Every winter, Daniella Tessier of the Peace Ridge Sanctuary in Brooks sees Maine farm animals that are suffering neglect or abuse and tries her best to offer them the care they need.
But often, the need is much greater than her ability to meet it.
“What has been said for the longest time is that we have a cat and dog problem in Maine,” Tessier said. “That’s not correct. There’s a farmed animal problem. No one wants to say that farmers are doing the wrong thing, but unfortunately we can’t ignore it anymore.”
Many people don’t understand the amount of care it takes to raise farm animals such as pigs, cows or goats, said Liam Hughes, the director of the state’s Animal Welfare Program. Even smaller animals, such as chickens or rabbits, may pose unexpected challenges.
“Over the past several years, with backyard farmers attempting to raise chickens or rabbits or goats, and with non-traditional animals finding their way into [homes], this sometimes does not work out well, for the people or the animals,” Hughes said. “If people are truly interested in getting involved in farming we encourage them to check with their local resources. We really do strongly recommend going to those groups and learning everything you can about the animals.”
Tessier is cautiously optimistic about Gov. Paul LePage’s announcement on Jan. 29 that he will create a new committee to review Maine’s animal cruelty laws and determine how the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry can better respond to cases of animal abuse.
From Tessier’s perspective, it’s far past time that the issue get more attention from lawmakers. But she’s not expecting the committee to fix the problem she calls huge and pervasive. Her shelter is full to capacity right now and she said she can’t come close to meeting the demand.
“This is what you get when people get into farming animals and they’re not set up for it. They don’t know what they’re doing. And it doesn’t take long for the farming to get out of hand,” she said. “The animal cruelty cases involving farmed animals are off the hook this winter, but they’re off the hook every winter. I’m surprised this is just starting to be a conversation now.”
Tessier, whose sanctuary is home to more than 240 farmed animals, has no lack of sad or disturbing anecdotes to share about the dark side of Maine’s farming and homesteading renaissance. She has seen piglets that have frozen to death in inadequate winter shelters, and provides a safe home to a flock of neglected goats that were rescued three winters ago from a tough life at a private dairy in Aroostook County. Those goats were found living atop a 25-foot manure pile in the dairy barn.
One of her recent success stories is Max, a geriatric Belgian draft horse that was rescued in the nick of time from his Washington County home, where he worked hard twitching out logs from the woods. When Max came to Peace Ridge Sanctuary last December, he was emaciated and starving, with scars all over his face from his work halters and infected hooves that were in terrible shape. Max weighed just 1,100 pounds, almost 1,000 pounds less than a typical draft horse of his size.
“I thought he was going to die,” Tessier said. “He was on his way out, but he let me work on him. We started a refeeding program and within six months he gained 700 pounds.”
Today, Max, whose age is estimated to be between 22 and 25 years, is well on the road back to health. He weighs 2,100 pounds, has both human and equine friends and no longer has to work.
“He’s very vibrant and has become quite playful,” Tessier said. “I feel like Max is a really great example of what Peace Ridge does. Not only because he has a great personality, but because it’s such a happy ending story.”
But he shouldn’t have had to come so close to tragedy.
“You don’t use a geriatric horse to work. If you care about them, you wouldn’t,” Tessier said. “But a lot of people have the mindset that these animals are big and strong and that’s what they’re for. [His owners] were going to work him to the death.”
Working animals need more care, not less, especially in the winter, she and other experts said. They need nutritious food and lots of it, plenty of water and a dry place to be protected from the weather. A lot of this is just plain common sense, but unfortunately not everyone has it, or has fully anticipated how much money, attention or care a farm animal would require.
Hughes said in early February that his department has been stretched thin of late. Officials responding to a complaint will first endeavor to work with the owners of the animals and help them find resources to ensure better care.
“If all else fails, and the animal’s lives are in danger and there’s a crime being committed, we will remove animals,” he said.
Recently, his agency has been handling the case of the farm in Sorrento where 110 animals were seized because they allegedly were living in inhumane conditions, as well as many other cases that have not made news headlines.
“We have been extremely busy since the cold snap in December,” Hughes said. “We don’t slow down. We don’t really have a season. But when the temperature plummets, it’s far more noticable.”
Rick Kersbergen, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor of sustainable dairy and forage systems, said that nutrition, or the lack thereof, is what he finds to be the biggest problem in regards to farm animal welfare.
“During the winter, people are paying a fair amount of money to feed these animals,” he said. “They need more feed during cold weather. It’s an economic issue. If you can’t afford to feed your animals, that’s a tough one. It’s a tough situation that people get into. It’s a matter of them trying to plan ahead and do what they need to do.”
However, Tessier doesn’t believe that money alone is at the root of the problem of farm animal abuse and neglect. For her, the heart of the problem is the cultural paradigm that seems to separate farm animals from cats, dogs and other traditional pets.
“I don’t think people really understand the problem for what it is,” she said. “Cows and pigs and sheep and goats are no different from your dog and cat. They still need adequate feed and adequate water and adequate protection from the elements in order to survive.”
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