For the Love of the Animals


 On a busy Carolina highway, a truck full of chickens navigates the lanes toward the slaughterhouse. It carries crates packed full of white feathered birds, clucking curiously, oblivious to their fate. Suddenly, as the vehicle motors down the road, a lone chicken tumbles out of the bed of the truck and onto the shoulder, injured but alive. There she lays, as traffic speeds past her broken body, until a car finally stops. A person rushes out, scoops her into their arms, and gets back in the vehicle. They make a call, and once again, the bird is riding down the same Carolina highway; this time, being enveloped in a gentle touch and kind words. Soon, she is given a name, and within hours, her broken leg has been set by a trained veterinarian technician. Then, she is given a comfortable place to sleep, plenty of room to roam once her leg heals, fresh food, and clean water. Most of all, she is given a second chance at life.

Along a dusty dirt road in a rural area of South Carolina, a woman heads home. As she does every day, she passes a neighbor’s land, and her heart sinks again at the sight of the two horses in the makeshift pasture, their bones sticking out more than she has ever seen. She pauses, and looks at the pair. The mother is swaying, clearly sick with starvation, and the son doesn’t look much better. The woman makes a decision. She cannot stand for this any longer. She makes a call, and soon, two men are knocking at her neighbor’s door. An agreement is reached, and the men load the horses into a trailer shortly after. The woman’s heart fills with hope. Maybe, the mother and son can have a chance at a better life.

At a rest stop somewhere in the Southeast, an excited woman awaits the arrival of a breeder she found online. After seeing countless posts on social media featuring shockingly small “teacup” pigs, she finally convinced her landlord to allow her to have one, promising him exactly what the breeder promised her: that it would not get any larger than 50 pounds. The breeder arrives, hands her the pig, and takes his payment. Then, he is gone, never to be heard from again. The woman returns home, falls in love with her tiny, intelligent little pet, and begins to care for him. Before long, the pig has reached 20 pounds, then 30, and then 40. The landlord eyes it warily, but the woman promises that it will top out at 50 pounds, while quietly beginning to question if the breeder was being completely upfront. As it grows, the pig begins to have difficulty scaling the three floors of steps up to his owner’s apartment, and the woman has a harder time carrying him around. By the time the pig hits 100 pounds, the landlord has had it. Tearfully, the woman makes a call, and within hours, is saying goodbye to her pet: the teacup pig who never was. Like so many people these days, she was fooled into believing that what was actually a standard potbellied pig could remain small, and both she and the pig grieve the loss of each other. Though he has now experienced a heartbreaking loss, the pig will live the remainder of his life in a more suitable environment thanks to the phone call his owner made, and eventually, he will find happiness again.

On a plot of land not far from Columbia, South Carolina, the air is buzzing with activity. A large pig playfully rushes toward a squealing companion, while a group of guinea fowl squawk and march around the premises. Turkeys, horses, donkeys, ducks, goats, and sheep are just some of the residents here, and all are up to something. Some animals laze about, sunning themselves, while others romp around the dirt, looking happy as can be. A man spreads food in a pasture, while another refills water troughs. Then, the phone rings. A knowing glance passes between the two men, and on the second ring, one of them brings the phone to his ear. He listens. He nods. He thinks for a moment. And then he begins to make a plan. He reaches out to the other members of this important team. Decisions are made. Phone calls are placed. Before long, another animal is saved. It is just another day at Cotton Branch Farm Animal Sanctuary.

Cotton Branch got its start back in 2004, as the retirement plan of former founder and longtime director of the Carolina Wildlife Care Center, Jan Alber-Senn. Her huge heart for animals leading the way, the farmland Jan obtained quickly became inundated with animals in need. Jan devoted herself to providing the best lives possible for the animals in her care, but retirement plan it was not. The days were long and the responsibilities were many, but Jan’s dedication to the animals never faltered. One day in 2014, as she browsed the Facebook pages of fellow rescues, she kept seeing the same name reaching out for help: Joshua Costner. Josh, an owner of two pigs and lover of animals, had heard about a pig destined to be euthanized at an animal control shelter, and was frantically trying to find someone to take the animal before her death date. Everyone was either not responding, or responding that they could not take her. It was clear that he was realizing what many had discovered before him: most animal rescues do not take pigs. Jan immediately clicked on his profile and sent a message. She could take the animal, she said. Josh and his husband, Evan Costner, saved Louise the pig right in the nick of time, and brought her to Cotton Branch Farm Animal Sanctuary. It was love at first sight

“We just fell in love with the place,” remembers Josh. “Jan took us around and introduced us to all of the animals, told us their origin stories, and shared little tidbits about their personalities. At the time, she had over 100 animals and just one volunteer. She was 64 years old, and doing almost everything herself. We got in the car to leave, looked at each other, and just said, ‘she needs help to keep this going.’”

The couple went back home to Charlotte, and Josh quickly set up a fundraiser at his hair salon to raise money for the sanctuary. He sent her the proceeds–nearly $1500–and then planned another fundraising event in the city a few months later. This time, they raised a few thousand dollars. Josh and Evan kept visiting the sanctuary and helping out whenever they could, and soon met other volunteers who helped care for the animals. Together with Jan, they formed a functioning board of directors, and began to set goals and allocate responsibilities. They worked together famously, and new board members were added as the years went on. Now, Josh and Evan are set to succeed Jan after her retirement from the farm in the next two years, voted by the current board of directors. Passionate and devoted, the pair could not be more perfect for the job.

