Winnie the pig, one of Heartland's rescues, enjoys a snack.
Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail. Campers visited Lily every day, sitting in her stall on folding chairs and reading stories to her. By the end of the summer, Lily was the poster pig for health and vitality, thanks in part to her young friends.
And Lily was helping the kids just as much.
Heartland Farm Sanctuary near Verona is a safe haven for animals and people alike. Founded in 2009, the organization takes in homeless farm animals, from geese to goats and everything in between, and now cares for more than 80 animals.
Founder and executive director Dana Barre strongly believes in the power of animal therapy. Barre, who holds a master's degree in counseling, fostered Heartland's programs, which span from intensive therapy to simply spending time with the animals.
A 1994 study called "Cow as co-therapist: Utilization of farm animals as therapeutic aides with children in residential treatment" sums up the benefits: "Respondents indicated that they spoke to the animals without fear that what they said would be repeated; that they visited the animals to feel better when they felt sad or angry; and that they learned about nurturing and caring for other living things."
"Animal-assisted intervention is a very new field," says Barre, "and Heartland strives to add to the emerging body of knowledge by becoming a research center for the human-animal bond and its benefits for both people and animals."
Through all its programming, Heartland focuses on helping children who have faced trauma, abuse and other painful experiences. The farm welcomes many school groups and volunteers. In 2013, over 1,700 children were served through barn visits, summer camps and community outreach programs.
These include Barn Time, a program that pairs youths living with disabilities with students from the UW Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education to engage in activities and education at Heartland's barn; and Farm on Wheels, in which trained individuals take animals on outings to schools, nursing homes and private events.
Sarah Strike is mother to 6-year-old Molly, who has Down syndrome and autism. Molly participated in Barn Time's pilot program, which started last September, attending after school for six weeks.
"I was searching for a program for Molly that wasn't highly structured but at the same time was supportive," says Strike. "When this came along, I knew it would be fantastic for her."
Strike says that Molly "instantly took to her UW partner, who supported her and helped her accomplish activities such as grooming and feeding the animals, participating in education, singing songs and making crafts." Strike also liked that "everything was at Molly's own pace and was what she was comfortable participating in."
She saw a clear improvement in Molly's social skills from participating. "After Barn Time, Molly would talk about the animals nonstop. I could tell just by looking at her that she had a fantastic time."
Camp Heartland is another program for children that centers on just having fun. It's a summer day camp for children ages 7-12 who help with chores and learn about the animals.
Sunshine Stokes, director of Camp Heartland and an elementary school teacher, stresses the idea that "Animals provide an unconditional acceptance that is powerful and comforting. It can be very healing to spend time in an environment where animals are able to give and receive love."
Moreover, says Stokes, when children give back, by providing services that are essential to the well-being of the animals, "they experience a strong sense of self-worth and self-esteem."
It's no wonder that children are drawn to Heartland. On 25 acres of pasture, the scene resembles something right out of a Disney movie. Goats and sheep frolic side by side, geese and ducks play together in baby pools, and a friendly turkey named Baby welcomes visitors at the door of the barn.
The farm animals at Heartland aid young visitors in a variety of ways. They provide opportunities to express feelings in a nonverbal manner; offer comfort; decrease anxiety; build self-confidence; teach empathy; encourage nurturing; and help children to feel important and needed.
Although having contact with any animal can be valuable, Heartland is unique in that each animal has gone through something difficult. Frosty the pygmy goat lost the tips of his ears to frostbite. Juniper the goose was found as an orphan duckling on the streets of Milwaukee. Winnie the pig was only six weeks old when she fell out of a livestock transport truck and tumbled onto the Interstate south of Madison.
When children interact with Heartland's animals for the first time, they are often shy and apprehensive. But, Stokes says, "by day three, the kids and animals are old friends."
The children's nervousness mirrors the anxiety Heartland witnesses in new animals that have just arrived. Lily the pig was rescued from a life of neglect in which she was forced to eat snow as a source of water. When she came to the farm, naturally, she was jittery. But as she began to trust the children and other caretakers, she relaxed, eased into affection, and enjoyed her new life.
It seems that animals and humans aren't that different after all.
Heartland Farm Sanctuary
Heartland's fall programs, including Barn Time, a weekly program for youth and young adults with disabilities, start in September. There are also weekly group sessions for families affected by trauma led by licensed therapists. Group or individual visits can be scheduled by calling 608-219-1172.