(Part One of a Two Part Article)

Today’s blog article will feature one of the first WearWoof Shelter and Rescue Partners, Hope Haven Farm Sanctuary.  Hope Haven was the dream of local Pittsburgh veterinarian, Dr. Karen Phillips, whose hard work, determination and undefeatable spirit is turning vision into reality.  Part One is entitled Hope, and will examine the person behind the Sanctuary as well as the many considerations and obstacles that she faced in this big-hearted undertaking.  Enjoy.

Funny story:  Several years ago we decided (okay, I decided) to get an estimate on a new garage – the kind with the big bonus room on top, complete with a kitchenette and powder room where I could steal away and paint or read or write and not be bothered by the step-kids or the husband or the dishes or the laundry.  That kind of garage.  One big enough to park two cars but also accommodate the patio furniture during the off-season, and a large work bench and storage for all of my tools.  (That’s right, I have tools.)

Our contractor said he had done a similar project for another couple, and he wanted to show it to us.  We drove out to Ingomar and I was surprised to see that we were taking a turn that led us back a lane to a property practically in the back yard of the house where my old boyfriend grew up.

But that’s not the funny part.  It was a beautiful spring evening, and the owners weren’t home: Perfect!  I’ve always had an intense curiosity for seeing how other people live that stops just short of actually breaking and entering when I drive by a really cute Tudor with leaded windows, and this property immediately caught my imagination.  There was a farmhouse, and the showcase garage of course, but there were several cute little outbuildings on the sprawling suburban property, and spilling forth from each of the little buildings were various chattering farm animals.  A couple pigs, some geese and chickens.  The whole tableau reminded us of Story Book Forest at Idlewild Park.

“What is this place?” I said, taking it all in.

“Oh, the owner is a veterinarian,” the contractor informed us.  “I think she works for one of those shelters?  I guess these guys here are all rescues.”

Rescues?  Pigs and ducks?  Okay.

We toured the garage, which in fact was exactly what we were looking for, and went on our way, giggling the whole way home over the funny little pigpen and turkey house.

Fast forward a couple years, and we haven’t built a garage, but I’ve been toying with the idea of starting various animal-related businesses.  One idea, I realize, is beyond my expertise and I decide to hire a veterinarian to provide some consultation.  I put an ad on Craig’s List and get only one reply.

The responder’s name is Karen Phillips, and she writes that she is interested in hearing about my project.  We exchange information.  I learn that she went to Penn and that she is a veterinarian doing spay-neuter work for a shelter, and that she is working to save extra money for a farm sanctuary she is starting.  Suddenly, in a Kevin Bacon Six Degrees of Separation moment, I realize that it was Karen’s property I toured.

“Uh, I think I’ve been in your garage,” I say.  (Okay, that was the funny part.)

We agree to meet for lunch one afternoon, and I’m struck by what a lovely woman Dr. Karen Phillips is.  She’s lithe and blue-eyed, and her skin and hair have the sun-kissed look of someone who obviously enjoys being outdoors.  She radiates a vibrating healthiness, and I have no problem imagining her tending an herb garden, chopping wood, or climbing onto a henhouse to fix a leaking roof.  She orders the dawali, grape leaves stuffed with chickpeas and rice, and explains that she’s a vegan.

“Though I do eat eggs,” she says, referring to the occasional egg laid by one of her rescue chickens.  Her hens and roosters are separated, so the eggs are unfertilized, and there are no unplanned chicken families to contend with.

We talk, me more so than she, and as I describe my two business ideas – one charitable, one not – she gives heartfelt and meaningful feedback.  Our hour-long lunch goes by quickly and we head our separate ways with plans to touch base again about my project and the research I’ve hired her to conduct.  As I drive home, I reflect on the thoughtful, compassionate and intelligent woman I’ve just met.  I’m awed by her, but feel as though I’ve met a kindred spirit.