In the United States, around 98% of the animals killed each year are farm animals, yet only around 2% of rescue organizations focus on these types of animals. 98% of the rescues operating in the United States focus their efforts on saving the 2% killed annually: dogs and cats. This is a fact that drives the Cotton Branch team forward every day, knowing that their work has immense value in the lives of so many animals. Their many residents include horses like Roscoe and Tucker who were found neglected and starving, a sweet mule named Chester who was the victim of abuse, and Freckles, the enormous, 2000 pound male dairy cow that the team speculates is a prime example of artificial growth hormone injections. There are two sheep named Thelma and Louise who are known for trying to escape with each other, and a chicken named Lana who fell–or jumped–off of the back of a truck destined for a slaughterhouse. More than any other animal, though, Cotton Branch receives calls about pigs. As one of only a handful of rescues who accepts pigs in either of the Carolinas, the calls can reach into the dozens each day.

“Pigs are said to be the 4th most intelligent animal on earth, much more than even dogs, with the mental capacity of a 3-5 year old,” says Josh. “They learn quickly, have extremely distinct personalities, and mourn loss. So when we get these constant calls, often multiple times a day, about pigs who are found abandoned, neglected, or are set to be euthanized, it’s heartbreaking, because it is so avoidable. If there was more awareness around the fact that the miniature pig is a myth, the number of neglected pigs could decrease significantly.”

The “teacup pig,” “micro pig,” or “mini pig” myth is a recent trend that deceives people into believing that pigs can be bred to be the size and weight of a very small dog. Breeders will show pictures of young pigs and claim that they are full grown to trick buyers, and often suggest incredibly low daily food allowances, which can keep some pigs relatively small but undernourished. Buyers with even the best intentions are coaxed into believing that no matter how small their home, a pig can be a comfortable companion. When, inevitably, a “teacup” pig grows far past its projected maximum weight, owners are often left scrambling for a place for them to go. Oftentimes, after trying and failing to find a home for the animal, the owner simply releases them from their care, dropping them off in rural areas and hoping for the best. At Cotton Branch, the team has seen the rise in calls about pigs directly correspond to the rising trend of buying “miniature” pigs. Presently, Cotton Branch Farm Animal Sanctuary has 85 pigs, and all but 11 are pot belly pigs or mixes that were promised to be 20-50 pounds fully grown. None of them are anywhere close to that size.

Because of the massive amount of calls they receive regarding pigs, the sanctuary set up a rehoming program where they move animals from the unsuitable or dangerous situation directly into a new home or foster home in the interim, ensuring that the animal never steps foot on the Cotton Branch Sanctuary land. This helps the pig in need, as well as the pigs at the farm by saving them from additional loss; inevitably, they will get attached to one another, and mourning the loss of loved ones is an extremely emotional time for a pig. They also use the rehoming program to place other farm animals, such as goats, chickens, sheep, horses, and donkeys into safe and loving homes. Since the inception of the program 3 years ago, the Cotton Branch team has successfully saved and rehomed 300 animals. The animals who end up at the farm these days, other than the longtime residents, are typically severe cases, often abused or hard to place animals, such as extremely large farm pigs. Today, Cotton Branch has the most active adoption and foster program for pigs in the Southeast.

Compassionate to a fault, the Cotton Branch team is made up of people who care deeply for animals, and the devotion extends to their many supporters. The bulk of their funding comes from monthly donors, who sponsor an animal at the sanctuary, receive an “adoption certificate,” and get updates all while supporting the farm through a small, recurring donation each month. There are also fundraising events such as 5K races and potlucks, and occasionally, local vegan restaurants will dedicate a day to sharing a percentage of their proceeds with Cotton Branch, as Good Life Cafe in Columbia does on the second Sunday of every month. Volunteers come from all over the state and beyond nearly every day to assist with farm chores, and monthly meetups are held to tackle larger projects. To raise more awareness about the plight of factory farmed animals, well-intentioned potbelly pig purchases, and more, the Cotton Branch team regularly visits schools across the region to educate children from elementary school age to college level. They also work with other sanctuaries and animal rights organizations across the country to form a network of helpers for animals in need: partnerships that are especially apparent when there is a natural disaster or an extreme case of many animals who need to be saved at once.

For the Cotton Branch Farm Animal Sanctuary Team, saving animals and caring for them can be both physically and emotionally draining, but that doesn’t stop anyone at the farm from pushing forward, determined to save as many animals as possible.

“Saving animals – that’s our bottom line,” says Josh. “We aren’t paid, and only have two paid part-time employees here on the farm. Every ounce of support we get is directed toward the animals.”

“If we are able to get the support we need,” adds Evan, “We want to expand this property so that we can help even more animals, and have more locations across the state. We are limited in what we can do here, and we know we can do so much more. We will never stop fighting for better lives for the animals, so all we can do is keep growing.”

To find out how you can help Cotton Branch Farm Animal Sanctuary,  follow them on social media and visit www.cottonbranch.org

 By Jana Riley