Down on the farm

Anna Duszkiewicz

Happy Trails Farm is as much a sanctuary for the neglected animals as it is for one Kent State student

A pile of freshly dug-up earth covers Lucky’s grave. The sky is gray, and a drizzle dampens the ground. It’s Sunday morning at the pet cemetery of Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary, and the day starts off gloomily.

Lucky, a 21-year-old Appaloosa horse rescued from neglect last spring, had to be put down the night before. He hadn’t eaten for three days and was choking and coughing up blood.

Caitlin Doherty walks through the muddy cemetery, reflecting.

“It’s so peaceful here,” Caitlin, a junior physical education major, says.

Happy Trails, a nonprofit organization in Ravenna that rescues, rehabilitates and provides an adoption program for farm animals, is as much a sanctuary for Caitlin as it is for the animals. Her time at the farm is like an oasis from her daily grind of working two jobs and being a full-time student.

For the past two years, she has spent her Sundays volunteering at the farm, cleaning and tending to the needs of various farm animals rescued from abuse, neglect and slaughter.

The day’s agenda: Tidying up the horse barn, mucking out horse stalls and, Caitlin hopes, welcoming a new arrival.

Though she is careful not to get attached to any of the animals, Caitlin fell in love with a black Percheron. She had only seen the horse once before, months ago while taking her to a veterinarian. Katrina, as Caitlin named her, was adopted shortly after that, but Caitlin has never forgotten her.

Katrina had to leave her adoptive home because of financial problems. She is coming to Happy Trails and is up for adoption again. She was supposed to arrive at the farm the night before, but never showed up. Caitlin is hopeful she will arrive today.

Muckrakers

The horses peer curiously out of their stalls, as Caitlin and another volunteer, Tim, enter the barn.

The smell of horse manure, musty wood and straw permeates the building.

The barn resonates with the sound of horses tearing at hay and tails swishing, swatting away the flies.

Tim will clean the stalls, shoveling straw mixed with manure into a Bobcat skid steer, while Caitlin maneuvers the machine, emptying it periodically. She will take a few horses at a time outside while their stalls are being cleaned.

The first, Big Red, a 22-year-old Belgian draft horse from an Amish farm, resists Caitlin’s attempts to move him.

“Come on, Red,” she says. He resists. “Knock it off!” she says, more sternly this time. Big Red finally complies.

After Big Red is outside, his companion, Tony, a 22-year-old Belgian from the same farm, stands patiently as it takes Caitlin a few attempts to latch a green halter on him.

“I am just not tall enough for you,” she says.

She clips a lead rope to his halter and directs him outside to join Big Red.

“You are like the stall guru,” Caitlin says to Tim, commenting on his swift removal of muck.

Tim smiles in acknowledgment from beneath his dirty black baseball cap.

Caitlin and Tim work diligently until half the stalls are done.

“Let’s take a break,” she says to Tim after about two and a half hours of work.

Tim, whose navy blue T-shirt is saturated with sweat by this point, welcomes the break.

At noon the rain clouds clear, and the sun covers the farm with its warm rays. Caitlin sheds the long-sleeved shirt she had been wearing.

She is getting anxious for Katrina to arrive, but there is no sign of her yet.

The rounds

Caitlin treks through the drying mud to fetch a bottle of water. She walks across the long driveway to make her rounds with the animals. She has to visit each one, and give lots of kisses.

“Piggy kisses are the best,” she says as she kisses Malcolm, a potbelly piglet, on the snout. “Yes they are, aren’t they?” she says to him affectionately.

She crouches down and feeds the piglet a pear, breaking it open for him so he knows what it is.

This is her favorite part of the day. Being with the animals is like therapy for her because it takes her away from the busyness and drama of everyday life.

“Knowing what they’ve been through in the past and loving them now and making their lives better is the most fulfilling thing ever,” she says.

Caitlin rubs another pig’s belly.

“No matter what, they still love you back,” she says. “After all the nonsense they’ve been through, they still love you.”

Katrina

She saw it before anyone else did — the pickup truck hauling a horse trailer along the bumpy driveway — and she knew.

“My baby’s here!” Caitlin says.

The truck pulls up next to the barn. A loud kick sounds from the trailer, and the truck driver hops out of his vehicle to greet Caitlin.

“Is Annette around?” he asks.

“She’s out back,” Caitlin says. “But I know where she goes. I’ve been waiting all day for this.”

She steps inside the trailer and Katrina immediately leans down to nuzzle her.

Caitlin and the driver strategize a plan to unload Katrina. She fastens a lead rope to the horse’s halter as the driver drops down the ramp.

“Ready?” Caitlin asks.

“Yeah,” says the truck driver, standing behind the trailer waiting for the horse to emerge.

“All right. Back, Katrina,” Caitlin says as she backs the robust mare out of the trailer and guides her down the ramp.

“Easy,” the driver says. “This is definitely not one we want to upset. She’s huge.”

Katrina backs out steadily.

“Good girl, you’re such a good girl,” Caitlin says once Katrina is out.

The mare towers over Caitlin’s delicate 5-foot-5-inch frame, her black coat glimmering in the sunlight.

She cranes her muscular neck, scoping out the new surroundings.

“Come on, beautiful girl,” Caitlin says as she leads her to her new residence.

The horses look out to greet her as she clip-clops down the barn aisle.

Caitlin knows Katrina’s time at Happy Trails may be short — she may get adopted again any day. But she’s here for now, and that’s what Caitlin focuses on.

She dotes over Katrina like a mother whose child has just returned from a long journey, spraying her down with fly spray and offering hay.

Caitlin knows the animals at Happy Trails are mostly just passing through, whether it is from one home to another, or over the Rainbow Bridge — as the volunteers refer to an animal’s passing. But she finds fulfillment and joy in tending to all their needs and wants while they are here.

By Monday morning, the dirt over Lucky’s grave has dried, and drops of morning dew glisten in the sunshine. A gentle breeze blows. It’s a new day at Happy Trails.

Contact features editor Anna Duszkiewicz at [email protected]