I’m also intrigued by her plans for a farm sanctuary.  Having grown up on a small farm, where I witnessed the deaths of hundreds of animals, many for food, and many I loved as pets, I became deeply compassionate toward animals in adulthood, first giving up meat and then later becoming a vegan.  When she described the personalities of her animals, their enjoyment of life, the way in which they bond with one another and with her, I could relate to her observations.  Growing up, I’d experienced these things with our farm animals, as well.  I recalled the way Betsy, my fluffy Rhode Island Red hen, would cluck contentedly in my arms, nuzzling her head under my chin as I stroked her feathers and gave her gentle scratches on belly.

But still… Why a farm animal sanctuary?  As a veterinarian working with companion animals – dogs and cats and rabbits – and employed by one of our region’s largest animal shelters, I wondered why she didn’t start her own homeless pet shelter.  Surely creating a farm animal sanctuary in Western Pennsylvania, where there is a long tradition of farming, would be an arduous project.  Could you hope for a positive reaction from the public for such a venture?  If you could, where would these animals come from?  Would Karen raid farms at night and run away with as many turkeys as she could fit in her car?  And wouldn’t the need for rescue and shelter quickly exceed her capacity to provide it if she wasn’t placing these animals in homes, the way a homeless pet shelter does?  You can’t pull every steer, chicken and hog off a slaughter line.  And if you could, what would you do with them?  You might get a line out the door at a shelter when a fluffy little Malti-poo puppy somehow finds its way to homelessness, but who would step up to adopt a goose?

After our project together ended, Karen touched base occasionally with news about her farm sanctuary.  I followed her progress on Facebook: the beautiful, if overgrown property in the North Hills she purchased for the farm, the amazing barn she had built, the move of some of her birds to the new chicken coop.  It was exciting to see her plowing along toward her dream, but more than that, it was inspirational.

In the meantime, I decided to go with the charitable business idea – WearWoof, obviously – and when I launched the business in 2012, she was one of the first people I thought of.

When we connected again, I invited her to become a WearWoof Shelter and Rescue Partner.  Maybe she’s not sheltering or rescuing companion animals in the traditional sense, but our missions are grounded in the same thing: The love of, and compassion for, animals.

Where does that love of animals come from?  Like me, Karen grew up in a rural town, a town in Vermont so rural, in fact, that many of her childhood playmates were animals.  Sharing her secrets with her collie, Missy, or biking up and down dirt roads with a companionable chicken named Pearl on her handlebars, she never viewed animals as anything other than great friends.

In veterinary school, however, she was taught that farm animals are commodities.  She learned about herd health and meat quality, egg production and dehorning and debeaking, medical practices that would be useful in the raising of animals for food production, but not necessarily for the improvement and extension of the quality of their own lives, as with companion animals.  Instead, the goal was to prepare agriculturally-minded veterinarians to help in adding to the bottom line of the food industry, which constantly seeks ways to get more product cheaper and faster into the hands of the consumer.

Indeed, it wasn’t until she left private practice ten years ago and began working in shelter medicine that she began to see the plight of farm animals who were finding their way into open door shelters – shelters that take in any animal in need, be it dog, cat or goat – in Pittsburgh.  She was deeply bothered to see a group of ducks huddling in a kennel surrounded by barking dogs, or a pot-bellied pig eating dog kibble in a crate.  The animals may have been surrendered or confiscated, but it was clear to Karen that city shelters were not equipped to deal with farm animals.

Some of these animals eventually made their way home with her, to her little farm-in-the-city, where folks admiring her garage could gaze upon them and chuckle with surprise, but many did not.

As lovely as this environment was for these displaced barnyard animals, Karen realized that her home was limited in what it could provide and accommodate.  She knew that these animals would need their own safe place and specialized care, but the real difference she could make for these animals and their kin was the opportunity to appeal to the hearts and minds of people who consume them for food.  The way to do this, Karen realized, was to give people the chance to experience these animals as she had growing up – as individuals, sentient beings with their own personalities and opinions, who enjoy the same gifts of life that we do.

