Episode 98 – Ellie Laks

Ellie founded The Gentle Barn in 1999. She invented her own “Gentle Healing Method” that allows old, sick, injured and terrified animals to fully recover using a mixture of Western medicine, holistic healing modalities, holding therapy and lots of love. Ellie is an expert in healing orphaned and sick animals, like puppies with Parvo and calves from veal crates. Ellie has big dreams for the future, listen in & learn more!

“Welcome to the Professionals and Animal Rescue podcast, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue. This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters, and the only site that automates rescue relay transport. Now on with our show!

 Ellie Laks is the founder of the Gentle Barn Foundation, a national organization that rescues and rehabilitates unwanted animals and heals people with the same stories of abuse and neglect. She’s a celebrated animal welfare advocate, human educator and author of My Gentle Barn, creating a sanctuary where animals heal and children learn to hope.

 Hey, Ellie, thanks for coming on the program today. Thank you so much for having me. It’s really great to be here. I’m glad to have you. So tell us a little bit about you and kind of your background and how you got to form The Gentle Barn? I think that I was basically born obsessed with animals. There has never been a time where I just didn’t love them. I just remember being a really young child and if I saw a dog or a cat on the street, I had to pet them and kiss them. If I saw lakes or woods, I had to go exploring and find natural creatures there. I always always loved nature and animals. And as I got older, on my little adventures in the woods in the lakes, I would find animals that needed help. And it would dawn on me that it’s kind of our job to help them if we find someone in need. So on my adventures, when I would find someone that needed help, I would bring them home and I would help them. And by the time I was seven, my plan became, I wanted a house full of animals that I saved and they would be my friends. Wow. At the age of seven, Yeah, Yeah, much to my parents, dismay, they were not amused. Did not want a house full of animals, of course, So I was just too much for my mom to handle, and she would send the animals packing and I would cry. And she would say,”Ellie, when you grow up, you could have as many animals as you want,” and I would yell back, I would say, “You’ll see, when I grow up I’ll have a huge place full of animals, and I’ll show the world how beautiful they are.”

 So the one thing that was painfully clear, at seven years old was I saw animals as my best friend, my teachers and my healers and the people around me did not. My parents were like, “Ellie, stop your nonsense, get rid of the bloody animals.” My brothers would laugh at me and torture animals to make me cry. And my friends at school would tease me because of my obsession with animals. So it was glaringly obvious that I saw something in animals and nature that the people around me did not. And so, from a very, very early age, I just started yelling at my parents when I grew up and show the world how beautiful animals were. And I didn’t know how to do that, I mean, I would yell at them that I was going to do it, and every time I yelled it, I would get more and more convicted that that was gonna be what I did, but I didn’t know how. I mean, I didn’t live on a farm. I didn’t have land. I didn’t have money to buy land. I honestly hadn’t even met a farm animal, until I rescued my 1st one, but I just kept yelling it. And I would sit in school and I would doodle pictures of animals, until my notebook, my desk and my arms were covered in animals. Nice. And I would go to sleep each night picturing all the animals I would get to love, when I was older.

And so it kind of became a place that I lived in in my mind, but I didn’t know how to actually execute it, until many, many years later, as a young adult. I was driving through the Los Angeles Valley, doing an errand. I passed a petting zoo I’d never seen before. And I was very full of people and crowded and smelled funny. And I found myself pulling over and walking in just to kind of be nosy.  And what I found there was a tremendous amount of abuse. Awful, awful abuse to these animals. The goats and sheep had overgrown toenails and deformed legs. There were dead animals in cages. They’re beating the ponies, to keep going around in circles, carrying kids. And the place was absolutely packed with people, that were smiling and taking pictures and posing their kids, on these dilapidated animals, and not one of them could see the suffering in front of them. And there it was again, like something that I could see so clearly and not anyone else could see or care about. It just absolutely broke my heart.

