DEBLOIS, Maine — When Debbie McLean walks the 200 yards from her home to her barn, she’s transformed into a real-life Dr. Doolittle, strolling amid a surrounding entourage of admiring beasts, ranging from a 1-ton oxen named Ben to a buck-toothed llama named Otis.
For the last seven years, McLean has been offering shelter to homeless farm animals through her Downeast Equine and Large Animal Society, which is located on the 43-acre farm on Hatchery Road in Deblois, where she and husband Stanley live. The shelter’s ever-changing menagerie now includes Ben and Otis and dozens of other goats, horses, ducks, chickens and geese, most available for adoption, either physically or financially.
McLean said during a barnyard tour on Sunday that each animal arrives with its own story of how it came to be in what, in effect, is a shelter for abused and neglected farm animals. She’s had Mattie, a 6-year-old doe, for three years, but won’t put the goat up for adoption.
“I would adopt her out, but she hates kids,” McLean said. “Before she came here she had been tied to a tree with a rope, and a child who lived across the street would come over with some feed. When Mattie would go to eat the feed, this child would hit her with a stick. She was abused, and to this day she will go after kids with her sharp horns.”
There are seven equine shelters in Maine, but hers is only one of two licensed as animal welfare refuges by the Maine Department of Agriculture. Many of the animals who come to Deblois have been confiscated by state officials responding to complaints of neglect or abuse. That’s how Ben, the 1-ton, 15-year-old oxen, arrived four years ago.
“He was just a pet, back in a field near Berwick, where the state shut down a puppy farm,” McLean said. “Their orders were to remove any living animals and that included Ben and a horse, which I adopted out. He’s been here four years, and it took us three years to catch him, because they used to use a shock stick on him. We used to keep him in a barn, but one night he got free and wasn’t any problem. So now he just eats and roams free.”
The only interest in adopting Ben came from someone eager to eat him. “I don’t adopt for slaughter,” McLean said. “After what these animals have been through, they deserve better.”
Some of the shelter’s equine residents have been there since birth, including Pocket, a diminutive 4-year-old horse that is a cross between a miniature horse and a Welsh pony. Another horse, 6-year-old Frizzle, arrived at age 6 weeks after her mother was rescued from an abusive owner in Bangor. That mare, like her foal, is still in residence, six years later.
Cruz, the 9-year-old bucktooth llama, came from a farm where he was used to protect a herd of goats from predators.
“He’s already driven off one fox that we know of,” McLean said.
McLean said she’s a natural to oversee a shelter for farm animals, having been raised on a farm in Franklin and interacted with every sort of barnyard beast. She doesn’t adopt cats or dogs, even though she has eight dogs of her own. And she doesn’t take in snakes.
“I don’t mind snakes, but my daughter does,” she said.
McLean does most of the chores herself, keeping her charges fed, mucking out the barn stalls and tending to routine veterinary needs. There are a few volunteers who stop by to help out with tasks such as grooming the horses. This summer she hosted two girls from Surry — Sylvia Zeamer, 14, and her 10-year-old sister, Cecilia — who stayed on the farm for a few weeks to help out before heading back to school.
McLean said the farm relies heavily on cash donations to make ends meet. The animals burn through more than 8 tons of hay each year and feed costs run $50 a week. She also buys sawdust as bedding and has to pay a farrier to trim the horses’ hooves.
Every fall the shelter hosts an open house, allowing the public to see and interact with the free-roaming critters who call the Deblois shelter home. The 2012 annual open house is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 15, with a rain date of Sunday, Sept. 16. Hours are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and those who attend are encouraged to bring muck boots and to leave their dogs at home.
The shelter is located in Deblois about 1.5 miles east of Route 193 at 460 Hatchery Road, which is just north of the Jasper Wyman & Son blueberry and warehouse facility. For information, call 638-3005 or 598-7738.