Florida pig-loving couple welcome oinkers with trouble at Yesahcan Sanctuary
ARCADIA – A truck crashed on the way to the slaughterhouse, postponing Milo’s date with death.
This fortuitous accident is the reason Milo the Pig ended up at Yesahcan Sanctuary, a 20-acre animal rescue in DeSoto County run by Jody and Karla Dumas.
Four years ago Jody and Karla bought the land just 10 miles west of Arcadia. They lived in Sarasota but had just saved a hen – an obese girl named “Lady Gaga” who couldn’t walk because she was so fat – and they wanted the space to save more.
Since then, they have launched the non-profit association “Yesahcan Sanctuary”, recruited around 20 regular volunteers and welcomed more than 100 animals, including cows, goats, horses, ducks, chickens, sheep, turkeys and puppies.
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Yesahcan board member Samantha Gentrup first heard of the shrine when she saw someone trying to sell a cow on Craigslist as a “lawn mower or an ox”. For a week, she worried that the cow would end up in a backyard slaughterhouse or tied to a tree in the suburbs.
When she heard about Yesahcan, she bought the cow and delivered it personally.
“When I arrived with her, I told her her name was Elizabeth and that she would be there forever,” Gentrup said. “It makes me so happy.”
“Friendship” with pigs
Even with Noah’s Ark-like demographics, pigs remain Yesahcan’s calling card.
DeSoto Farm has become a haven for the masses who yearn to breathe freely, which Karla attributes in part to a “kinship” she felt with pigs because of her maiden name “Pignotti”.
“I was shocked at the number of pigs in general that need homes,” said Karla, director of foodservice innovation for the Humane Society of the United States. “For me there is a deep level of sadness in having to say no to any rescue.”
There are many reasons pigs need a duo like Jody and Karla. Pigs have arguably the worst conditions of any animal in the meat industry, yet are some of the smartest, Karla said.
They are popular pets, but often too large for their home. And they can survive in the wild, where they can be seen as a nuisance when they uproot landowners’ land.
All of Milo’s buddies at Yesahcan have similar accounts of Reaper Dodging, and many come to the farm with injuries or pre-existing conditions that required them to be put down.
Ivy, who lives in the house with the Dumas family, has a jerky walk because she broke her neck like a piglet. Bernie is missing one ear and half of another, possibly because it was used as bait for dog fighters, a common spell for pot-bellied beggars. There are geriatric donkeys, a one-legged goose, pigs with heart problems and many other “special needs” animals.
It’s like Misfit Toy Island but for farm animals.
Jody, who is the director of operations for the Sarasota County School District, said he doesn’t think many of his employees know he and his wife share a house with a group of rotating animals, including Ivy, the trained pig that lives inside (but sleeps in its own bed).
Although the farm’s mission is to provide the animals with a safe haven, on May 26 a mysterious and deadly disease swept through the pigs.
First, a pig named Turbo got sick, and then the symptoms started to spread.
The night after the virus hit, Karla slept outside with the pigs, fearing poor cell service in the house would block a call from the vet.
In the middle of the night, she woke up to the sound of Gabriel, the friendliest pig on the farm, vomiting and having diarrhea. Karla loaded him, Turbo and a pig named “Um” into his van to make the four-hour trip to Gainesville, hoping that specialists at the University of Florida could save them.
It was too late for the trio, and all three died at UF. Karla returned home, convinced that their entire brood of rescued pigs would be gone by the time she returned. At the time, the farm had 21 pigs.
“I seriously thought all of our pigs were going to die,” Karla said. “And we have no idea what’s going on.”
Jody, who had spent the entire year overseeing COVID-19 mitigation for Sarasota County schools, now had to quarantine pigs in addition to school children. Every few hours another pig would get sick.
The quarantine worked, the Yesahcan Sanctuary got lucky, and Gabriel, Turbo, and Um were the only pigs they lost. But Karla took the dead hard.
“We work so hard to provide such a safe space that I personally felt like I disappointed them,” she said.
The surviving pigs now depressed
Jody and Karla still don’t know what caused the outbreak, although autopsies and further testing at UF have ruled out COVID-19. They asked scientists at the University of Iowa to study the tissue, and although they got clues, no firm response.
“We will never know the real cause of what happened,” she said.
The response of the pigs surviving the outbreak has shown how smart they are, under all this mud.
Gigi has been overpowered and depressed since her best friend Gabriel caught the virus and passed away. Owen was quarantined for seven weeks, and in his boredom he “dug up his entire area,” Karla said.
As the couple got to know the animals they cared for, the two became increasingly horrified of factory farms. Fall in love with so many pigs, and a slaughterhouse begins to look like a gas chamber filled with Golden Retrievers.
“For a pig to live in a cage all of its life to the point where it can’t even stand up, it’s just standard farming,” Jody said.
Jody went vegan, which is a radical departure from his old diet, which included a daily lunch of “two cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets” from McDonald’s, he said.
The epidemic reinforced their determination to recruit more volunteers and possibly expand the operation which took over every moment of their free time.
Board member Samantha Gentrup said the virus outbreak “wiped out three months of medical care in three days.”
Yesahcan has several events planned for the coming months, including a volunteer orientation in August, as well as monthly events planned for the fall.
Visitors will likely be greeted by Dahlia, who runs past the pasture like a dog and trots past the cars, and Ivy, the domestic pig, who will likely talk nonstop with growls, growls and whines, begging someone rubs her belly.
“All these pigs,” Jody said, “They have such a personality.”
For more information visit yesahcansanctuary.org/
Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at [email protected] or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon. Support the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by subscribing today.