BROOKS, Maine — Daniella Tessier was on a mission.
The founder and shelter manager of the Peace Ridge Sanctuary strode with purpose around several acres of overgrown Christmas trees, calling for the 20 pigs that rooted somewhere deep within the small forest.
“Here pigs! Here pigs!” she called with vigor, but to no avail. The pigs didn’t immediately come running to see what the fuss was about, preferring to stay in the woods taking care of porcine business, and that was just fine by Tessier.
“The animals own the property, not me,” she said emphatically. “This is their home.”
That philosophy is part of what makes Peace Ridge Sanctuary different. Tessier, 39, founded it in 2001 when she was just 23 years old to provide a permanent home to formerly abused and neglected animals, with a particular focus on farm animals such as pigs, cows, horses, goats and sheep. Over the years, it’s grown a lot, most recently through a recent move from a 15-acre parcel in Penobscot to an 800-acre former estate farm in the Waldo County town of Brooks.
The move to the new home, which is still underway because it’s no small task to relocate more than 200 farm animals, is a game-changer for the 16-year-old nonprofit organization. The Penobscot parcel was too small for Peace Ridge to keep growing. But also important to Tessier is the fact that four philanthropic families, who have chosen to remain anonymous, believe enough in Peace Ridge’s mission to donate a total of $900,000 to purchase the land in Brooks. That gift has solidified the organization’s future, as well as making it one of the largest landholdings dedicated to animal welfare east coast, she said.
“I want people in Maine to be proud they have a place like Peace Ridge in the state. It’s a wonderful thing, to be able to bring your children here and hear a message of kindness. And we’re going to be here for a really long time,” Tessier said. “We can’t save all the animals, but we want to encourage people to think compassionately.”
Cute animals, complicated mission
These days, Peace Ridge Sanctuary is a place of happy-looking critters with plenty of room to roam. It is home to a herd of goats that were rescued two years ago from tough circumstances in Aroostook County, where they were found living atop a 25-foot manure pile in a dairy barn. It’s home to the heritage pigs that had been destined for the slaughterhouse until the person that owned them had a change of heart. And, among many other creatures, it’s home to a rescued veal calf named Theo, a sweet-faced, big-eyed fellow who is notorious around the sanctuary for the trouble he gets into.
“Everybody loves Theo,” Tessier said. “He’s like a big puppy. There’s always chaos and ruckus with Theo.”
Lots of people enjoy coming to the sanctuary when it is open to the public to watch the antics of the animals — Theo is always a favorite, she said. But it’s an uphill battle explaining to them exactly why the work done there is important. Lots of people in the world and in Maine are happy to eat and use a lot of animal products, and so may have a different set of beliefs than Tessier, who has been a vegan for 21 years.
“I don’t miss any of that stuff,” she said of meat, dairy and other animal products.
Her organization is part of the national animal sanctuary movement, which believes that farm animals are just as important as dogs and cats, and that all animals have rights.
“It’s difficult for people to understand,” she said. “Every animal deserves to live a dignified life free from harm — that’s our philosophy. Of course, it gets controversial. Animal farming is maladjusted, it really is. But for animals, it’s life and death.”
Tessier, 39, describes herself as someone who has always been interested in social justice. She grew up in a small farming community in rural Massachusetts, where she loved spending time with farm animals, but came to believe that life on a farm is far from idyllic for the animals she patted and fed on her visits.
“They were production units first and foremost, and exploiting them was the point,” she wrote in a blog post on the Peace Ridge Sanctuary website. “I saw firsthand what animal farming does in reality, and it’s a reality that eventually sparked my transition to being vegan.”
But that’s not where she stopped. Tessier worked at humane societies and animal shelters as a teenager, and during college was part of the animal rights movement, transporting animals from high-kill shelters to reputable sanctuaries. She learned about the animal sanctuary movement, and decided she wanted to be part of that herself.
“The message is hard. We’re on the fringe, and people have a hard time understanding what we’re saying,” she said. “It’s about trying to make society better for everyone, and animals are included in that.”
Long hours but a dream job
In Maine, where she found the small parcel of land in Penobscot to start the sanctuary, she and the members of the board have figured out ways to do a lot with a little. The operating budget at Peace Ridge is $160,000 per year, which pays for food, bedding, veterinary care and animal caretakers.
“As an organization, we’ve found ways to prioritize spending on the animals,” Tessier said. “We have a non-profit model that is not like a corporate model. No one is making an exorbitant salary here. No one is going to earn six figures. When people donate to Peace Ridge, they know it’s going to the animals.”
Part of that low overhead is Tessier herself, who works long weeks — often more than 100 hours — and said that if she did the math, she’d take home less than minimum wage. Much less, perhaps only earning a couple of dollars per hour. But that’s her own choice, she said.
“I feel like I have a dream job. Because even when I’m tired at the end of the day I get to see how happy everybody is, and it keeps me going,” she said. “I want my work to mean something outside of me. And the animals are pretty cute, too.”
In Brooks, she looks around the property and is proud of what she sees. Her gaze lights on Benjy, a small pink piglet taking a midday nap, and the 38 Aroostook goats, some of which could not walk when they first arrived at the sanctuary but which now amble confidently around their habitat. But Tessier also has an eye on the big picture of the property, which is home to wildlife such as deer, birds and black bears. About 650 acres will remain in conservation, so that the wildlife will not be displaced as the sanctuary grows.
“Peace Ridge is one struggle, for justice for everybody. Everybody counts,” she said. “You don’t have to care about just one thing. It’s all related.”