This mission is not without its obstacles.  Working as an urban vet, where would one find the right rural location?  Once such a property was located, how to wrestle with zoning issues and renovations?  Incorporation is easy, but how would she get through the cumbersome project of 501(c)3 application?  What about funding for such an undertaking?  Anyone in animal welfare knows that animal-related charities get the crumbs leftover in the dish when it comes to divvying up the charitable-giving pie.  Without adoption fees or contracts with municipalities, how would all of this get paid for?  Assuming she could, in fact, buy a small farm and get it up and running, how would she take care of it while working full time as a vet?  There are clearly people interested in volunteering in shelters to work with dogs and cats, but rare is the individual who describes herself as a “goat-person” who just relates to hoofed animals, and has a burning desire to end ungulate homelessness.

It’s enough to make a normal person just give up and go watch TV, but Karen Phillips is an extraordinary person.  On top of all of these myriad and seemingly insurmountable issues related to starting a farm sanctuary, Karen had ended a long-term relationship, was working full-time – which for her easily amounts to ten and twelve hour days of back-to-back surgeries – fills in as a relief vet at other shelters, cares for the many animals she already has, and still somehow finds time to fit in Zumba classes!

The property Karen located for her Sanctuary is on Wexford-Bayne Road, in the Sewickley hills, a hilly slice of land abutting a landscape supplier.  Sitting a hundred feet up a steep paved drive in a grove of trees was a garage stuffed to overflowing with junk, a small, neglected house in need of complete gutting, a three-sided and practically useless shed, and overgrown, unfenced meadows.  It was breathtaking in its lack of readiness.  There was literally nothing that didn’t need to be done.

But to see the property through the eyes of Karen Phillips is to see the potential.  The house, when gutted and reimagined, will make a wonderful education and meeting center.  The garage, after several dumpster loads of jumble is hauled away, will become a roomy and safe bird coop.  There is ample room for a barn in the lower meadow, and the shed could be enclosed to hold still more animals.  A fence would need to be erected, but the upper meadows are perfect little pastures.  There’s a spot just off the house that would be perfect for a duck pond, if a spring could be tapped or a water line run.  School busses could park at the bottom of the hill and with some clearing of brush and strategic landscaping, the kids could zig-zag up a path through the trees, the clucking and sighing of the animals becoming clearer with every step.

Her vision of this farm, her zealous belief in her mission, borders on childlike fantasy, and I can’t help comparing her dream to the ones I had a girl when we’d build forts in the woods and imagine living there on our own, colonizing a kid-nation along the stream, away from our parents and the oppression of their endless and soul-sapping rules.  As kids, we left our half-built tree houses and dammed streams and went home to our warm beds and televisions, and eventually the utopia we’d labored upon crumbled back into the woods as we traded away our vision of freedom for the comforts and conveniences offered by our oppressors.

A pessimist might wonder if Karen’s dream will succumb to the entropy that many dreams dissolve into when vision and mission exceed resources and stamina.  Being a dreamer, myself, I relate to the fear and self-doubt one faces when undertaking such a project in a necessarily public way.  What if my budget is all wrong?  What if no one wants to help me?  What if I make a fool out of myself?  What if I open my doors and no one shows up, or worse, they show up, but criticize me?  There are many very practical, very reasonable reasons why someone wouldn’t start down this path to begin with, and just as many for giving up along the way.

Karen Phillips doesn’t strike me as the giving up kind, however, and in Part Two of this article we’ll catch up with Karen after much progress has been made at the Sanctuary – and several setbacks – and get to know the wonderful animals who make this gargantuan effort worthwhile.

Hope Haven Farm Sanctuary is located in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. News and information can be found at www.hopehavenfarm.com.  Karen Phillips, VMD can be reached at Karen@HopeHavenFarm.com.