Episode 15 – Alecia Torres

We talk with Alecia Torres who moved to Wisconsin over 20 years ago to earn her degree in social welfare from UW-Madison and she has never left! Alecia is now the Shelter Director at Heartland Farm Sanctuary in Madison, Wisconsin. Heartland Farm Sanctuary opened in 2010, and is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless farm animals in Wisconsin, and they focus on building connections between animals and vulnerable youth in the community. The sanctuary was created to provide a safe, peaceful environment where youth and farm animals could come together to heal, grow, and have fun. Alecia has loved and lived with animals her whole life and is passionate about animal rights issues. Her favorite friends at the Heartland barn are the turkeys and chickens. Listen to her experience in with farm sanctuary and if you want to learn more you can visit their website at https://heartlandfarmsanctuary.org/

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Today, we’re speaking with Alecia Torres. Alecia moved to Wisconsin over 20 years ago to earn her degree in social welfare from UW-Madison, and she never left. Alecia is now the shelter director at Heartland Farm Sanctuary in Madison, Wisconsin. Heartland Farm Sanctuary opened in 2010 and it’s a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless farm animals in Wisconsin, and they focused on building connections between animals and vulnerable youth in the community. The sanctuary was created to provide a safe, peaceful environment where youth and farm animals could come together to heal, grow, and have fun. Alecia has loved and lived with animals for a whole life and has passion about animal rights issues. Her favorite friends at Heartland barn are the turkeys, chickens, and roosters.

Hey, Alecia, welcome to the program. Tell us a little bit about Heartland Farm Sanctuary. I think that’s just such an amazing story.

Oh, thank you. Well, Heartland Farm was formed in 2010 and at the time we were the first farm animal sanctuary in the state of Wisconsin. Now there are, fortunately others of more of a popular idea now. We take in animals from a variety of circumstances. Some are found homeless. Some are surrendered from people who can’t take care of them any longer. Some come from cruelty and neglect cases too. In our sanctuary it’s a little bit unique because we also have a different aspect where we work with youth. We do programs with youth with special needs, and we do humane education in summer camp. We’re trying to facilitate the connection between people and animals, in a healing capacity.

Yes, that’s really neat. What types of animals do you guys take in?

Well, we actually have 12 different species of farm animals, so we have everything from big farm pigs to potbellied pigs. We have cows, donkeys, and all kinds of birds. We have geese, ducks, turkeys, chickens, goats, and sheep. Yes, so we have all variety. Right now, we only have one horse. She’s a dwarf horse named Cookie. Although we have had full-sized horses come through as well that we’ve rehabilitated and rehomed.

Wow, that’s really cool. It’s going to be a lot of fun and a lot of work.

It is, yes, I tell it to everybody it’s my dream job. It’s also the hardest job I’ve ever done in my life. It’s, it’s emotional. It’s some fun and you’re constantly learning things, but it can be stressful because it’s also just very unpredictable. I feel very fortunate to have this job because, I’m allowed – I can be outside a lot. I just really always wanted to work for animals in my life.

Yes, so tell us a little about you. I mean, how did you come to get into this?

Well, I actually started as a volunteer at Heartland in 2011 so they had already been around for a year. I went to a fundraiser and learned about them, and I was just so excited to find out that it was in my town. It was going to be someplace where I could volunteer so I started volunteering, and I just fell in love with it as soon as I started. I started to get more and more involved. I just took on as many tests as I could and I started giving tours and doing animal care, care taking shifts and things like that. Eventually I was able to make it a part-time job, and I quit my other job part time. Then over time, it also, kind of – As we grew, it became a need for a full time position. I was able to quit my other job, and then now just do this full time.

Wow, that’s really awesome. What is a day-to-day job for you entail as the shelter director?

It’s just a normal day. Well, they did, but, I managed all aspects of animal care, but I also have to manage the facilities. We have our barn, between our barn and our riding ring we have 20,000 square feet I think of animal space, and then we have 15 acres of property. I manage the grounds, the construction, the maintenance, and then all aspects of the animal care, which is like the medical care and the daily care. Of course, I have an amazing staff to help me do that. I’m just the kind of person that’s making sure that all that stuff gets done so that the animals have a great place to live, and that all their needs are taken care of.

That’s really cool. You basically get to do everything.

Yes, a little bit of everything. I don’t work in the programs area, like our people programs, we call them. I don’t work in that area. I just make sure that – the environment where the programs are going on is – everyone has what they need and that the animals are very well taken care of because the animals participate in the program. They have to be healthy and well-socialized and all that kind of my part of that.

Yes, talk about some of the programs. I think one of the things that’s really cool about Heartland that’s different than other farm sanctuaries is the specialized programs that you guys do.

