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FLORENCE - Under normal circumstances, Henry and Bergh would've lived out their short lives in a crate or grazing among other plump beef cattle preparing for slaughter. Either way, their destiny was a steak or hamburger.

But these 11-month-old steers found salvation.

Susan Eakins operates New Dawn MT Farm Sanctuary outside of Florence. It's a place where pigs, cows, chickens and sheep live out their lives without fear of ending up on a dinner table. Eakins and her husband, Lee, purchased 20 acres in the Bitterroot Valley four years ago in search of peace and quiet, a view of majestic snow-capped mountains, and a place to save farm animals like Henry and Bergh.

Thirteen pigs, five roosters, seven hens, four sheep, three cows, two goats and a bunny all have names, and Eakins refers to them by such.

"Each one is an individual to me," she said during a recent tour of the sanctuary.

The animals moseyed about the back pasture and the front field, often staying close on Eakins' heels.

"They behave like dogs," she said. "They run to you when you call them and they're lovable as can be."

How the animals end up there varies. Some were ordered there by the court. Some were brought by families of loved ones who died. Some came from other sanctuaries, and still others came from ranchers.

Eakins purchased Henry and Bergh almost a year ago from a dairy farm in Ravalli County because "I felt like we needed some here," she said.

The steers are named after Henry Bergh, a mid-19th century animal activist who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. For four months after the steers arrived at the sanctuary, Eakins fed the two steers two to three times a day out of a half-gallon plastic baby bottle full of milk-replacement formula.

"If you spend time with the animals, their beautiful personalities come out," Eakins said. "They have such richness to them."

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How Eakins came to own and operate a sanctuary goes back 15 years to an interest in resolving a personal quandary.

All her life she has loved animals, though she never lived anywhere that would allow her to own many. Residing a good chunk of her life in suburban Texas, she owned house dogs and cats, enjoyed birdwatching and once baby-sat a snake.

But as much as Eakins loved animals, she ate meat, and that seemed counterintuitive to her.

"I was eating meat with the best of 'em," she said.

She read books and watched documentary films. She researched how farm animals end up on our plates. That's when she quit eating meat altogether. She couldn't justify having one furry creature as a pet and another as a food source. Eakins believes strongly in the Golden Rule and applies it to all living things.

"Would you like to go through a slaughterhouse line?" she asked rhetorically. "It's not a good thing. I realized that there're lots of bad things that happen to farm animals. If it was a dog or cat there would be criminal charges filed."

In following the mission of her sanctuary, Eakins started the Western Montana Vegetarian Society a year ago to promote a plant-based diet. The group meets monthly in Missoula for a vegan and vegetarian potluck. The event is open to the public and is meant to introduce people to vegetarian cooking.

"I'm a basic cook," she said. "It doesn't have to be difficult."

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Before moving to Montana, Eakins worked as a social worker. Her husband Lee, a Butte native, worked as security coordinator for Safeway grocery stores and wanted to return to Montana. Both have since retired, and have forfeited Caribbean cruises and RV trips in order to save farm animals. Overnight trips are manageable, but weeklong excursions are out of the question, they said.

Donations and volunteers help pay for the sanctuary, a nonprofit organization, but mostly it's their retirement income that keeps the place afloat. The initial investment is the priciest. Once the stables, gates, fences and sheds are up, the ongoing costs are not as expensive, Lee said. Feeding the animals healthy doses of pellets, hay, fruit and lettuce helps keep the veterinarian bills down and the animals graze off the land. Some farmers donate hay.

"This is a purpose-driven life for me," Eakins said. "This gives me so much reward. I feel like I'm helping."

But without additional financial support, the New Dawn MT Farm Sanctuary is about maxed out on the number of animals it can handle. It has yet to say no to an animal, and Eakin hopes she won't have to because all the animals have a story, and sometimes they're sad.

Daisy May and Tony-Not-Baloney (because he was not turned into meat) were two unwanted runts at a pig farm in Washington state.

"They love having their tummies scratched," she said.

Candy and Confetti came to the sanctuary as lambs from a ranch in Garrison. Confetti had a congenital problem with her front hoof, which didn't fully mature, and today she walks with a heavy limp. Candy had problems with her eyelids.

Mortimer, a sheep known as "Mortie" at the sanctuary, saunters around the field wearing a raggedy pink dog coat customized to fit over his wool. Last winter, the 10-year-old sheep almost died from sickness, so Eakins purchased the coat to keep him warm.

"It makes him feel better," she said. "He just hasn't been sick."

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Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, is grateful for places like farm sanctuaries in the case of abused animals. It provides them a place to go, he said.

Though the organization promotes Montana cattle ranching for the purpose of food consumption, Rice said the organization strongly supports humane treatment of animals. In response to consumer demands, he said, there's a bigger push to educate ranchers about herding and housing cattle in ways that reduce stress on the animals.

"In some instances, there's always going to be bad actors," he said. "I don't care what kind of business you're in. But we believe strongly in education and humane and ethical treatment of our cattle."

Eakins is not one to preach, anyway. She will encourage people to do their own research if they're interested in where their food comes from, or invite them to the farm sanctuary to visit her beloved animals. In fact, she's hosting a "spring spruce-up" on Sunday, March 21, from 1 to 3 p.m. Anyone willing to help clean the facilities or mend fences is invited.

Three years since the sanctuary opened, Eakins has more animals than she imagined she ever would. It demonstrates the need, she said. In that time, only two pigs have died. They were both 11 years old and suffered from uterine cancer. Both received an honorable burial on the hill above the farm.

"I shed a tear when the pigs died," Eakins said. "I got attached to them. They were sweet piggies, but I take comfort knowing they had a good life."

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com. Photographer Tom Bauer can be reached at 523-5270 or at tbauer@missoulian.com.

 

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