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Where Animals Come Home At Last

Margie Gill has run a 180-acre animal sanctuary, Home At Last in Anderson County, for the past six years. Her career is social work, but even there she can’t stop taking care of animals: when she makes house calls, she brings flea, tick, and worm medicine for any house pet that needs help along with the family.

“Come on out,” Margie tells me on the phone, “but I warn you, you’ll have to make it through the welcoming committee first.”

The “welcoming committee” consists of Sammy, Mia, and Mickey Two, three dogs I do indeed have to love on and fuss over before I can make my way into the sanctuary. Sammy is the shyer one: previously abused, he carefully checks me out before accepting a pat.

“They really earn their keep,” says Margie. “They let me know if something’s wrong, if a gate is left open or another animal has gotten out of its pen.”

Margie gives me a tour of the scenic sanctuary, where we are joined by two volunteers, Sara Steele and her niece, Alexandra Steele. They actually live in Wichita, Kansas, but spend their yearly vacations volunteering at Home At Last.

“I was looking for something useful to do,” Sara laughs, “and I ended up here.” Sara and Alexandra work with animals in Kansas, and bring many useful skills to Home At Last.

This summer, Sara and Alexandra are building a cat house. It does indeed look like a small house, or more correctly a duplex—the house is divided into sections for feral cats and those with feline leukemia. These are cats with nowhere else to go.

“A lot of people don’t realize,” Margie tells me, “that cats with feline leukemia still make great pets.” If a person is willing, she explains, to keep the cat in the house, with no contact with other cats, and take it to the vet regularly, these cats can provide years of love and companionship just like any pet. And while the leukemia can be spread to other cats, it is not transferable to other animals or to people.

As for the feral cats, well, they can be hard to see in their side of the house. They scatter at the sight of me; I finally spot them hiding in the rafters and behind scratching posts. But some readily accept being picked up and cuddled; Margie and the volunteers work at taming all of them in the hope that they will all be someday adopted.

The dogs at Home At Last live in spacious fenced-in yards, complete with trees, grass, and individual dog houses. At each yard, I’m greeted by dogs of all sizes, shapes, and breeds who are obviously happy and secure in their surroundings. There’s any number of dogs here that would make great companions.

But there are exceptions. Jackie, a Spaniel mix, lived his life on a short chain in an abusive home before being rescued. I ask Margie if he is considered adoptable, and she promptly replies no. Then she hesitates, and says, “Well, I say no, but if a very special person came along, willing to put in extra time and love with Jackie, then yes, he could be adopted.”

Then there’s Barry, an Aussie mix who Margie says is mentally disturbed from his previous life of abuse. While he obviously loves Margie, most likely he would not make a good pet for someone else.

“He’s a perfect example,” Margie states adamantly, “of what inbreeding and neglect can do—it’s a deadly combination.”

On to the next stop on the tour, the rescued pigs. If you don’t know much about pigs, Home At Last will teach you all about them. Mostly what you’ll learn is that they don’t make good pets.

Many of the exotic pigs here were former pets. When they outgrew their cute baby stage, they were given up or abandoned by their owners. But it’s not just their size that causes problems. The exotic breeds of pigs in this country, such as the Vietnamese pot-bellied, have been inbred to the extent that they’ve developed numerous health problems that are difficult to treat.

“This should never have happened,” Margie says. “The problem is that most people don’t understand the specialized care these pigs need.”

“Pigs rule your life,” Alexandra adds. “They’re stubborn, they can get uncontrollable. They’re not good house pets.”

But the pigs at Home At Last, including a domestic pig once used as a “guard pig” at a junkyard, are living the life that is natural to them. They have room to root, graze, and socialize with one another; house pigs generally don’t get any of this.

Our tour moves on to the cow field. Here I meet Harpo and Oprah, dairy cattle from North Carolina that were abandoned and starving. There are also Angus cattle, rescued from a slaughterhouse. These cows will never end up as someone’s dinner.

Margie takes this opportunity to point out another unique aspect of her sanctuary: the dogs and cats here are all fed a vegetarian diet. A trend just beginning to catch on, it’s caused a bit of controversy among those who believe these animals are inherently predators accustomed to the protein of wild-caught meat.

But Margie disagrees, pointing out that dogs and cats are too domesticated, their needs aren’t the same as they would be in the wild. The Evolution brand food she feeds these animals consists of grains and synthetic proteins that meet dietary standards. It’s healthier, Margie maintains, adding that the pet foods in groceries are mostly made from soy and other vegetable products.

“So it’s not as though they’d be eating top-of-the-line beef anyway,” Sara adds with a shrug.

We’re not quite finished with the tour. The welcoming committee dogging our every step, we move on to the “rabbit room” for a visit; stop at Foster’s pen, a 10-month-old puppy who needs daily shots to control seizures; and finally reach the goats’ pen. I’ve never before met a goat who poses for pictures, but Nick does.

“He thinks he’s beautiful,” Margie says matter-of-factly.

The final stop on the tour is a view of 150 acres of open fields and woods. This is the wildlife refuge, home to groundhogs, skunks, coyotes, turkey, deer, pigeons, fox, raccoons, and possums. This area is protected—no hunting allowed. It’s an area dear to Margie’s heart, as she states on her Web site: “By staying in touch with wilderness and not losing our place in the natural world, we will remain creatures of the earth, not creatures apart from it.”

So how in the world do you maintain such a large place? Margie admits to a great need for volunteers. The sanctuary is maintained by a core group of six people, animal lovers who want to make a difference. But they welcome help: in addition to their adoption program, they coordinate foster homes for animals, a low-income spay/neuter program, educate the public on animal issues, and use animals to work with children and the elderly.

Funds are acquired through various channels. Direct donations are, of course, accepted, and contributions are tax-deductible. If you buy products through their Web site, such as T-shirts and vegetarian pet food, part of the purchase price goes to the sanctuary. Benefit concerts, recycling programs, and craft sales also help, and once, when funds were particularly tight, Sara and Alexandra held a neighborhood yard sale in Kansas and forwarded the money to Home At Last.

Sometimes the money will have to fund an animal its whole life: as a no-kill facility, any animal that’s not adopted is welcome to always live at the sanctuary.

Adoption is, of course, the sanctuary’s first goal. Margie cautions, however, that the puppy or kitten your child is clamoring for won’t go home with you on the first visit there.

“We’re looking for a commitment from those who adopt,” Margie says, “and avoid the animal being returned.” Margie encourages a second visit, after seriously considering whether you’re ready for a pet. If so, Margie asks that you give her updates on how the new family member is doing, and let her know if there are any problems. She wants the adoption to be a good match for all concerned.

If you’re considering adopting, Home At Last has many dogs and cats, happy and healthy, to choose from. And if you’d just like to visit all the animals there in a beautiful setting, that’s okay too.

Just be sure to take Nick’s picture.

For more information about adopting, donating, or volunteering, contact:
Home At Last Animal Sanctuary
P.O. Box 144
Salvisa KY 40372
(502) 839-1974

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