Lauralee Blanchard slips into a pair of black rubber boots and gives a hearty wave from the porch of her cottage, perched in the heart of Leilani Farm Sanctuary. She rounds the corner onto an idyllic green field, deftly scoops up a dark henna-colored rooster and, stroking him from his bright red comb to his back cape, introduces him as Gary.
Every animal at the sanctuary has a name—and a story—and Gary’s story is an increasingly common one. Nationwide, urban-area fowl rearing has witnessed rising popularity during the economic downturn, as a source for both eggs and meat (or in some cases, as the New York Times reports, as “an emblem of extreme foodie street cred”). Gary’s previous owners thought to do much the same and purchased ten Mainland-imported chicks from Dell’s Farm Supply, supposedly all sexed as hens. As the brood matured, Gary was the obvious standout; and as the neighbors complained, it became clear he needed another home.
Enter Blanchard and her labor of love, Leilani Farm Sanctuary—an effort she started independently ten years ago to provide safe haven to abandoned and unwanted farm animals.
During the past decade, the numbers of animals has grown—the fowl alone now number 48. “But the nest egg ran out,” Blanchard says, as she strolls through the vibrant grass among the company of chickens who boast a colorful array of intricately patterned plumage.
The labor and expense required to care for the growing number of farm animal residents, coupled with the need—and desire—for the sanctuary to expand, has necessitated Lailani Farm’s incorporation as a 501(c)3—which Blanchard and the board of directors attained last year.
Gary’s story began in a barnyard, where he was to be treated like a piece of livestock. Now, his story continues at a facility with a very different goal.
LIVE AND LET LIVE
“The spirit of it is that we’re not asking the animals to produce anything—wool or milk or eggs—we’re proving sanctuary. They’re our emissaries,” says Barry Sultanoff, Blanchard’s boyfriend. He explains that when the chickens lay eggs, though he and Blanchard are vegan, they ensure the eggs are distributed to friends who might otherwise be purchasing eggs that are “produced cruelly.”
Blanchard, who has served as the Maui director of the Vegetarian Society of Hawai‘I since 2001, sets down Gary and picks up another fowl—a petite black one named Akachan, who appears to enjoy being cooed and coddled. Blanchard’s affection for her chickens rivals that of most people’s toward their furry, four-footed friends. She tells of how, as a chick—brought to the sanctuary by a child who had found the bird malnourished and alone—Akachan would sleep on the couple’s pillow at night. Still snuggling the black hen, Blanchard points to another named Maizee, a brilliant white bird with a short red comb. And, on the topic of egg production, she tells a more chilling tale.
In late March of 2007, Maui Fresh Eggs, Inc., the last commercial egg farm on Maui, closed its Makani Road operations after more than 20 years in business. The rising cost of importing corn feed to the islands places a hefty premium on locally produced eggs. Put simply, it’s cheaper to feed chickens on the Mainland, making it difficult for local operations to compete.
Add the swelling demand for USDA-graded products (Maui Fresh Eggs’ product was state-inspected), as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s increased waste-management requirements, and it’s not surprising that there are now just three Hawaii-based egg farms, on Oahu and the Big Island.
The closing of an egg factory presents a quandary: what to do with the hens? Blanchard says the chickens that were unable to be sold to the public were slaughtered; either having their necks snapped or being buried alive. She pales, clearly pained in recounting it. I learn more specifics from an article she wrote (which can be found posted the sanctuary’s Web site).
“While in the neighborhood, about a month after the egg factory shut down, I noticed the factory’s gates were open,” writes Blanchard. “[S]o I drove my car all the way inside the giant compound just to make sure no live hens were left behind. As I drove in, I saw dozens upon dozens of emaciated battery hens near the sheds…. I also saw countless dead hens lying on the ground after apparently succumbing to starvation and dehydration during the past month.”
Locating a solitary worker, Blanchard received permission to remove the remaining hens. Returning that night with a team of five other vegan friends who agreed to help rescue and house the dying birds, Blanchard and her friends retrieved all 46 surviving chickens.
“The stench of manure and chicken corpses inside the long, narrow sheds was overpowering,” she recalls. “It was pitch black in there, so we used headlamps and flashlights to illuminate the hellish place. We were stepping on dead hens everywhere. One poor bird had become stuck between some bars and died a slow, miserable death.”
