“It started with ducks,” said Missy Gilbert, standing in her garden surrounded by vegetable beds that had been put to sleep for winter. Two goats rambled around nibbling at old greenery, while an enormous flock of ducks waddled and clacked beyond the fence. One sat beside a kiddie pool cleaning its feathers.
“And then there’s a random goat or sheep that needs a home,” she went on, explaining how her farm animal rescue program, called Little Red Barn Farm Sanctuary, started with a pair of ducks four years ago and snowballed from there.
The farm sanctuary sits on a grassy hillside at 1,600 feet of elevation, immediately alongside a dirt road that leads from the center of Washington in Vermont’s Orange County. Sixty ducks, eight sheep, eight goats and one cow call the peaceful place home.
Gilbert’s husband, Steve, is at her side, in the garden on this day and in the day-to-day operation of the farm. A plumber and an X-ray tech by day, Steve and Missy come home to their “after-work work,” as they call it, to feed, water and hay all of the animals. They run the farm as a 501©3 nonprofit, but finance almost 95 percent of the operation themselves.
The farm is named for the first small red barn they built, and Missy laughs as she points out that now there are red barns all over the property. They recently took a refinance cash-out on their mortgage to fund the construction of a new larger barn, as big as their two-car garage, to sit in the middle of the property and provide more indoor space for the animals. The barn will even provide a space for special-needs ducks. Off to the side, in their own pen, a small group of Pekin ducks sits quietly. They are normally raised for meat and bred to be heavy, leaving their legs and joints unable to bear their own body weight.
There is one special-needs duck that can’t walk. “We’re working with her to lose weight,” Missy says, “and doing water therapy with her.” The new barn will give these ducks an indoor place to rest.
Their mission on the farm is to provide a happy life for animals that would normally be culled or slaughtered for meat. Their farm is a place for animals to live out their days doing nothing but being animals, and it’s a place that brings the couple calm and happiness, too.
Puddles and Pierre, the couple’s first ducks and the first animals on their farm, came to them when their owner couldn’t keep them because they didn’t get along with her chickens. But the owner didn’t want them to be meat, so she looked for someone who would take them in.
“To this day, you can’t find one without the other, they’re always together,” Steve says.
Ducks are often purchased for the Easter holiday as ducklings, “and they’re super cute,” Missy says. But as they get older, they get messy and stinky and many of them get dumped at ponds and rivers. Being domesticated ducks, however, they have no way of taking care of themselves. So rescue programs pick them up, rehabilitate them and find homes for them, like Missy and Steve Gilbert’s farm.
“We have ducks from all over,” Missy says. “New Jersey, New York City, Massachusetts. We find out about a lot of them from Facebook groups, networking, word of mouth. Green Mountain Animal Defenders knows about us and sends us ducks.”
The rescued ducks on the farm get to almost live wild. “They get to grub for worms and bugs, but at night they all file into their little coops where they’re protected,” Missy says.
Two of the sheep are old females that were used for breeding their whole lives. The constant breeding took a lot of life out of them, and they were advertised on Craigslist as needing a retirement home. Now, like the other animals, they don’t have to do anything. They sit calmly among younger male goats that are butting heads playfully. One of the young males, which would have normally become meat, wags his tail playfully, like a dog, while Steve scratches his belly. Another nudges Steve’s hands, looking to be scratched around the horns.
Steve picks up a small white goat and carries her in his arms. She’s wearing a red jacket and is recovering from a recent surgery to correct a cleft palette. Shortly after she was born, her own goat mother passed away, and she required a lot of special care and individual attention for feeding. The farmer’s own mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and she would bring this goat to visit her mother in hospice care, where her mother would bottle feed the goat. The small goat’s gentle nature lent naturally to being a therapy animal, and she became a close companion of the farmer’s father who had recently suffered a stroke.
But having no value to the goat farm where she was born, the farmer put Sprout on Craigslist, and Missy jumped at the chance to taker her in. “I saw this super pathetic picture of a baby goat that no one wanted, and I was, like, ‘I’ve got to have her.’”
Missy and Steve brought Sprout to Tufts and Cornell Veterinary Hospitals, and ultimately went with Cornell to perform the corrective surgery, which cost $6,000. About $1,000 was raised to help with the cost through a GoFundMe fundraiser.
Going forward, the couple is looking for innovative ways to finance their rescue-animal farm. They are finishing their basement to live in so that they can rent out their house to vacationers. They plan to add small cabins around the property to rent as well, and a spring barn-dance fundraiser is in the idea stage for when the new barn is built.
“Neither of us ever had kids, so it’s that thing,” Steve says, guessing at their reasoning for their personal and financial investment in the farm.
The animals are great stress relief for the couple, too. They come home from work and feed the animals, and then sometimes after dinner they head back out to just sit in the barn with them. “It puts you in a good mood, it’s very calming,” Missy says. She says many farmers don’t know that this is an option, and most unwanted farm animals are simply killed.
“People ask me, ‘Where do you rescue them from?’ I rescue them from death or being overused.”
While the farm is a peaceful place for the animals, it’s a sanctuary for Steve and Missy as well. “It’s our little corner of the world. People can be so nasty. It’s not like this,” Steve says about his farm.
Missy agrees. “It can’t be all evil in the world because I get out here, and the animals are so fun and so sweet.”