Yes, it is really great. I got into this because I love animals and mainly animals, but it’s really opened my eyes to find out that the more you include people, the more you’re making that connection, like how valuable these animals are, that farm animals are just like dogs and cats. People don’t know that until they interact with them so I think it’s really important that we have those programs. We have a summer camp for kids, like a humane education camp and that lasts for 11 weeks out of the summer and kids sign up for a week at a time. It’s just a really great program. They get to do animal care chores. They go on nature walks, do all kinds of things, and then also just learn to treat animals compassionately and kindly. We also have the small fall camp, it’s just on the weekends. We have a couple of programs that are therapeutic. We have a program called Animal Hearts and that’s for kids ages 8 to 12, I think it is.

We used to do with kids and families but now we’re just focusing on kids, and that kids were affected by some type of trauma or loss. That could be a death in the family or abuse or some kind of traumatic events. We also have events with their pets. They also – We provide the environment that’s very welcoming and help some be able to open up about things that have happened because it’s a whole lot easier to talk to a pig or, a chicken than it is to a person sometimes. So that is really, a big healing component. We also have something called Barn Time. That’s for children that are living with a special need so that could be like a cognitive disability or physical disability. That’s around the same age, I think its ages 7 to 12 and that’s in partnership with the University of Wisconsin. They have a school of rehabilitation, psychology, and special education. So a student will come from that program and they get matched with one of our Heartland employees. They’re doing their course work and helping the kids be able to interact and learn how to do things. That barn person is there to help facilitate the relationship between the kids and the animals. It’s a really great partnership.

That’s really cool. Now, have you always been around farm animals in your life?

Now, that’s like everyone asks me that. I really feel for our new volunteers when they start, because it’s kind of overwhelming, what we do. When I started here, I had never ever been around farm animals. I’ve loved animals my whole life and of course I’ve seen goats in different places, and things like that. I didn’t have any understanding about animal handling, or different personalities and all that stuff. When I started it was kind of all new to me, I just started as a volunteer, starting, just learning all those basic things. Then over time, we just kind of, we take in any species or we’re dealing with a new health issue. We just learned all about that and then it just kind of becomes part of our knowledge base. The more we go on in, the more we grow, and the more we are learning about all the different things that farm animal sanctuaries encounter. In the beginning, it was pretty new for everybody. A lot of learning on the fly.

Yes, I can totally imagine. I’m sure you’ve learned a ton over the last six years.

Yes, yes, a lot more than I ever thought I would. I have a medical supervisor who’s really amazing. She started as, physician’s assistant, that was her career. Now she’s the medical supervisor of animals, so she’s had to learn a lot of things, pertaining to animals as opposed to people. I’ve just learned a ton from her. I’ve always been interested in medical things, but that’s been my favorite thing. It’s just learning about the different conditions, medications, treatments, and things like that. I’ve really enjoyed learning all of that stuff. It’s been really, really fun.

Cool. I’m sure you love all of the animals there, but there’s got to be a couple out there that are your favorites.

Yes, I would hate to say that I have favorites, but I do have one absolute favorite and he is a turkey named Eddie. He’s really special to me because he makes me feel so special and it’s a weird story. When he first came to Heartland, he was friendly with everyone. He’s a beautiful Royal Palm turkey, which is a black and white turkey. They’re kind of like a heritage breed, show turkey. He was friends with everyone, but he just started, shortly after I started as a volunteer, he lost his mate unfortunately. He went into a very deep depression for a couple of months. He would go and he would stand in the corner of the barn and face the wall. He was extremely depressed, and we just didn’t even really know if he was going to come out of it. A few of us would, hand feed him, spend a lot of time with him. I got pecked by him many times. He’s very temperamental. After this whole episode happened, he was no longer friendly to everybody, and he was friendly to just three different people, and I happen to be one of them. In the past few years after that happened, I’ve just been one of his favorites. It makes me feel special. I think that’s one reason why I just feel like I have this really strong bond with him because I’m like one of the chosen ones. It’s really what it is, that he’s like, kind of chosen me as a mate. He doesn’t see it that way. He will try to round me up, out of his area or he’ll have to go find me and see what I’m doing, things like that. He’s my favorite because I think he’s personality is so interesting and he’s the one that made me learn that these – even birds, I didn’t know anything about birds before, but they have very rich emotional lives. I think I just had a really special bond with him. I hate to say my favorite, but he is.

It’s okay. We won’t tell anyone. I think that’s really cool. You mentioned the animal-human bond. How does that come into play at Heartland? That’s something that a lot of people don’t even think about.