Some stories ignite nightmares, while others inspire poetry. Avipur—a dappled gray hen so stunning she could win awards—is introduced. Like Akachan, she came to the sanctuary as a sickly hatchling. Nursed to health day and night by Blanchard, Avipur was toted to parties, snuck into a MACC event and even attended a funeral.
From the time she was a small chick, Avipur’s precocious nature was unmistakable. Merely a deep gray puffball, she was enraptured by her own image in the mirror. (Sultanoff, quite taken in his observations of Avipur returning day after day, for hours on end, to consult her reflection, penned an eight-stanza poem about “one other bird/in her rectangle world/looking much like herself/ yet completely reversed.”) Now fully grown, it seems clear Avipur was a self-aware ugly duckling, biding her time. Her adult feathers have slicked to that of nickel-sized peacock plumage forged of burnished steel.
Retrieving a bucket of chicken feed from the immaculate red and white barn-style goat house, Blanchard deftly tosses heaping scoops under a large shade tree on the hillside. The chickens stride up for their meal. But for soft, excited babble, they remain without squawk or skiddishness, and peck at the light cornmeal, scattered amongst the grass.
It’s a stark contrast to the fowl that can be seen pecking wild-eyed amidst chucked super-sized cups and cigarette butts in virtually every town on the island, on the roadsides and in medians. Those roaming, semi-feral hens and roosters elicit no more attention (save perhaps annoyance) than might be given to a Chicken McNugget. Yet to view a chicken flourishing under ideal care, as they do at the sanctuary, does much to change that perspective. I find myself appreciating them as an avian spectacle, as living, breathing creatures, not just something to be avoided while driving or thawed and eaten from a package.
“We call this Animal Alley,” says Blanchard as she and Sultanoff walk down a sloping path, from the field where the chickens roam. “We built this here so animals could go on all sides of the cottage, so that we feel surrounded by animals.”
The alley stretches for quite a distance, along a fence line and under low hanging tree branches. “All the fencing has a dog-proof apron,” Blanchard explains.
Over the years, despite extreme precautions, they’ve battled with loose hunting dogs that have dug into the sanctuary and killed goats. They’ve perfected securing the property and have since thwarted all attacks.
At the end of a long meander, we reach the gate of a large pasture. At its entrance, buried beneath a large mound blooming with yellow flowers, is the sanctuary’s first resident and namesake, a donkey name Leilani. After a subdued pause to reminisce over Leilani’s sweet disposition and how her passing had even stirred up tears with the backhoe operator who had come to dig her plot, Blanchard and Sultanoff move into the field. Eight goats and two donkeys call the sanctuary home, and upon seeing Blanchard and Sultanoff they playfully amble toward the couple—Blanchard, particularly.
The first to give their greetings are a pair of chocolate-colored donkeys, Lehua and Jenny. The latter (appropriately named, as jenny is to female donkey as mare is to female horse), approaches Blanchard and proceeds to lick her face, while Lehua moves in to nuzzle against Blanchard’s chest.
“One is a kisser,” Blanchard says, motioning toward Jenny, “and doesn’t like to hug. The other loves to hug, but not kiss.”
Before she was rescued, Lehua spent years living alone in the dark crawlspace under someone’s house. She was initially paired with Leilani. After Leilani died, Blanchard says Lehua brayed for days. When Jenny came to live at the sanctuary, it didn’t take long for the pair to become inseparable. “You never see them more than two feet apart,” Blanchard beams, like a proud parent discussing two well-adjusted siblings.
The goats are equally affectionate. Blanchard, still grinning, lies in the grass and a black goat named Ned eases next to her, strands of grass poking from his teeth as he chews contentedly. He was brought to the sanctuary after a goat milk farmer’s wife, seeing in Ned a sparkle of personality, bonded with him as a kid. Male goats on that farm were typically disposed of, as they are incapable of producing product.
Then, there’s Larry, a tiny-eared LaMancha goat (or “Don Quigoatee,” as Sultanoff jokes). “He was tethered to a tree for ten years,” laments Blanchard. “I’d jog by and see him there, so I left a note on their car.” Years later, Blanchard was contacted by the couple, but was warned that the only way to safely touch Larry was by poking him with a garden rake. Within days, Larry was transformed.
