be treated with more respect and more compassion because of the work that Dudley did in that hospital.”
Sometimes, surgery and medicine do not fully help. Alternative modalities can offer more options for success, but aren’t always practiced on farm animals. But Ellie’s tenacity and earnestness prove valuable when seeking practitioners. She recounts the story of Holy, a calf rescued from the dairy industry. Holy had been stomped on the back so she couldn’t walk. Euthanasia was recommended. “I Googled chiropractors in Santa Clarita. I asked one man, ‘Have you ever worked on a cow?’ He laughed, but didn’t hang up on me.” In fact, he was an open-minded animal love who provided adjustments to Holy until her spine straightened. “He said, ‘Her spine is now straight. She just doesn’t know she can walk.’” Volunteers would lift her up every thirty minutes until she could stand, then walk, then run.
Saving animals’ lives doesn’t stop once they are healed at the Gentle Barn. When California experiences a red flag fire warning day, Santa Clarita is a vulnerable area. The Gentle Barn operates EARS, the Emergency Animal Rescue Service to aid in evacuations, helping its neighbors in the most frightening and frenetic of times. On October 24, The Gentle Barn experienced its most frightening and frenetic time.
The Tick Fire started about five miles away, and seemed small enough to be quickly contained. But within fifteen minutes, with a strong shifting wind, the fire was across the street and evacuation was mandatory. The Gentle Barn has a plan that with one call, their evacuation team is engaged. A ten foot wall of fire kept creeping nearer to the property, Jay and a crew of volunteers lined up against it to keep it at bay while all the animals were being moved to the Sun Chlorella Healing Center. “It was extremely terrifying. And we were very, very lucky,” she recalls. “I kept turning around during the evacuation and seeing people I didn’t recognize. They’d say ‘We’re here to help’ and I kept bursting into tears of gratitude for people we didn’t even know who heard about a fire and without hesitation got in their cars and found their way to us.”
The online community stepped up donations and held vigil while awaiting news. A few of the animals were too old and immobile to be moved, so Ellie and Jay stayed with them in the heat, ash, and danger for three sleepless days. The Gentle Barn was spared in the Tick Fire, and the animals have returned home. “I’m not going to be left with a trauma. I’m going to be left with the love and generosity of this community. In the darkest times, we see the best of humanity and that’s what we saw during the fire.”
This Thanksgiving, then, will be particularly special for the Gentle Barn. It holds dinners at each location, allowing guests to hang out with the turkeys while enjoying a vegan dinner. At Christmas, there’s a giving event that brings gifts to at-risk youth and their families. The Gentle Barn mission — teaching people kindness and compassion to animals, each other, and our planet — is met all year long, wherever Ellie can find a way to do it.
She released her debut memoir, My Gentle Barn, which is as much a story about human recovery and aspiration as it is about animal rescue. She’s working on a series of children’s book that share lessons learned from animals to inspire people and provide messages of hope.