With about 2.5 hectares of land along the Sierra Highway, The Gentle Barn Foundation in Santa Clarita, California, near Los Angeles, offers open space for abused and neglected animals. The sanctuary takes in animals so mistreated that they cannot stay at normal shelters. The foundation of 500-plus volunteers and seven employees works to heal these animals, so that they, in turn, can help at-risk children and adults with special needs.
Ellie Laks founded The Gentle Barn in 1999. She says opening an animal sanctuary had been her dream since she was seven years old. "When I was a little girl, I was one of those kids that was always dragging animals home - stray cats, stray dogs, ducks from a frozen pond. And my parents were not amused," she said.
Laks, who holds a degree in psychology and special education, says that using animals to help people was part of that dream.
At-risk teenagers and special needs adults care for the animals as part of a 10-month therapeutic program.
Every Friday for the past six months, Max Parrish has come to The Gentle Barn to groom, feed and play with the horses. "My favorite horse would probably be Lazar, here. He's a beautiful boy and I've groomed him a whole bunch of times. I like to groom the horses; I like to wash the horses. It's basically a lot of hard work. But we love it here," he said.
Parrish visits The Barn as part of a group of special needs adults.
At-risk children follow a similar program. They come once a week to care for the animals, while Ellie Laks and other volunteers present a lesson for the day. The program is meant to encourage positive values, while teaching participants the practical skills of caring for animals.
On Sundays, The Gentle Barn opens its doors to the public. Visitors are allowed to pet and feed the animals they find roaming around, as long as the attention is welcome.
Casey Kasprzyk and his girlfriend Mallorie Chester have visited The Gentle Barn several times. Kasprzyk says they come to support the non-profit sanctuary and to feed carrots to a few of their favorite animals. "This is Josh. And we think he has the best smile of any of the animals here. He's kind of in charge of all the animals. And we love Addison. What is he? A mule? Donkey? So we, you know, he's kind of our favorite. We don't like to play favorites here, but we think he's the star of The Gentle Barn," he said.
Although most of The Barn's animals are well-adjusted and enjoy the affection of visitors, getting to that point can be a long process. Many of the rescued animals must first recover from physical and emotional abuse.
Founder Ellie Laks remembers one animal in particular, an injured horse named Whisper that needed a great deal of care before it could interact with people. "But even worse than the physical damage, every time we asked her to do something very, very minute, she would try to bash our heads in before she thought we would not hurt her. So her recovery looked like us working with her for three years - asking her to do little things, letting her rage, buck, kick scream, getting the anger out of her body, while at the same time seeing that we weren't hurting her," she said.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says it receives about 50,000 telephone calls nationwide each year relating to animal mistreatment.
Los Angeles County operates six animal shelters, while private institutions run many others - some of which contact The Gentle Barn when they rescue animals that need extra care.
Ellie Laks says that taking abused animals away from their owners can be difficult and sometimes involves law enforcement. "I don't want to be just a petting zoo. I don't want to be a place where people come and just kind of enjoy animals, but not realize who they are and what we do here. They're animals that have gone through atrocities and they came out the other side being loving and forgiving and kind and sweet and gentle. So that in and of itself is a miracle," she said.
Laks says that informing the public about these animals and how they are helping people is vital to The Gentle Barn's mission. Now, she says, her dream is to establish Gentle Barns across the country.