April 25, 2018
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Inside the remote refuge saving Maine’s abandoned exotic animals

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff
Updated:

The unpaved road to Samsara is long and dusty — or long and muddy, depending on the weather. It arcs around the expansive Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Milford and crosses the Stud Mill Road, cutting through miles of spruce forests and spanning streams turned brown with tannins. Small homes and hunting camps appear through the trees from time to time, but much of the drive is uninterrupted by signs of human habitation.

Then, suddenly, there is a broad opening in the forest. “Samsara Exotic Animal Refuge,” reads a homemade sign. A gated driveway leads into a maze of securely fenced pens and corrals, a scattering of barns, sheds and trailers.

On a recent sunny morning, country music drifted out the windows of a red pickup truck loaded with fragrant bales of hay and parked between two enclosures. Grain bags and cartons of fresh vegetables, fruits and dairy products were stacked nearby. The air was filled with the sounds and smells of animals, from the big pink pig rooting around happily in his muddy pen to a flashy group of excited ancona ducks parading up and down outside the fence. Horses nickered, goats bleated, roosters crowed.

Samsara founder Lynn Stark, 74, took a break from morning chores to watch an alpaca frolicking clumsily in a plastic wading pool of icy water from the nearby well while a curious llama looked on. A flock of homing pigeons chortled and cooed in their covered pen. Across the clearing, a miniature donkey grazed with some horses and a few sheep. Further back, in a pen with guinea fowl, ducks and geese, a couple of emus stalked back and forth, waiting for their breakfast.

Stark sighed and wiped her hands on her dungarees. She wore heavy-duty rubber boots. A wool cap was pulled low on her head. Blue eyes, big smile, firm handshake.

“There was a time when we had three llamas and eight alpacas,” she reminisced. “It takes time to find good homes for them all.” The refuge attempts to place all its animals in safe “forever” homes, but many of these creatures will never leave this sanctuary.

New beginnings

The Sanskrit word “samsara” refers to the Hindu principle of birth and rebirth, with a connotation of wandering and adventure.

“My mother felt that all the animals here were starting over,” explained Stark’s daughter, Fawn Richardson, who lives at the refuge and handles a lot of the chores now that her mother is getting older. “Regardless of whatever may have happened to them in the past, [here] they had a new beginning.”

It was a new beginning for Stark and her family, too, back in the mid 1980s when she and her husband moved here with their seven young children from Worcester, Massachusetts. They didn’t like the way things were changing.

“They were putting metal detectors in the public schools,” Stark said. “We didn’t want any part of it.”

Attracted to the low cost of land and the seclusion of the area, they purchased a heavily forested 20-acre parcel. “We cleared it a little at a time,” she said. They also started building a small house. “It’s the house I live in now,” Stark said, gesturing toward an unfinished two-story cottage beyond the cluster of sheds and outbuildings. “It looks a little raggedy-ass from the outside, but it’s nice inside.”

The marriage didn’t last, and Stark’s husband has since died. She doesn’t like to talk about it.

“It was a very abusive relationship, and I was lucky to get out of it,” she said, briefly. “But it helps me understand what other families go through.”

What families go through, it turns out, includes many situations in which they are unable to care for the animals in their keeping, from farm animals like pigs and alpacas to unusual pets like snakes and potbelly pigs.

“People think it would be really cool to have a snake until they find out it costs $3.98 to buy a mouse to feed it,” Stark said. Or the flock of backyard chickens turns out to be more work and less fun than expected. Or the cute baby emu, striped like a watermelon and the size of a football, matures into an intimidating, 5-foot tall, ever-hungry sprinter with a sharp beak and lots of poop. Or a divorce means relocating to a home where animals are not welcome.

More mainstream shelters can accommodate run-of-the-mill critters like dogs and cats, ferrets and guinea pigs. But Samsara is licensed by the state of Maine to serve a different need — sheltering farm animals, exotic pets and the occasional wild animal that cannot be released back into its natural environment.

“It started when the children were little,” Stark said. “People would dump kittens and cats off at the driveway or in the woods. Little by little, we saw there was no place for the odd things to go, like a goat, or a pet snake. … Then someone dropped off an emu, and that was a whole different thing.”

For the past few years, the menagerie at Samsara has included a foursome of Turkish Kangal dogs, a massive breed of livestock guardians that can weigh up to 180 pounds. The dogs are non-aggressive except when danger threatens. Richardson breeds the gentle giants and sells the pups to farmers across the country. She says they’re entirely trustworthy with the shelter animals, small children and friendly visitors but a sure deterrent against coyotes, foxes and the increasingly rare local troublemaker who tries to enter the compound at night on a dare.

Samsara recently added a secure emergency shelter for the pets of individuals who are trying to escape domestic violence or other family crises. Too often, Stark said, people refuse to leave a dangerous situation for fear their abusive partner will harm a beloved pet. Having a “safe house” for those pets can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Help wanted

Every animal at Samsara has a story. As the number and variety of creatures has grown, so has the need for funding and volunteer labor.

“We struggle. We really do,” said Richardson. Some people who surrender an animal are able to make a donation, but many are not. Stark taps her own slender Social Security income to help pay for operations and supplies and relies on the generosity of private donors, family and friends for the rest. Fundraisers at local farm supply stores help fill in the gaps, as do regular contributions of outdated produce and other foods from a nearby grocery store. A roadside bin encourages supportive neighbors to drop off their returnable bottles and cans.

Volunteers are hard to come by and harder to retain, Richardson said. “We really need extra hands, every day,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be hard.” Volunteers can help with tending to the animals directly or work on fencing, brush-cutting, carpentry or other related chores. They can also pick up supplies, staff a fundraising table or perform other tasks as needed. Would-be donors or volunteers can contact the Samsara Exotic Animal Refuge via its Facebook page.

The refuge is open to visitors and welcomes school groups, families and other groups for scheduled and by-chance tours. It’s a good idea to call ahead.

These days, Stark, who suffered a broken hip six years ago when she was dragged across the refuge by a frightened cow, has the day-to-day help of four of her grown children in tending to the needs of her menagerie. Her other three children live in the area and also pitch in from time to time.

“I don’t know what I’d do without them,” she said. “I’d probably have to scale back a little.”

Midway through the seventh decade of her scrappy life, Stark walks with a bit of a limp but is otherwise in good health. And she has no intention of scaling back at Samsara or passing the torch completely into other hands. She can’t imagine ever living anywhere else, or what she’d do with her days.

Every morning when she wakes up, she said, she is filled with a sense of purpose and mission, eager to rise and meet the challenges of the day ahead.

“I feel like I’m leaving the world a little bit better than I found it,” she said, waving away some bothersome blackflies. “They’ll have to carry me out of here feet first.”

 


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