“If you change one side of the equation, the whole thing can change,” says Sultanoff.
“He was so happy to be off that tether,” adds Blanchard. “He saw another goat for the first time.”
After five years at the sanctuary, Larry has surpassed the normal 12-year life expectancy of a goat. “He’s so happy, he doesn’t want to die,” says Blanchard.
Indeed, Larry is as youthful in both looks and spirit as his younger field mates. The youngest are a pair of kids birthed from a black and white nannie (female goat) named Betty, who the sanctuary obtained without knowing she was pregnant. “Everyone is spayed or neutered,” says Blanchard, “A birth here is very rare.”
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
The prevailing northeasterly breeze envelops the lower Haiku hills, rustling up from the smell of wet earth and rich seaside-jungle detritus. The sanctuary’s barnyard bouquet is softened by the scope of the land the animals enjoy, their natural diets and the facility’s fine upkeep.
Heading back up the hillside, Blanchard and Sultanoff lead through the fruit orchard and the heavy shade of mature jackfruit, citrus trees and coconut palms. Most of what already grows on the sanctuary’s nearly eight acres is citrus, which none of the animals are particularly fond of. The sanctuary recently partnered with the Maui Food Bank, providing surplus fruit that might otherwise go to waste.
Early last summer, to create a more usable resource, the sanctuary benefited from the Fruit Tree Planting Organization’s Orchards for Animals program, which aims to “improve lives for rescued animals on sanctuaries by providing fruit trees for shade, shelter, enrichment, and healthy diets.”
Planting 30 trees including banana, lychee, mango and mulberry, nearly 20 volunteers donated their time. The lilikoi that already grow on the property are particularly loved by the resident rabbits, who devour the plant—vines, fruit and all.
“I’m Jewish by tradition,” says Sultanoff, beginning to chuckle, “I like to call them ‘the rabbis,’ and every time I pass them, I ask for a blessing.”
Within the rabbit enclosure, a colony of bunnies emerges and clusters at the gate. The rabbit houses in the corner of the enclosure were built by volunteers, but the most striking feature is what the rabbits themselves created: a rabbit hole with an entrance nearly a foot in diameter that extends nearly 15 feet deep.
The bunnies (most of them Easter gifts that proved too much responsibility for the children who received them), circle around Blanchard’s feet as she gushes, “Aren’t they soft?”
It is a wondrous sensation, fingers dipping into fur like warm, melted butter, while a cool December drizzle glints off the animals’ watery eyes and alights on their backs like pinprick crystals.
“We want people to fall in love with the animals,” says Blanchard. It’s overwhelmingly evident that Blanchard has done exactly that.
Leilani Farm is modeled after the Santa Clarita, California organization Gentle Barn, which uses its animal sanctuary as an outreach tool for at-risk and special needs youth. By interacting with the animals, kids who have been abused or neglected can “learn to trust again,” according to Blanchard. “Above rescuing is education.”
The Maui sanctuary offers tours by appointment on Wednesdays at 4pm or Saturdays at 10am. They’ve recently hosted students from The ROOTS School, and are looking to expand both tours and community involvement.
But growth is difficult to attain with such a small volunteer base, the majority of whom provide one-time services. To develop further, regular volunteers are essential.
Much of the sprawling eight acres is yet undeveloped. Blanchard envisions one day converting the entire property into a kind of utopia for animals of all sorts. In the immediate future—with the support of the community—she plans to create gardens, like the orchard, to sustain the animals (irrigated beds exist, they simply require tending), and a duck pond (no ducks currently reside at the sanctuary, as the crucial habitat for the waterfowl has yet to be built).
“We want to grow sustainably,” says Sultanoff, who says it’s a bad thing “if there are more animals than we can feed or do right by.”
Back at the cottage, a relaxed ensemble of cats laze on the covered, wraparound deck built specifically with them in mind. Saved from a dumpster as a kitten, along with her mother, is Alice. Nose regally upturned, she pays no mind to the chatter of chickens in the neighboring field, or to the bunnies down the pathway, or to the ruminants and equine beasts in the pasture below. Alice’s green eyes seek only the attention of Blanchard. Anu Yagi, MauiTime
For more information or to schedule a tour, visit www.leilanifarmsanctuary.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 298-8544