What do you get if you cross a blind pig with Godiva Belgian chocolate? Given the story you’re about to read, chocolate-covered bacon is definitely not the punchline. In fact, chocolate covered bacon–though oddly popular–goes against the core beliefs of Laurelee Blanchard, founder of Leilani Farm Sanctuary, an Upcountry paradise for rescued animals.
What the pig, George and the chocolate company have in common is that they both recently brought national attention to Blanchard and her animal sanctuary.
LFS sits on nearly eight acres of property atop a hillside in Haiku. The rolling green pastures, fruit trees and jungle environment provide refuge for nearly 200 animals including pigs, rabbits, chickens, geese, deer, goats and donkeys.
Blanchard’s primary mission for starting the sanctuary was to awaken compassion and to educate people about the positive effects of eating a plant-based diet–and for all sentient beings to live in harmony. “Animal rescue is also our mission but I think even more importantly is humane education because that affects the biggest change,” Blanchard said. “If we can change people’s hearts and minds then we’re helping many more animals in the long run.”
Blanchard alluded the famous line from The Wizard of Oz–pay no attention to that man behind the curtain–when I asked what motivated her to create a sanctuary that provides shelter for abused farm animals and educates the community about their humane treatment.
“I had seen undercover footage of factory farms and animals in slaughterhouses,” Blanchard said. “Once I looked behind that curtain, I could never forget what I had seen. That was when I decided to make a huge life change and to leave behind my lucrative career, take my life savings and buy a farm where I would build a sanctuary.”
Before moving to Maui, Blanchard was senior vice president at a commercial real estate firm in Orange County, California. She had never been on a farm–had never seen farm animals. “I was working in a corporate world where my days were spent in office buildings,” Blanchard said.
In the evenings, Blanchard would walk around Dana Point Harbor, where she noticed a sizeable number of abandoned felines. “I would come across cats who had been dumped,” said Blanchard. “I started rescuing these cats, getting them spayed and neutered and adopted into new homes.”
Through the course of rescuing cats, Blanchard came in contact with animal protection organizations. They taught her about the treatment of farm animals raised for food. When she saw how the animals suffered and became aware of health and environmental benefits of choosing plant-based foods, she decided to make a major difference through her personal habits and professional work.
Blanchard transitioned to a plant-based diet, cashed out her life savings, moved to Maui and bought a piece of property where she could create a sanctuary for farm animals.
Walking onto the property for a Wednesday afternoon tour, I spotted two donkeys and a deer grazing in a pasture. While I wait for the tour to start, I was joined by a family from California. Surprised to see tourists, I asked the father how he learned about LFS.
“There is a guest book in the condo where we are staying,” he told me. “Every mention of the sanctuary said it was the highlight of their trip. Our kids love animals so we thought we’d come take a tour.”
As we sat among friendly roosters, I noticed more people walking up the gravel path. By the time the tour began, nearly 20 people had gathered–just three of us were Maui residents. “Most people, when they think about Maui, they think about sandy beaches and palm trees and boat cruises and snorkeling,” Blanchard had told me earlier when we were discussing the fact that LFS has become a tourist attraction. “They don’t think about farms with goats and pigs and chicken.”
As the tour was about to begin, Blanchard picked up Rufus, a rooster, and pet it lovingly, the way most people would do to a cat. Blanchard’s appearance was a mix between boho-casual and Upcountry farm woman. Her shoulder-length brown hair has a natural wave–the beachy kind that trendsetters pay top stylists to help them achieve. She was wearing plain khaki-colored shorts and a floral printed top. Her clothes may not say farm-worker, but her knee-high, mud-covered rubber boots certainly did. She continued to pet Rufus as she shared the story of why she started the sanctuary.
“I wanted to give others the opportunity to meet farm animals–species of animals most people don’t get the chance to meet,” she said. Blanchard wanted to create an environment where people could connect and interact with animals, hoping they would see them as individuals with personalities rather than food.
All of the animals living at the sanctuary have names and Blanchard shared each one’s unique story. Veronica the deer was orphaned when hunters shot her mother. Rabbits Susan and Roger had been given to children as gifts but were later discarded when they became too inconvenient to care for. Billy and Blaine are two roosters who were liberated from cockfighting compounds. As we toured the property, Blanchard introduced us to her goats by sitting on the ground and calling one onto her lap as you would a pet dog.
Joining the tour was a young woman who had traveled from New York City to see the sanctuary–Godiva chocolate company’s Associate Brand Communications Manager Christina Roperti-Piscina. The New York native was on Maui to present Blanchard with the Lady Godiva Program award, which celebrates women who inspire change in their communities.
Godiva Chocolatier launched the Lady Godiva Program in 2011 to celebrate inspirational women who embody the attributes of Lady Godiva through selflessness, generosity, leadership and the spirit of giving back to the community. With the award, came a $10,000 grant.
Blanchard was one of 1,400 women nominated for the Godiva honor. Vice president of LFS board and director of programs Melody Hofmann said she nominated Blanchard because she fit the attributes perfectly. “No one I know is more inspiring than Laurelee,” Hofmann said. “She has dedicated her life and fortune to her vision and mission of modeling compassion toward animals, humans and the environment.”