 And so I ended up running for the door, as fast as I could, because I was absolutely disgusted by the place. And blocking the exit was a very old goat that looked like she was about to keel over any second. And she looked me in the eyes and she asked me for help, when she stopped me in my tracks. So I went to find the owner and said, Hey, can I have that goat? She said, no. And I said, Well, can I buy her, name your price? And she said, Leave me alone. And I said, Well, if I leave her here, she’s gonna die. So I’m gonna stay here till you say yes and I stayed  there for 12 days. Really? Yeah, I just could not, she asked me for help, and I couldn’t turn my back on her. I couldn’t turn my back on her, so I stayed there for 12 days. And on the 13th day, the owner came up to me and said, you know, take the goat and get the heck out of here. Just go. So I brought the goat home with me and my half-acre backyard and fixed her. I called the mobile vet. And little by little, we removed, removed her tumor. Trimmed her over going toenails. He taught me how to massage her deformed legs so she could walk again. And a few months later, she bounced around the backyard as happy as can be. Wow, that’s an amazing story. So, I mean, just it took a week and ½, right, and you just persisted. You showed up every day and just said, Please let me have this goat. Yeah, I would sneak in food and water in my purse, so that I could feed her and give her water, and I just kept telling her I was coming for her. And every single morning when the petting zoo opened, I would pay entry, and I would go find the owner. Hey, can I have a goat? She’d say no. And I would spend the whole day sitting next to her, feeding her and loving her. And then when the petting zoo closed, I would take and can I have Mary, and they’d say no. Then I say, Okay, See you tomorrow. No. They thought I was eventually going to go away. But you can ask my husband. I’m very, very stubborn when it comes to the animals. So finally, she was a quiet, peaceful protest, if you will. But finally, she just couldn’t stand the sight of me anymore. And she just said to take the goat and get the heck out of here.

 So I brought Mary home to my half-acre backyard. I had a mobile vet come out and heal her. Seeing her come to life, I think, was the most profound thing that has ever happened to me. I, in that moment I remember feeling this is what I was born to do. This is who I am. And it filled me with such a passion and a purpose, that I had to have more. I had to do more. It was just, it was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had in my life. And so I actually started calling authorities, to see if they can help that lady make conditions better there, at the petting zoo. And they all said the same thing. They all said, There’s nothing they could do. So I actually went back there with a picture of Mary the Goat and showed the owner all the wonderful things I’ve done for her. And I asked her if I could help her with more animals. And I guess she, you know, didn’t want me camping out for another 12 days. So she said, Yeah, fine. Wait right here. And she started dragging animals out of the back. Broken bones, pneumonia, scared to death, dying. And I brought the whole pile home, fixed them all, one by one. And one day I looked out my little window, to a backyard that was now full of animals and said, Holy cow, I started my dream. So that was 20 years ago. Wow.

 What, I’m just curious. Before you did that, what was your line of work? What was your background in? I had gone to school for psychology and special Ed and I was working with kids on probation and special needs adults and children. And I also had a dog rescue. I was also going to the shelters and working with the volunteers, to kind of identify the animals that were going to be euthanized that day, and I would bring them home, rehabilitate them and find homes for them. That’s what I was doing at the time. Wow. And now you’ve found your passion. You’ve got a backyard full of animals. And you said, But this is not enough. I need to do more. Yeah. Since I was seven, the dream is actually a two part dream. One was I was gonna have a big yard full of animals and show the world how beautiful they were. And the second part was and I was gonna partner with the animals to heal all the lonely people of the world. And so the minute I realized, Oh, my God, I started my dream. I actually went inside the house, opened the phone book and started calling foster agencies, inner city schools, probation camps, alcohol rehab centers, domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, senior centers, war veteran centers, telling them that I have all these animals that share the stories of their clients. You should bring them in, and so they did.

 And so what The Gentle Barn does basically, is we take in animals that nobody else wants. We heal them and give them sanctuary for the rest of their lives. And then when the animals are ready, we partner with them to heal people with the same stories of abuse, neglect and to connect these animals to children so children can discover the beauty of animals. Yeah, I absolutely love that. It’s not just taking the animals and giving them, you know, a safe place to live for the rest of their life. But you’re working with them to share their stories and to be their voice to help people that, you know, connect with them. Yeah, you know as a child, animals healed me and they saved me and they raised me. And they make me a better human every single day. And so I like the circle of healing. I like that I can heal animals and then have the animals heal people. And then people turn around and be kinder to animals. It’s just this beautiful circle that promotes healing everywhere.

 So now when did the first Gentle Barn location come to existence? So when I brought all those animals from the petting zoo and realized that I had started with The Gentle Barn, we had our first official grand opening August 25th 1999. So this coming August we’ll be celebrating our 20th anniversary. I’m really excited about it. Yeah, that’s amazing. 20 years and I bet you looking back, it’s been a crazy ride the whole time, but probably amazing. Yeah, it’s one of those things where it went. We can’t believe how much we’ve done in 20 years, but at the same time went by in a blink. 

