While COVID-19 mostly spreads from person to person and rarely infects animals, the pandemic still affects all creatures great and small, even at what’s supposed to be a sanctuary for them.

Heartland Farm Sanctuary, 11713 Mid Town Road, rescues pigs, goats, chickens, emus, llamas, turkeys, cows and other farm animals that have been abused, neglected or abandoned. It provides homes to around 95 animals.

Since 2010, the nonprofit organization has provided shelter and refuge to bucolic beasts and country critters while also using the farm as a rural classroom to teach the ABCs – “awareness of others, being kind to ourselves and each other, and compassion for all.”

A part of Heartland’s stated mission, according to its website, is to use its residents as teachers during animal-assisted therapeutic events and programs, particularly those aimed at vulnerable youth.

During a normal year, Heartland opens its barn and fields to students and youth groups, giving children a chance to meet the rescued animals with the help of 120 active volunteers, some of whom are at the farm every week to help with chores.

The goals of the humane education programs are to help kids of all different ages overcome physical, emotional, or cognitive developmental delays, or heal from an abusive or troubled home environment.

Spring would have been the start of a busy visitor season – barn tours, public tours, private tours, field trips – which have been becoming more and more popular according to Jamie Monroe, communications director.

As the virus spread, life began to “look completely different,” Monroe said – and the farm had to suspend all volunteers, moving to a staff-only framework of just over 20 employees – only a few of which are full-time.

“We had all hands on deck just caring for the animals, making sure they got the care and comfort they normally would be getting,” Monroe said. “Their lives haven’t changed; they’re still living their best sanctuary life.”

The reduction in staff has meant a reduction in rescues as well.

“We were at capacity before the pandemic and have had to put hard freeze on new animal intakes,” Monroe said. “It’s heartbreaking, there are so many farm animals – especially right now – who need help, but our first priority is the residents who live here already and depend on us.”

Early in the pandemic, barn tours and field trips were completely stopped, and no visitors were allowed at the sanctuary. But as spring turned into summer, volunteers began to be allowed back to take care of animals and lead tours on a limited basis, with new measures including maintaining social distancing, undergoing daily health screenings and temperature checks and wearing masks.

The farm has opened up again for private household tours to groups of five, but there have not been many visitors yet.

The kids are alright

Two youth camps that were supposed to start in June were put on hold until this month, resulting in $15,000 of revenue lost last month. Both of the summer programs are now going forward, but with major modifications.

The humane education summer camp for kids ages 8-11 was scaled back from full days to half days, and only 20 to 25 campers have been allowed to attend per week as opposed to the typical 42. The campers are then been split into groups of five.

The leadership camp for youths ages 12-15 has been capped around eight to 10 attendees, also with never more than five kids in one group at a time.

The camps provide a deep dive into the world of farm animals, teaching children how the animals think, feel and communicate with each other and how to care for rescued animals to keep them healthy and happy. The camps include guided nature hikes, planting and harvesting fruits and vegetables, hanging out with the animals each day and creating works of art and jewelry with paint, wood, clay and nature objects found in the farm’s pasture, grounds, and gardens.

The camps began the first week of July and will continue through the last week of August, as long as safety permits.

“We’re taking each day as it comes and making major modifications,” Monroe said. “It’s better than putting things on hold. But seeing as cases are rising still, we may have to pull back.”

Creative ways to create revenue

Besides caring for animals, staff have been focused on trying to make up lost revenue.

The $15,000 lost in June from the cancelation of summer camps came on the heels of $12,000 lost in April due to the farm being closed to visitors.

“It’s hitting us hard,” Monroe said. “We were relying on that revenue to continue providing the care we are so proud of and to provide programs people have come to rely on.”

A 10-year anniversary gala at The Edgewater in Madison originally scheduled for May was re-scheduled and now canceled. She said Heartland is now looking for safe alternatives, including a day of giving.

An online fundraiser to make up some of the lost income since the beginning of the season successfully surpassed its goal, for which Monroe said she’s “super super grateful.”

Monroe said that what’s been helping get Heartland through this difficult time is a “fantastic” group of over 220 donors who donate $5 to $50 a month.

“They’re keeping us alive,” she said. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised because we know this is a hard time for everybody making ends meet and we don’t want anyone to feel like they have to give something up to support us, so we’ve been exceptionally grateful to those that can help.”

While the farm was shut down to outsiders, Monroe said the humane education staff worked every day to distribute activities and lessons online.

They also offered online virtual therapy sessions, with the GoToMeeting video conference platform, where patrons could donate to have animals such as llamas join in video meetings between friends, families and colleagues. However, she said those have “really really slowed down” to just a couple a week.

“We’re just trying to be really creative and keep people connected as best we can – every day is a new challenge,” Monroe said. “Thank god we have a really amazing staff and supportive community helping us get through.”

Neal Patten, community reporter, can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.