Godiva’s Roperti-Piscina echoed those sentiments after touring the sanctuary. “Hearing all of the individual stories of each of the animals was so inspiring,” she said. “[It] gave a true tangibility to the work that Laurelee and all of her volunteers do each day. Seeing how much the animals are thriving, and how much they love Laurelee, is a testament to the power of one individual to really make a difference.”
Leilani Farm Sanctuary garnered additional national attention recently when it was featured on a new National Geographic television show, Aloha Vet. The reality show documents the work of Kauai resident Dr. Scott Sims, a vet who pilots his own airplane across the state to treat large and exotic animals.
When National Geographic contacted Blanchard to ask if any of the animals at LFS needed medical treatment, Blanchard thought about George, a blind pig who came to the sanctuary about five years ago. Before coming to the sanctuary, George’s diet consisted of massive amounts of restaurant garbage.
“He got so fat from eating food like desserts and pastas that the rolls of fat covered his eyes,” Blanchard said. When George came to the sanctuary, Blanchard put him on a weight loss diet to help him regain his health. When a local vet tried to open George’s eyelids to examine his eyes, all he saw were eyelashes. Despite the weight loss, the vet determined George would never see.
Blanchard asked National Geographic if it was possible for Sims to do an eyelid lift on George. “It’s the same procedure they do for humans with saggy eyelids,” Blanchard said. When Sims came to Maui and examined George, he too was uncertain the pig would ever see. In fact, it was possible George’s eyes had atrophied from the extended pressure of his bulbous eyelids.
But Sims decided to go forward with the operation. Nat Geo sent out a film crew, and Sims flew in from Kauai and performed the surgery. Sims told Blanchard they would have to wait for the inflammation to subside before he could determine if the surgery was successful.
A couple of weeks later, George was up and walking around. Blanchard’s eyes sparkled when she told the story of putting a shiny food bowl down in front of George and getting what seemed to be a visual reaction. But George’s eyes were filled with glutinous material; Blanchard was not 100 percent certain his vision had been restored.
So Nat Geo brought the film crew back to document Sims’ follow-up exam. Sims determined that George would have his vision back once he was fully healed. Meeting George on the tour was a highlight of the day. I literally wanted to hug the pig–a pig who was no longer blind.
George was being a little shy; so instead of giving him that hug, I petted Berney, who came to the sanctuary as a wild boar, but has turned into one of the nicest and gentlest animals on the farm, according to Blanchard. “He has a heart of gold,” she said about the huge animal. Roperti-Piscina also held Vern the goose while others fed bunnies and met goats. Near the end of our time at the sanctuary, I kissed a donkey named Lehua on the muzzle.
Aloha Vet premiered March 21 and featured a segment shot at LFS during which Sims spayed the young deer Veronica, who had become a little too aggressive toward visitors and other animals. In addition to performing surgeries on George and Veronica, Sims treated a goat and a donkey and spayed some kittens. The show airs weekly and George was expected to make his screen debut on the March 28 episode.
The Lady Godiva Program award, George’s appearance on Aloha Vet and growing traditional and social media coverage have helped increase the number of visitors and amount of donations to the non-profit sanctuary. LFS co-founder Barry Sultanoff said during the past 12 months the sanctuary seems to be hitting its stride.
“We’re not really working hard to be seen,” Sultanoff said. “What we’re working harder at is just being pono–doing the best we can to put our time and energy toward the mission that we believe in.”
“I think what’s happening here is that we are both deeply in the mission of having people meet animals and understand who animals really are when they are treated lovingly and in their ideal environment,” he said. “We’re really walking our talk as best we can. I’m a psychiatrist and I don’t really focus on psychiatry much any more. I’m more focused on how, at this time in my life, I can really make an impact on the world. I just turned 70–I’m not a young guy–I have to look at what kind of legacy do I really want to leave.”
Sultanoff also credits Blanchard’s photography for the increased public awareness of LFS. Blanchard spends a lot of time taking photographs of the animals and their interactions with visitors—and the photos get shared via social media. Sultanoff said people are moved when they see those animal encounters–some quite unusual. “I really compliment Laurelee,” he said.
But she doesn’t take photos solely to promote the sanctuary–that’s a natural bonus, he added. “She takes them because she can’t help herself,” he said. “She loves these animals; in fact every afternoon she’s out there photographing them because it’s her impulse–from the inside–to do this.”
Sultanoff said when people visit LFS they get a direct sense of how different life–especially life with animals–can be. “I think the visibility has really happened one visitor at a time,” he said.
Leilani Farm Sanctuary hosts guided tours Wednesdays at 4pm and Saturdays at 10am; a $20 per person, tax-deductible donation is suggested. Children and kama’aina are half-price. Reservations are required. The sanctuary also hosts at-risk youth programs, school field trips, special needs children and elder activities.
Those who would like to volunteer can join Blanchard on Monday and Wednesday mornings at 9am to lend a hand with a variety of jobs ranging from cleaning barns and gardening to grooming and office work. LFS also offers sponsorships where you can adopt a rescued animal for a monthly fee. Sponsors receive an adoption certificate with a photo of the animal and a card describing its story.
Cover photo: Sean M. Hower
Cover design: Darris Hurst