Forever Homes For Farm Animals: Sanctuary farms give animals destined for unhappy endings a new lease on life

Wally shaking his head in the mud at Soulspace Sanctuary in New Richmond, Wisconsin // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Wally the pig at SoulSpace Farm Sanctuary in New Richmond, Wisconsin // Photo by Daniel Murphy

A 300-pound pig named Wally was traveling 70 miles per hour on a highway outside of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He was a mere three miles from his destination, a slaughterhouse, when a woman driving behind the truck he was in reportedly saw the pig lift up the door with his snout. Wally stepped out onto the bumper of the truck, and, after looking around, seemingly contemplating his options, leapt from the truck and rolled into the ditch. 

He suffered only minor injuries and, after a stint with the Humane Society, Kara Breci, the founder of SoulSpace Farm Sanctuary, made the drive to South Dakota to bring Wally to his new forever home, where he’s now something of a celebrity.

Nestled just a few dozen feet off a country road amusingly named Wall Street in rural New Richmond, Wisconsin, SoulSpace is easy to miss if you don’t keep a sharp eye out for its wooden sign. It’s a nonprofit and one of over 70 sanctuary farms in the U.S. that offers permanent respite to farm animals that have, in one way or another, escaped traditional farming that would have landed them on someone’s plate.

Kara Breci and Duke in front of a Soulspace sign on the farm sanctuary // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Kara Breci and Duke in front of a SoulSpace sign on the farm sanctuary // Photo by Daniel Murphy

At the end of a gravel road, a goldendoodle named Duke and a round beagle mix dubbed Lanie trot through a small flock of roosters. Nearby stands a cat with a clown-like collar around her neck—a cloth device designed to minimize her ability to eat other SoulSpace residents.

Unlike the more common pet rescues that dot the globe, the farm animals that SoulSpace takes in are never re-homed—they’re there for life, receiving the care they need to live happily and healthily on 11 acres of open land. “We are on board for the rest of their lives. Ten, 12, 15, [in the case of a mini donkey] 40 years. We have invested [in] and we have committed to lifelong care, and the best lifelong care possible,” Breci says.

Breci started SoulSpace in 2016 in the throes of concurrent life changes: a divorce and forced retirement from her career with the St. Paul Police Department after an injury took her off the job. “At 39, I was told that I had to retire. It was something that threw me big time, and was very unexpected,” Breci says.

“At 39, I was told that I had to retire. It was something that threw me big time, and was very unexpected.”

– Kara Breci

She had purchased the house and land that now serve as SoulSpace a few years prior and, after coming across an ad posted by a family-owned farm selling sheep on Craigslist, Breci thought she’d spend her new-found free time caring for a few rescue sheep.

Breci arrived at the farm from the ad in Colfax, Wisconsin, to discover what she describes as a shocking scene. “I went out to this farm and had no idea what to expect, and I was just completely horrified,” she says. “It was the most absolutely disgusting place. There were so many sick and injured animals,” including one small cow who crawled out of a shed on its elbows, unable to walk. “It was completely skin and bones, covered in flies, and had no ears, tail, or hooves.” Breci asked the farmer about the cow and, according to Breci, he responded by emotionlessly stating that the cow’s name was Frostbite and that they were just hoping to get her fat enough for slaughter by the coming fall.

Breci took two sheep, Frederick and George, home with her that day, but couldn’t forget the farm. “I was just so completely messed up by it,” she recalls, shaken by how much the experience shattered her association between family farms and humane treatment of animals.

Shortly after adopting the sheep, Breci went to a book signing by Gene Baur, the founder of Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York, which opened in 1986 as the first farm animal sanctuary in the U.S. She recalls him mentioning that the sanctuary community had been expecting sanctuaries to begin opening up in the Midwest for years, yet there were still none. That settled it for Breci—the next phase of her life would be operating a farm animal sanctuary on her New Richmond property.

Kara and a rooster look over one of the pens // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Kara and a rooster look over one of the pens // Photo by Daniel Murphy

The past two years have been filled with a lot of learning for Breci, from figuring out how to properly run, structure, and fund a nonprofit, to making ends meet for herself, to learning how to care for the various species—from ducks, chickens, roosters, and turkeys to goats, sheep, pigs, and a mini donkey—that reside at SoulSpace. She says she’s gleaned a lot from specialized veterinarians like Dr. Oscarson in Osceola, Wisconsin, who come to the sanctuary to treat the animals. SoulSpace is home to 45 residents, which is how everyone on the farm—from Breci and her right-hand woman, Beth Berhow, to the roughly 120 volunteers who make the whole thing go ’round—refers to the animals who live there.  

Breci, left, with Tally the black goat, and Cate Boisjolie, right, a veterinary technician who wanted to check out the farm // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Shortly after opening, support from the vegan and animal advocacy community in the Twin Cities began pouring in. Breci saw an opportunity to let advocates come to the farm and connect with the animals they work to save, which led to the now weekly public tours offered every Saturday afternoon.

Breci has seen an uptick in the number of visitors coming to the farm at the behest of a vegan friend or partner, many of whom leave with at least a second thought, if not a change of heart, about their consumption of animal products. Robin Johnson, the founder of Spring Farm Sanctuary in Long Lake, Minnesota, has noticed the same result from the tours she offers. “We get emails all the time saying, ‘Thank you, you opened my eyes and I’m never going to eat meat or drink milk again.’”

An argument could be made that the proliferation of sanctuaries is one effect of what a 2018 Guardian article called “the unstoppable rise of veganism” and the discourse that surrounds abstaining from consuming animal products, calling into question the impact that producing animals has not only on animal welfare, but on health and the environment as well. Both Breci and Johnson cited movies like the 2017 documentary “What the Health” as motivating people to visit their sanctuaries.

While inspiring people to change their minds about the role animals play in our lives is one of the highlights of Breci and Johnson’s endeavors, there’s plenty of hard work that goes into making it happen, from following local regulations to figuring out zoning puzzles. Johnson explains that in Hennepin County, the amount of animals Spring Farm is allowed to have is limited by what are called animal units. AUs for short, these measurements are based on the size of various animals and their manure production. A half-ton cow, for example, is 1 AU, while a duck constitutes just 0.01 AU. A cow larger than 1,000 pounds is 1.4 AU.

Two of the residents at SoulSpace Farm Sanctuary, a sheep and white duck // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Two of the residents at SoulSpace Farm Sanctuary, a sheep and white duck // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Then there are the finances. “I’m constantly trying to do fundraising and am always asking for donations. Getting a pig spayed costs $1,000, and that’s just one thing,” Johnson says. “There are parasites and illnesses and so many different things—we’re constantly having to call the vet. Even just food, hay, and straw is expensive.” To make ends meet, Johnson relies on donations, the fulfillment of her Amazon wishlist, and the sponsorship of animals on the sanctuary. “Even if someone can give us just a dollar a month, if 100 people do that, then at least we know that $100 is coming in every month,” Johnson says.

Breci used up her retirement savings to fund the sanctuary’s first year; the farm now relies entirely on donations. However, she wouldn’t trade the work that gets her up at 7am and in bed near midnight most days for anything. “To go outside and see [all the residents] hanging out with each other, it’s like a Disney movie. Granted, this is the hardest work I’ve ever done in my entire life, but it’s the most rewarding.”