Yes, and I’ve seen that time and time again with our volunteers in our staff. I’ve never heard anyone not have this experience. Just by helping animals, it doesn’t even really feel like work sometimes because they’re helping us just as much. If you’re having a really horrible day, you come in for your volunteer shift, and you are working with animals for three hours outdoors with all this fresh air, it’s just like at the end, you just feel amazing. It’s just a really healing experience. A part of it is just being able to be yourself with animals and also that animals are very interested in us and you can have relationships with them. You laugh with them, smile at them, and they show you affection, too. I just think it’s as much as we’re trying to heal animals that come in here that have had difficult experiences, they do the same for us. They’re teaching us. They’re making us feel good about ourselves. It’s all I don’t know. It’s a lot of love, so I really believe in that bond.

Yes, that’s really cool. Now, just for some of our listeners that maybe have not experienced farm animals or had that opportunity. How is it different than working with say, cats and dogs?

I don’t think it’s a whole lot different. There are obviously differences because they have very different needs. Cats and dogs can stay inside, but farm animals are outdoors a lot. They have such different health considerations and all those things. I think, the thing that I’ve learned is that they are no different because they each have their own distinct personality. They each have things that they like and that they don’t like. Just like your dog might not like a certain food, and I really love – Like my dog, for example, he will not eat blueberries. She hates them. I was trying to offer him fruits and vegetables rather than just her dog food. She hates all of them but some days he love blueberries and things like that. Then we have pigs. You would think a pig will eat anything. No, that’s not the case. Well, we give our pigs, their grain and then, fruits and veggies. Like Ellie, she won’t eat carrots. I shove all the carrots in her bowl, she’ll eat all around them, and there’ll be like, there’s little clean carrot’s left. It’s like they’re just like people. They’re just like other animals. They have things that they like. They have their own preferences. They have their own minds and personalities. I think, they’re very different in terms of what their care needs are, but essentially, they’re no different than dogs and cats.

Interesting. Now, one of the things I wanted to point out is, in your profile on the website, it says you live in Madison with your husband, your Lab-mix Sophie, and Sophie’s cats. What are those Sophie’s cats?

Because she’s like in love of them. She thinks that they’re her children. She didn’t have any of her own children, but she’s always worried about what they’re doing, just constantly monitoring them. She’s very motherly. That’s what we call them. We call them, Sophie’s cats.

That’s really cool. So you get to have dogs and cats at home, and then you get to come to work and work with other animals.

Yes, yes, I do feel very fortunate because I have a lot of friends, a lot of animal friends.

That’s really cool. So, what advice would you have for some of those listening to this and saying, “Oh, my goodness Alecia that’s exactly what I want to do.” Where do they begin?

Yes, well, I would say, definitely start by volunteering. It’s something that you have to be at a farm animal thing. Sure, it could just be at your local shelter because local shelters also get in chickens and pigs and often times they make their way to us. There’s not, it’s not just dogs and cats. I think volunteering anywhere would help you as far as learning how to take care of animals. If you’re lucky enough to live near a farm sanctuary, definitely volunteering there would be the way to start. I think that all of our employees actually started as volunteers and just like through really showing a lot of initiative and commitment than with most job openings are there. Then, of course, you want someone who’s got a lot of experience to step in.

I think number one, volunteering otherwise, just try to visit sanctuaries if possible, and learn about them. The same sanctuaries that I’d been to have been very, open with talking to me about what they do. They’re usually we’re excited about what they do, so that’s a good way to just visit these places and learn as much as you can. See if it is actually something that you would like to do. You can learn a lot online, too. That’s actually how I started learning about farm sanctuaries. Before I even heard of Heartland, I found Farm Sanctuary, which is the big national Farm Sanctuary. I would go on their website and follow things that they were doing. I thought, it’s so awesome that I would always say, “I would love to work in a place like that.” and then that’s why I felt so strange when Heartland opened. I’m like, “Oh My Gosh, there’s a place right in my town.” Follow those different sanctuaries. There’s a ton of them that you can follow on Facebook and Instagram, and learn about them. Try to visit them if you can, and then just volunteer in any capacity that you can for animals.

Yes, that’s really cool. I think what’s really neat is the work that you guys do. Your tag line is “People helping animals, animals helping people.” That’s something that’s very unique I think, and special about you guys.

Yes, yes, and I do think it’s important because unless you include people, you’re not going to be making that connection, and that’s ultimately what we wanted. We want people to really know how great these animals are. That doesn’t happen if you’re just taking care of animals, you’re doing good for those animals that you’re taking care of. We really have to help make that connection so that the idea gets around. Get the people talk and they tell their friends, that the chicken is just as fun to hang out as with the dog.

That’s really cool. Alecia, before we wrap up is there anything else you want to share with our listeners?

Encourage everyone if they’re thinking about getting involved to go ahead and do it. I was a little nervous to start volunteering, but I feel like not only did it open up a whole world for me as far as, like, a different vocation, it also introduced me to lots of different people and experiences. I think that’s just a really great thing that anybody can do, volunteer alongside their normal work.

Alecia, thank you so much for coming on the program. It is great to talk to you and to learn more about Heartland Farm Sanctuary.

Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

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