DEBLOIS, Maine — As Debbie McLain walks across her property, she’s a bit like the Pied Piper of the farm.
One by one, horses begin to follow her. They quickly are joined by three nosy goats, a couple of sheep and several ponies.
When she shakes the grain bucket, horses whinny, goats bleat and a gaggle of geese comes honking. Ben, a massive Holstein steer, bellows from his pen and two matched donkeys heehaw in happiness.
This place is a little bit Old MacDonald’s Farm and a little bit halfway house. But mostly it is a place of hope and recovery.
McLain operates the Downeast Equine and Large Animal Society, a farm animal rescue that is one of only three shelters in the state licensed to accept farm animals, and the only one north of Augusta.
“Our complaints vary so we never know what we are going to find,” Animal Welfare Division veterinarian Christine Fraser said Wednesday. “It is very important to have places like this.”
Fraser said the Animal Welfare Division often runs into hoarding situations where people will have “a little of this and a little of that, so it is very important to have shelters that can take a wide variety of larger animals, whether it be pigs or geese or sheep.”
Each of the animals McLain cares for and hopes to adopt out to good homes has been brought to her either by owners unable to keep them any longer or through a state seizure for abuse or neglect.
Raised on a farm, McLain has a natural way with animals that garnered her a local reputation.
“People just started bringing me their animals when they couldn’t handle them or they just couldn’t afford to care for them,” she said. “I had to go to nonprofit status because I couldn’t afford to feed them all. I have animals from Buxton, Bucksport, Cherryfield, all over the place.”
This has been a particularly hard year.
“I’ve already turned down 40 to 50 requests to take animals, including [requests] from the state,” she said. “We have no more room.” The economy has pushed owners to give up farm animals that, in some cases, they have had for years.
On McLain’s 42 acres, fences are at a minimum and of the 14 horses she now cares for, only four remain penned. Nearly all the animals she cares for co-mingle freely. The geese wander around the cows; the sheep march around the horses; the goats visit everyone.
“Isn’t this amazing?” McLain said, watching five kinds of animals all feeding together. “People think this can’t happen, but when the animals are well-fed and happy, they all get along just fine.”
McLain said people also are surprised to learn that farm animals, like more familiar pets such as dogs and cats, sometimes need a shelter. Although large-scale farm animal seizures are rare in Maine, many times a single animal or pair of animals must be rescued.
The animals’ stories are hard to hear and hard for McLain to relate.
There’s a flock of chickens and a lone turkey that were left behind when a couple divorced. The birds arrived completely defeathered from stress.
There’s Prince, a Belgian gelding that “was a skeleton with a hide when he came here.” McLain said the horse has gained 700 pounds while under her care. “He’s about 20 years old and he’s had a real hard life,” as evidenced by his deeply swayed back.
This past summer, a pair of horses came in that had never been separated, and one had to be euthanized. The partner horse grieved so deeply that it stopped eating completely. McLain said she stayed with the horse in the pasture for two days until it began eating again.
Another horse was brought to McLain in the middle of the night, just hours before the farm it had been living at was foreclosed.
“At least 80 percent of the calls I get are from people who can no longer afford to feed their animals,” McLain said. “This year we have taken in three goats, three rabbits, 20 chickens and a turkey, five geese, one cow and four horses,” she said.
McLain said her goal is to find homes for each animal. She charges no adoption fee but does visit the potential farm to make sure any animal will be cared for properly. “My adoption policy is that if a new owner is unable, for whatever reason, to keep the animal, it must come back here,” she said.
A pair of horses that McLain placed last year just recently were returned. “The owners were struggling and didn’t feed them,” she said. “It was a horrible situation.”
McLain, who says she takes frequent showers because she is allergic to both horses and dogs, said she has reached her limit this year. “We can’t take any more. I can’t endanger what I have,” she said.
“We have plenty of room and I have all the time in the world but we have to feed them,” she said. “Unless I get more donations to buy hay and grain, I can’t take any more.”
McLain maintains a mailing list of 170 people that she has relied on in the past, but because of the poor economy, she can no longer count on those donors either.
“Maybe about one-third will make a donation,” she said. “And none of them are going to adopt.”
“Hopefully the economy will improve and people will again be able to care for their animals,” she said. “In the meantime, we are here to help if we can.”
Besides the animals up for adoption, McLain has many animals that never will leave the farm because of health or liability reasons. “These animals also need support,” she said. “Sponsors are always welcome.”
Adoption inquiries and donations to DELAS can be made at P.O. Box 485, Cherryfield 04622, or by contacting McLain at 638-3005.