So tell us a little bit more. So how does The Gentle Barn work? I mean, where did the animals come from? I mean, your web site is amazing, as is your Facebook page. I spent quite a bit of time just reading some of their stories, seeing their pictures in the videos, but tell us more about how this all works. Thank you. We are open to the public on Sundays from 10-2, and people could come in and hug the cows and cuddle the turkeys and give the pigs tummy rubs and hear their stories of resilience. During the week, in the mornings, we host school field trips or private tours, and in the afternoons we host the groups of at risk inner city and special needs children. We’re connected to the Los Angeles Police Department, Animal Control and other rescues. The Gentle Barn does something very, very specific. We don’t just take in animals. We take in animals that specifically have nowhere else to go because they’re too old, too sick, to lame or too scared to be adoptable. And so it’s specifically animals that no one else wants, and we bring them in and we rehabilitate them with vet care. But we also use a whole slew of alternative methods, like acupuncture, massage therapy, ultrasound, CBD, energetic healing, animal communication. Lots and lots of love. We’ll stop at nothing to heal an animal, whether it’s emotionally or physically. And then once they’re healed, just their very story alone is so incredibly inspiring to people. So then once they’re healed, we partner with people so those people can heal them and get hope for their own knives.

 Now, what types of animals do you guys care for? We’re home to horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, peacocks, llamas, dogs, cats and donkeys. Just a few, huh? So you really did get exactly what you told your mother? You said I’m gonna have, I’m gonna have as many animals as I want. Yeah, Yeah, that’s amazing. And what I really like is I said, is the connection that you’re trying to build now with the community, with people, to get them to understand the stories and just like people suffer from abuse, animals suffer from abuse. Yeah, I think that there’s something incredibly inspirational about meeting someone that has your story, especially a lot of the children that we work with. They walk around thinking that they’re alone against the world and that nobody really understands them. And so to all of a sudden, meet someone that has the exact same story that you do. It’s very, very therapeutic. And then to see that animal thriving with friends, having forgiven and finding joy, that child knows that he can, too. It’s just something that I think people can’t offer. One of the things that we do when we interact with agencies, that bring their clients, is we asked them to identify the part of their population that will not respond to regular therapy. So, you know, sometimes people are so angry and so shut down that they don’t want to talk about what they’ve been through and what they’re feeling. So they come to The Gentle Barn instead, and instead of them having to talk and dredge up memories that they’d rather forget, we do the talking about the animal stories. And there’s something magical about that happens when they hear an animal story and they know it’s their own. They meet that animal and see the animal thriving. It softens them, it opens them. It helps them become vulnerable. And it helps them, all of a sudden identify, Yeah, I’ve been through that, too. I know what that’s like, and all of a sudden, now they’re talking. So now, after the experience of The Gentle Barn, they can go back into the regular therapy setting, and now they have a place to start. And now they have something to talk about. And they can really begin their healing.

 Yeah, I know. And I’m sure you’ve seen such horrible abuse that it probably covers the gamut. And there’s a story that would resonate with just about anybody. Yes, we have an animal at the Gentle Barn that mirrors any person’s story. Absolutely. We’ve hosted burn centers. We’ve had animals with scars. We’ve hosted Children’s hospitals. We’ve had animals that were very, very sick or, um, when they were kids and going through multiple surgeries or long hospital stays. We’ve hosted groups of foster children. We have animals that were orphans and came here to kind of be resilient. Anything a person’s gone through, the animals of The Gentle Barn have gone through.

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 Yeah, that’s ,that’s really amazing that you’re able to do all that. And now, now you’ve expanded. You’ve moved into Tennessee and Missouri and it sounds like you’re getting your wish. Is your goal to have a Gentle Barn in every state? Yes, yes, that is the plan. I want to be able to get in front of every person in America. I want every person in America to know how intelligent these animals are, how affectionate they are, what their personalities are like. And at the end of the day, I really want people to see that we’re all the same. We just look different. Yeah, that’s what I was gonna say, What is your goal for all of this? Because you’ve done so much. You’ve come so far. It’s amazing what you’ve accomplished in 20 years. And now you go, What’s next, like, what’s, you’re not done. I can feel the passion and the energy in your voice saying, Just watch me. I’m gonna keep going. I’m just getting started. Yeah, I want to have Gentle Barns in every state in America and also wanna have Gentle Barns worldwide. I want to be able to heal as many people, as we can and save as many animals, as we can. But more importantly, I want to be able to open hearts and change minds about who animals are. I think that in our society we’re living in a world where we have come to believe that animals are objects that we could eat, wear, own and throw away, when we don’t want them anymore. And for me, that’s just not the truth. It’s just not the truth. You know, when I was seven years old, I tried to kill myself and a hummingbird saved my life, by hovering in my face and letting me know that it was okay. Every time when I was older and things were happening and I cried, it was always the animals that heard me, listened. And it was always animals that showed me that I was worth something. I just see animals so much more as our society sees them, and I want to lead the way to a vegan world. I want to lead the way to a planet where we acknowledge that we’re sharing the planet with the sentient beings. They’re our brothers and sisters. There are cousins and family. They’re our neighbors and that we all share this beautiful planet. And I want to get to a place where we kind of acknowledged that as a species. And I think not only would it benefit animals, but I think in the long run, it will benefit us, our health and the planet itself. We can’t keep destroying. We have to love and lift up and allow others to live alongside us. That is my really, really big plan.

