Trotting up to me on dainty pink hooves, Gretel was the first of the welcome party to greet me. A rosy-hued potbellied pig, Gretel curiously snuffled at my pant legs, then softly grunted as I scratched between her ears. As we started to unpack the car, our second greeter appeared. Sheldon, a black potbellied pig, snorted with pleasure as my husband Steve smoothed his hands over Sheldon’s bristly back.
This promised to be a red-letter stay.
Steve, my husband, and I discovered Nature’s Energy Centre & Animal Sanctuary on the Internet when we were looking for a driveable getaway from Toronto. The fact that you could interact with donkeys, mules, goats, and piggies cinched the deal.
Located between Niagara Falls and Welland, the three-acre property had two options for guests, the “Hoblet” and the “Twiglet.” Since the Hoblet had been booked by a newlywed couple for their honeymoon, we went for the “Twiglet,” a tiny home with screened-in porch, electric fireplace, DVD player, bedroom, bathroom and a kitchen space outfitted with everything we needed – bar fridge, induction hotplate, toaster oven, and kettle. Plus, there was an outdoor BBQ.
After our potbellied welcome, Petra Cuddy, who owns the sanctuary with her husband Mush (he goes by this nickname), showed us around the Twiglet and then took us on a tour of the property.
“We started this 15 years ago. I have had a fascination with donkeys since I was young. My mother has a pictures of me as a kid with a stuffed toy donkey,” she explained. They got their first animals, Buddy, a white mule and Homey, a mammoth donkey, when a neighbour came over saying “I hear you love donkeys.”
“She knew these two were being sold for meat at auction in Kitchener,” explained Petra. Laying down their winning bid of 60 cents a pound, the couple became the proud owners of the equines and their adventures in animal rescue began.
Peeping over the fence of a hay-filled enclosure, we were thrilled to meet the donkeys next. “Squeeky’s the little one. He’s got Cushings disease, but the vet says he’s coming along nicely,” said Petra, pointing to a shy, shaggy creature. She and Mush had seen him at a local pumpkin vendor’s, locked in a pen with four rams. The sheep were butting him incessantly, so Petra and Mush offered the farmer $200 and came home with a new family member. Also munching hay in the enclosure were Tyson and Munchie. “Munchie is our celebrity TV star. He appeared in the sixth season of Murdoch Mysteries,” said Petra proudly.
The dark, mid-sized donkey seemed healthy and fit, but when Petra first laid eyes on him he could barely walk. “The family that owned him never trimmed his hooves and he developed slipper feet, a very painful condition where the hooves start curling up. It can lead to all sorts of other problems. It took him almost a year to recover.”
Homey and Buddy saw us at the fence and sauntered over, looking for apple or carrot treats. To me, Buddy looked more like a horse than a mule. “The vet thinks he has some Arabian in him,” Petra explained.
Later, Steve decided to serenade them. Was it the music? Or the promise of more treats that had them enthralled?
Following the path past the Higelty Pigelty, a “Tiny Store” stocked with crafty items and flea market finds, we came to the pigs’ pens. Filled with sweet smelling straw, the first one was home to Schpeck (German for bacon), the biggest and oldest of the potbellied pigs. “He gets on well with Sheldon, so they room together.” Gretel shared a pen with Groot, another pot bellied pig she was rescued with through the Welland Humane Society. “Someone had them as pets, but it was against an urban ordinance. I have a relationship with that humane society and they called and asked if I would take them. I had 24-hours to get them or they would be put down.”
Gretel and Groot were snorting over something in their playhouse. “Sometimes she can be a little feisty. She is our Xena Warrior Princess,” said Petra.
Breathing in, I noticed the absence of any pungent, barnyard whiff. Instead, it smelled of fresh hay and the clean scent of pine from the property’s many trees.
“We feed them organic hay and make sure their pens are always cleaned out. Pigs are very clean creatures, they don’t defecate where they sleep,” explained Petra.
This crowd of porkers was also smart. They knew their names and when they heard the dinner bell, watch out. Petra let them roam the fenced property for most of the day, and around five o’clock she’d ring a bell to let them know their bowls would soon be filled with hog feed and veggie scraps. Standing out by the Twiglet, I heard the bell ring and so did Gretel. She rushed towards her pen faster than a greyhound.
Camera in hand, I documented dinner time. Schpecky stood impatiently by his bowl while Petra poured the feed in. Taking a quick bite, he turned tail and ran over to Sheldon’s bowl. Sheldon headed for Schpecky’s bowl. The other guy’s bowl is always better, it seems. Groot and Gretel investigated the goodies Petra left in their playhouse, snorting and snuffling as they rubbed past each other to what was in their bowls.
My responsibility was to feed Monty, the goat. A black-and-white, golden-eyed boy whose pen was between the Hoblet and the Twiglet, Monty was waiting for me every morning. Sometimes he also got a carrot, a piece of apple, the occasional peanut and one day, as a treat, he gobbled up a corn husk (the piggies got the cob with the kernels). He seemed to find this especially yummy.
During our three-day stay, we relaxed into a regular routine. I’d feed Monty, then go and sit on the back porch, by the Twiglet’s little frog pond. Gretel would come by for a veggie scrap, then later big Schpeck would put two hooves up on the porch step and stick out his snout expectantly. We got in the habit of feeding him peanuts each morning. Later in the day, I’d get some carrots or slices of apple and feed the donkeys over the fence. Usually they would go out to pasture, but I could catch them when a new load of hay was dropped off in their yard.
All the creatures at the sanctuary had sad stories of neglect, abuse or were headed for overseas meat markets. Petra and Mush opened their big hearts and thankfully the story is now a happy one. They receive no outside funding, so the income from the Twiglet and Hoblet goes towards food and vet care.
Being kind to animals, and having them respond in a trusting manner, for me is a form of therapy. In this time of anxiety, we all need to find activities that calm our nerves. At Nature’s Energy Centre & Animal Sanctuary I found I had a big smile on my face and a glow in my heart. Those beasties are all now firmly in my bubble.