The Gentle Barn: Creating a Sanctuary Where Animals Heal and Children Find Hope

10/06/2014 12:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It was a beautiful, sunny, breezy Sunday in Los Angeles when my son Michael and I drove north into the foothills to spend some time at the Gentle Barn. I'd been wanting to visit this unique animal sanctuary for the past few years, but never seemed to find the time. Finally, we simply set a date and said, "That's it. We're going ... no matter what."

I'd been looking forward to petting the pigs and cuddling with the cows. And I knew it would be fun to feed carrots to the donkeys and horses, too. But I was especially interested in meeting the jewel in the crown of the Gentle Barn -- Jewel the Peacock, that is. You see, I have a special fondness for peacocks, since my first book, "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins," launched my writing career two decades ago. For years now, fans and friends have referred to me as "The Peacock Lady" so of course I had to journey to The Gentle Barn to meet Jewel.

My son and I met founder Ellie Laks soon after arriving on the premises. I immediately asked her about Jewel.

"Jewel was found wandering around the neighborhood, homeless," Ellie told us. "He used to roost in our neighbor's trees at night, but when he discovered that we fed our animals breakfast at 7am and dinner at 5pm, he started showing up at mealtimes. One day we decided to open the door and invite him in. Jewel has been with us ever since. Safe and sound here, he adds color and sparkle to our barnyard. We are honored to have him."

Well, anyone who gives shelter to a peacock in a friend of mine! I loved the Gentle Barn already and I hadn't even met the other 170 farm and domestic animals who call it home.

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Jewel the Peacock (All photos courtesy of The Gentle Barn)

"How did you come to establish the Gentle Barn and how long have you been here?" I asked Ellie.

"The Gentle Barn has been a dream of mine since I was 7 years old," Ellie said. "I was always running after dogs, or playing in the lakes with the frogs, or in the woods with the bunnies. At seven years old I realized that animals sometimes need help -- when I would find them injured or lost I would bring them home. My dream was to have a house full of animals and they would be my friends. My parents were not amused and would get rid of them. I would be terribly upset and they would say, 'Ellie, when you grow up you can have as many animals as you like.' So I now have 170 animals!

"It took me a long while to start The Gentle Barn because I did not have land, or grow up with farm animals, or have any funds. Fifteen years ago I saw a petting zoo I had never seen before so I went in to check it out. The scene was gruesome as the animals were suffering so much at the abuse and neglect that was happening there. I was running for the door to leave and there was an old goat blocking my exit. She looked deep into my eyes and begged me to help her. So I asked the owner of the petting zoo if I could have her and she said, 'No.' I asked her if I could buy her and she said, 'No.' So I told her that I already told the goat I would help her so I was going to stay there until she let me have her. I stayed there for twelve days. Finally, on the thirteenth day, the owner said, 'Lady, take this goat and get out of here!'

"I took Mary home and healed her. When I saw how happy and healthy she was in my little half-acre back yard, I went back for more animals that were suffering at the petting zoo. Months later I was looking out my window to my back yard, now full of animals, and I realized that I had achieved my childhood dream - I had started The Gentle Barn!"

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Ellie and Sasha

BJ: I understand that in addition to providing a sanctuary for animals, you also host groups of kids to come here. Tell me more about that.

Ellie: Once the animals are healthy and happy here, we give them sanctuary for the rest of their lives. They help us heal children with the same stories of abuse and neglect as the animals. We work with at-risk, inner city, and special needs kids who won't talk to therapists and don't respond to traditional therapy because they're too angry and shut-down. But at The Gentle Barn, we can speak indirectly with the kids through an animal's story, which is often their own story. All of a sudden the kids understand that they are not alone - there is someone else who has suffered their pain. The kids realize that if the animals can heal, trust, forgive, and learn to love again, then they can too. You might say they find themselves in the barnyard.

I see a lot of volunteers working here to care for the animals, guide us Sunday visitors around from place to place, and more. How many volunteers do you have and what attracts them to donate their time and energy?

We have almost a thousand volunteers, working various shifts throughout the week. They groom and walk the horses, brush and hug the cows, keep the upper barnyard clean, work in the office, serve as docents on Sundays, and help us with events.

People who love animals often want to volunteer their time with animals, but sometimes find that a shelter can be too depressing and hard. At The Gentle Barn people can volunteer and be near animals and there's no need to feel sad because all the animals here have happy endings. It is a feel-good experience that gives animal lovers time with so many different kinds of animals and truly making a difference.

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Ellie and Jelly

I would imagine that safety is an important issue in the day-to-day running of the Gentle Barn. I can see how important it is to make sure that the animal/human interactions be supervised to make sure that the animals don't get hurt by visitors doing dumb things and that the humans don't get hurt by annoying or scaring an animal either. Looks like a big job, the safety thing. What can you tell me about that?

We want being at The Gentle Barn to be safe because the whole point of our organization is to bring people and animals closer - so we want only good experiences. The most important thing to remember is that animals act out when they're feeling threatened or unheard, unseen, and misunderstood. So we make sure that when we are open to the public, every animal has her or her own personal docent to be his or her voice. That way, if an animal doesn't want to be petted, he or she doesn't have to. If one of our animals is feeling scared, we recognize it right away. This gives the animals the time and space to heal - and it also guarantees a safe experience for the human visitors as well.

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Jay and Worthy

I love the educational component to what you're doing here, bringing farm animals and us city folks together. What do you most want people to understand about these wonderful critters?

The thing I want people to understand the most is that even though all of us living creatures may look different, we are really remarkably similar. Some of us fly, swim, crawl, or walk -- some have hair, feathers, fur, or simply skin -- in our hearts we are the same -- and we all desire respect, freedom, and choices.

Also, each of us humans can make a huge difference in the lives of animals - and this planet - and our own bodies - when we make more conscious, kind choices about what we eat, wear, and buy. Together we can create a kinder, gentler world for animals and for ourselves!

I've been an animal lover my whole life and I know millions of Americans feel the same way. How can we support you in your work here at The Gentle Barn? How can we help you in your important mission?

There are so many ways people can help: You can sponsor an animal at The Gentle Barn and stay connected for the rest of their lives - your funds go toward their care. You can purchase a Gentle Barn membership and support our great work healing animals and kids. You can come for a visit on a Sunday from 10-2, or get a private tour and see how wonderful animals are. You tell your friends about us -- help us spread the word.

And the most important thing you can do as an animal lover is to adopt a plant-based diet. You can make a big impact because one person who eats a plant based diet saves 198 animals and an acre of trees every year - and reduces their risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, by 90 percent. That is a huge impact on animals, the planet and our health!

Thank you for sharing your love of animals and children in the unique way that you do, Ellie. I've admired The Gentle Barn from a distance for quite some time and now that I'm actually here today, I'm even more a fan. It's quite a unique and wonderful place founded by a remarkable woman. I am in awe of Jewel the Peacock ... and I'm even more in awe of all the love, hope, and healing here at The Gentle Barn.

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Learn more about Ellie Laks and The Gentle Barn in her new book, "My Gentle Barn." Even better, arrange to visit the barnyard in person. For details see: www.gentlebarn.org