 That’s an amazing plan. And I really like the fact that you’re taking an approach that is showing people, right?. A lot of times I see people that just want to preach about it or they want to, you know, attack others for not listening or following their beliefs. But you’re taking this approach to me, that’s the right way to do it,  is you’re showing them, you’re connecting them. You’re sharing the stories and helping them to understand that these are sentient beings. And yes, they may not speak the exact same language as we do, but they do care and they can make a connection. And there is that intelligence that we need to recognize. Yeah, absolutely. And then all of a very, very gentle way. It’ll have to be done with love. Or what’s the point? No, that’s a really good point, Ellie.

 So is there a favorite story or anything you wanted to share about a particular animal that comes to mind? Oh, my God. I have so many wonderful stories. You know what? I’ll share a story that actually is one of the most miraculous things I’ve ever witnessed. And something that, kind of we’re just dealing with. We rescued an orphan calf, who now is named Ferdinand. And he was eight weeks old. He had just lost his mom, when he came into The Gentle Barn. All he did was run in circles and scream for his mom. It was awful. It was awful to witness. And so actually me and my daughter, she’s 13, we moved into the barnyard, to be with Ferdinand. We didn’t want him to be alone for even a second. And so every time he cried, we answered. When he was alone, we would read out loud to him or sing to him. Finally, after a few days, once he finally let us, we would cradle his head in our laps and pet him and love him and kiss him and keep telling him stories of his life, waiting for him at The Gentle Barn. The friends, he would make, the joy he would have, the play that he would do and the beautiful, beautiful purpose that he would have, connecting with people. And so we kept just telling him that story, until finally he was ready to move on. And he did start playing and he started eating and started making friends. 

Well, when his health quarantine was over, after the first 30 days, it was time to partner him with an animal. And so I wanted him, I wanted to partner him with someone very nurturing and very loving, but yet strong at the same time, that could kind of be a mother figure to him. And I thought of Lucy. Lucy was a very little miniature cow, and she was very nurturing and very patient and loving, and I just thought she would be the perfect fit for him. And so I asked Miss Lucy, would you mind spending time with this orphan calf and kind of helping him out. And she said, Oh my God, I would be honored to. So we brought Lucy to meet Ferdinand, and I tell you, it was absolutely, love at first sight. She took one look at him and she started grooming him and she ate by his side and she slept next to him and she protected him, and she patiently played with him. And she loved him so much that she produced milk for him. I’ve never seen that before, in all my years of doing rescue and loving animals, I’ve never seen an animal actually produce milk for a baby. Come to find out that humans do it all the time. I didn’t know. Have you ever heard that women can lactate for adopted babies? I have not heard that. Yeah, it was new to me, too. We had had Lucy for 10 years and she never had milk. There’s nothing going on there. And all of a sudden she loved him so much that she officially adopted them as her own. And she produced milk for him. And for the year, the year and ½ that they were together, she nursed him three times a day. She gave him a bath every single night, till he was soaking wet and she would put him to bed. She had this very special sound that she would make for him. She only used it for him. And Mommy cows have this special sound, that they only make for their babies. It’s like this really kind of low, kind of almost whispering sound they make to their babies. And she started making that sound to him. It was just beautiful to see them together.

