Sunday, September 2, 2007

It is a habitat dichotomy that straddles the Potomac River. On the Virginia side is Leesburg’s Leisure World, where retirees can view the countryside from a boxy high-rise.

Across the way in Poolesville, the residents of Poplar Spring also are retirees. The Leisure World buildings can be seen from the bucolic setting at Poplar Spring, where days are spent walking the 400 acres, eating fruit and rolling in the mud.

The residents couldn’t be happier about the mud.

VIDEO: Animal farms offers a second chance

Poplar Spring is a sanctuary for farm animals, one of only about a dozen such havens in the country. Terry Cummings and her husband, Dave Hoerauf, care for about 200 animals that have been abandoned, mistreated, rescued or purchased as pets on a poorly planned whim.

There are, among others, a pig that jumped off the truck while being taken for auction. Geese with crooked wings content to stay by the property’s pond. A 21-year-old blind horse. A pygmy goat rescued from an alley in Adams Morgan.

The newest resident is Hermie, a weeks-old chick saved from being a snack for snakes at a Havre de Grace, Md., reptile show. A teenager bought him before he was fed to the snakes.

“I bought the chicken for $1,” says Katie Hubbs, 16, of Olney. Katie wanted to keep the chick as a pet and bought a little carrying case for it. Alas, suburban homes and small livestock aren’t a great match, so Katie ended up finding the chick a home at Poplar Spring.

Ms. Cummings named the chick Hermie. He now sleeps in a Pack ‘n Play in Ms. Cummings’ kitchen, snuggled under a heat lamp and next to a Piglet pillow until he grows big enough to live with the other chickens.

A skeptic — or a carnivore — might ask “Why?” Why care for animals more commonly thought of as dinner? Millions of pigs and chickens, for instance, are raised for food, so is rescuing a few dozen really going to help?

It goes beyond being an animal lover, says Ms. Cummings, who has a degree in animal science from the University of Maryland and formerly worked at the National Zoo. Ms. Cummings and Mr. Hoerauf have rented the property for 20 years, dating back to when it was a traditional farm.

“We sort of made friends with the cows,” she says of those days. “We named them, gave them apples. Then one day, we were in the house, and I heard the baby calves being taken away to the slaughterhouse. It really upset me.”

Ms. Cummings soon became a vegetarian. She learned more about animals’ feelings.

Ten years ago, she got the idea for Poplar Spring, where animals are allowed to roam freely through pastures and shelters, separated only by species. Poplar Spring, a nonprofit organization, has a staff of seven, many volunteers and a $250,000 annual budget funded by donations and fundraisers.

“People do ask me, ‘What is the point?’ ” Ms. Cummings says. “There are 9 billion animals raised for food in this country each year. We can only save a few, obviously. We can save a few and educate people. We want to show them that farm animals have personalities just like dogs and cats.”

Poplar Spring’s first resident was a pig named Petunia. The little pig had been partially crushed by a barn door at a pig farm in Southern Virginia. Petunia arrived at Poplar Spring with a broken jaw, a damaged leg and a crooked head, Ms. Cummings says. Petunia was nursed back to health in a laundry basket in the farmhouse. She grew just fine, reaching 700 happy pounds before she died last year at 8 years of age.

Many of the pigs at Poplar Spring arrived there in 1998 after an 18-wheeler bound for a Pennsylvania slaughterhouse was abandoned in the District. The Humane Society contacted Poplar Spring, and the entire load was delivered to the farm.

“We had to build a ramp,” Mr. Hoerauf says. “They were 6-month-old pigs, each weighing 250 pounds. Unloading the truck took 20 hours.”

The majority of the pigs found homes at other sanctuaries, Ms. Cummings says. Eighteen of them are still at Poplar Spring, weighing close to 1,000 pounds each, eating fresh fruit and napping in the hay in the shade of the new pig barn.

There was a similar influx over at the chicken house, where eight residents were rescued by a Poplar Spring volunteer who went to care for dogs and cats lost in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina two years ago.

Opal, a white domestic turkey, came to Poplar Spring three years ago after she bolted from a Virginia slaughterhouse, Ms. Cummings says. Opal’s feet were damaged, most likely by being cut back at the turkey farm so the birds could be packed more tightly in the pen, Ms. Cummings says.

“She was found on the highway with slaughterhouse workers running behind her,” she says. “The people who rescued her kept her in their apartment for five days; then they called us.”

Opal has the company of other turkeys. Victor, a 40-pound wild turkey, was found walking down a street in Germantown.

Several other birds came to Poplar Spring after local people called the Washington Humane Society, which says it is illegal to keep livestock in the District. Another turkey, Gertrude, was found in a cage behind a restaurant in the District. Leopold and Cornelius, Japanese silky chickens, were found in the back of a restaurant in the District as well.

Over by the goats and sheep is Juniper the goat. Juniper was tied to a post and abandoned on a Virginia farm after her owners were evicted. The goat survived for months by eating weeds and drinking from puddles. An animal rescue officer eventually delivered Juniper to Poplar Spring with hooves infected so badly she could no longer walk.

At Poplar Spring, Juniper received antibiotics, fluids, a warm place to sleep and physical therapy. She still is unable to straighten her legs completely, but she can scoot around the pasture on her bent legs.

Many of the other livestock came from surprising situations.

Ferdinand the angora goat was found in a District apartment complex, where Mr. Hoerauf believes he was to be used in a Santeria ritual. Franny the Hog Island sheep was found tied by her horns to a mailbox in Wheaton. Goats Cecil and Monty were simply found wandering the woods nearby.

Not all the residents come from such a sad place. When a sickly pig fell off a truck on Interstate 83 in Maryland, the people who found him asked animal lover Patty Zinkhan if she would take him.

Ms. Zinkhan kept him for a month.

“I have a nice, big yard,” says Ms. Zinkhan, who lives in Jarrettsville, Md. “My husband built him a 6-by-6 foot pen. But when he started rooting in the ground, I knew he would be hundreds of pounds.”

Ms. Zinkhan took the pig to Poplar Spring. Seven years later, he is 700-pound Benny, drinking out of a blue plastic bucket and playfully sharing water with his pig friend, Myrtle. Ms. Cummings thinks Benny, with his upturned nose and seeming smirk, resembles the Joker of “Batman” fame.

Ms. Zinkhan goes to visit Benny a couple times a year.

“I still have pictures of him on my computer when he was a little pink pig wrapped in a little blanket,” Ms. Zinkhan says. “He was so precious.”

Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary will hold its 10th annual open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 30. Visitors can meet the animals, hear live music and enjoy food, clowns, entertainment and a silent auction. Money raised will go to pay operating costs at the nonprofit animal sanctuary.

For more information and directions, visit www.animal or call 301/428-8128.

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