 Now, Lucy was old when this happened. She had no business adopting a baby or producing milk for anyone. She was kind of in her late teens when this whole thing started, and so to keep her and she was starting to have mobility issues. And so to keep her strong, we’re giving her acupuncture and massage therapy, every single week. She was eating Sun Chlorella algae superfood to boost her immune system, every single day. And she was on CBD to help with her mobility and her comfort. We just exhausted all efforts to try to keep her strong and healthy so she could be around for Ferdinand, for as long as possible. Unfortunately very, very recently, only like a few weeks ago, one day she just couldn’t stand up, and that ended her life. And so Ferdinand is now going through the grieving process, as all of us are. She was very, very important to a lot of people, not just Ferdinand. That’s we’re all kind of grieving her. But watching the cow family support Ferdinand, it’s so beautiful.. They have all rallied around him. He rests. He literally rests his head on their shoulders, they form a circle around him, and they never leave him alone. They always take turns that there’s always, always someone with him. They eat with him. They groom him every single morning and every single night. It’s just such a beautiful thing. And I, you know, as a society we kind of pushed animals out of our communities. So we really don’t see the way they celebrate birth, and we don’t see the way that they mourn death. We don’t see their relationships to each other, and they’re intelligent, but sanctuaries that life is very full and rich and watching, really they behave like we do! So beautiful. It’s so beautiful. And we’re gonna do everything we can to share these stories with people so they can fall in love with these cows, like we do.

 That’s such an amazing story. And I really appreciate you sharing that, because I can imagine that you see something, that most people don’t see every day, and it’s something that is very unique. And I’m so glad that you’re making a point to share it with the world. And I’m so glad you’re proving your parents wrong. And that really excites me to see everything that you’re doing.

 Is there anything else Ellie that you wanted to mention before we wrap things up today? Thank you. Yeah. The only thing I would like to say is a lot of people, when you have hundreds of people that visit, a lot of people come up to me and say, Oh, I wish I could do what you’re doing. I wish I could start a sanctuary. And my answer to them is always the same. And I’d like to share it now. I’d like to say that, Yes. I mean, If someone has the wherewithal to start a sanctuary, I mean, that would be a lovely thing. There are sanctuaries popping up all over the world because people are starting to see animals’ personalities and their intelligence, and so more and more people want to help them. It’s a lovely thing, if people do have the bandwidth, to start sanctuaries. That’s a lovely, lovely thing and we at The Gentle Barn are always there to support people. If they have any questions or need support. But I would like to say, that for those many people that don’t have the money or time or wherewithal to start a sanctuary, that’s really not the only way that we can help animals. I think that there’s so many ways that we can help them heal and be heroes, in our own lives. Right where we live, right with the financial situation that we have, there’s so many things that we can do right where we stand, to help animals. The most powerful thing that we can do as individuals is to adopt a plant-based diet. When we go vegan, we save 200 animals a year, which is thousands and thousands of animals over the course of just one lifetime. Not to mention that when we adopt a plant-based diet we’re also saving 1200 gallons of water a day. We’re saving two acres of forest every year, and we’re reducing our own risk of Western diseases, like cancer and heart disease and diabetes. It’s kind of a win/ win situation, where with one very easy move, just in our own lives, we can save animals, heal the planet and make our bodies healthier. And then simple little things like, you know, if they have room in our home and our hearts to have an animal, a cat or a dog or a bunny rabbit, instead of buying an animal, we can go adopt. That’s a really great way that each person can kind of make a difference, in their own little way. You can donate other rescues, you know, if we can’t have our own rescue but another rescue doing the hard work, we can donate. And when I say donating, it doesn’t have to be huge gobs of money. I mean, even $10 a month, cumulatively, absolutely helps us and helps us buy a bag of feed for an animal. So you know, little donations instead of Starbucks coffee, donating it to have sanctuary. Or if you’re driving on the street and you see an animal in the middle of the road, instead of just passing them by, you can take 10 minutes out of your day. Stop. Get them on the side of safety, call an agency. There’s someone in your neighborhood that is hungry, can put out food for them. And most importantly, if we’re parents, training the next generation, to be kinder is probably the most important thing that we can do, to really, really make a difference. Little things, like when we have little ones running around and children, we can train them, instead of stomping on bugs, to take them safely outside. Instead of picking flowers, we can enjoy them living together. Instead of chasing birds at the park, we can sit down and watch them play. There’s so many little teeny, tiny things that we can do, right, where we stand to be kinder, to be more thoughtful, to be more gentle and ultimately make a big, big difference in this world. 

I think that’s a really good message, Ellie and it’s really important for people to remember. That is, you don’t have to do something dramatic. It’s always the little things that can add up to such a big impact. So I appreciate you sharing that and thank you so much for coming on the program today. I really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you for having me.  Thanks for tuning into today’s podcast. If you’re not already a member, join the ARPA to take advantage of all the resources we have to offer. And don’t forget to sign up with Doobert.com. It’s free and helps automate the most difficult tasks in animal rescue.”

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