Photo courtesy of Angee Pell
What do you do?
A lot of people refer to me as an animal whisperer because it’s not just goats. I’ve worked with animals my entire life. I even started doing rehab work with the SPCA when I was eight. I started to take in farm animals that needed a lot more extra care, particularly abused animals, and I continue that work to this day.
I originally started my Sky River Meadows farm to do mentorship. I wanted to mentor families to share the old school things that my grandmother taught me, and other family members have taught me over the years, like cheesemaking. There’s a huge home schooling group in the Muskokas, so I started hosting home school groups to teach kids how to make cheese, how to make soap, how to raise goats and how to make them happy and healthy.
There’s a big homesteading movement happening now and a lot of families are starting to homestead, raising their own food, trying to be more self-sustainable. I’m teaching their children how to milk their goats, how to properly care for them, how to properly feed them – everything from hoof trimming to giving needles to delivering babies. I don’t charge fees, I just share. But my policy, when I take on new families or new children, is to pay it forward! It’s cultivating this great sense of community and it’s awesome. People are learning about their food again and it’s spreading.
What inspired you to pursue work in animal facilitated healing?
I think I learned really, really young – pretty much by the age of three or four – that animals give unconditional love. And once you bond with an animal, that’s it. They don’t expect anything from us. They don’t have an ulterior motive. They just want to be with us. So sharing space, sharing time, sharing affection, sharing love – when you spend time with animals, it’s always about sharing. There’s no take, take, take! Humans always want something from each other. And most of how we go about our life and our day to day routine is with an agenda and everything we do is highly competitive with each other. Animals don’t do that. They just want to be. They want to live, breathe in peace and hopefully not fear for their lives.
Animal therapy has always been my dream and my ambition. I use a herd to teach people a different approach to life. Human beings – we’re hunter gatherers. We have a more predatory approach to life. Goats are an easy way for people to see a non-threatening herd and take these principles on how they live their lives, and adapt them to their own. The work I do is more of a self-exploration – I introduce ideas to people and then they can take an introspection and look within themselves and kind of adapt.
How long have you been working with goats?
Goats I only got into eight years ago. One of the horses I had taken in – because I do equine rescue and rehab – came with two little goats. And that changed my life forever.
What made you interested in developing a career with goats?
It kind of happened by accident. When I got into goats eight years ago, I tried to learn by contacting some goat breeders to take me on and mentor me. The slammed door that I repeatedly got in my face was so rude. I was told countless times by countless breeders, ‘if you don’t know anything, you just shouldn’t.’ And nobody was willing to share, nobody was willing teach. I thought that was so wrong because agriculture in general is a dying thing – and if we don’t know how to make food, we’re all in big trouble.
So I hit the books to figure it out on my own. I’ve learned so much about goats – now I mentor about 40 different families in Muskoka and I work with their kids and they’re all raising goats, which are all extensions of my herd. Together we’ve taken the Nigerian Dwarf goat, which was the rarest breed in Canada eight years ago, to the most popular now. I was one of eight breeders in 2014 and now there’s over a hundred of us!
What do you find most challenging about your work?
The biggest challenge to farming in general is that there’s always balance, so the yin and yang. Where you have livestock, which is goats, horses, donkeys, whatever, the opposite of that is dead stock. One of the biggest challenges is that life and death struggle that you deal with every single day.
So using this heat wave that we’ve just gone through as an example, my partner Eric and I have been working 16 to 18 hours a day just keeping the animals hydrated, keeping them cool, keeping them calm. Goats are incredibly challenging because they can die very easily. Just that challenge, day in and day out, working with these animals and keeping them healthy and keeping them alive is a big challenge.
There was one instance in 2014 where I spent eight days around the clock giving thiamine injections to a baby goat that had polio, was every hour around the clock for eight days. I did not sleep. In the end, we were winning the battle against polio, but all of the medications we were giving him unfortunately blocked his urethra and his bladder burst. It’s days like that where you fight, you fight, you fight, but you still lose. To me that’s the hardest part. And a lot of people don’t make it in the farming business because of that. The losses are too great and way too heartbreaking.
What do you like most about your work?
I never have a bad day at work. Every person that comes in contact with my herd has the biggest smiles. We share conversations and ideas, while in the presence of these animals that are professional openers. I see the transformations every day in people. To me that’s just so rewarding. Knowing that people will come and spend an hour to two hours with me and my herd and leave forever changed. That’s a really positive bit of soul food that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
If you weren’t a goat herder and animal facilitated healer, what would you be?
I would still be a horse girl. I would still be a farmer. I would probably have way more dogs than I have goats. Animals will always be a very integral part of my life. It would still be with animals, even if it wasn’t with goats.
Name a hobby you have that’s not related to your work.
I love photography. I was a photographer for six years. I ran a successful business doing weddings and such in Muskoka. I was also a wilderness guide in Algonquin Park for eight years, so I’ve done a lot of different things.
What’s the first thing you do in the morning?
See my animals. Sometimes even before going pee! I’ll be up and out in the barn because I can’t relax until I know everybody’s OK. Then I’ll go pee and then I’ll make a coffee and then I’ll have more animal time.
And last thing you do at night?
I tuck my animals into bed!
On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you enjoy your work.
I love my work. I love my life. No doubt about it, I’m living the dream right now. Mike Bradley [founder of Woodfield] has made it possible to realize my dream of just doing animal therapy without the expense of purchasing the property and building the facilities. Woodfield will provide all of that for me in exchange for my services. So it’s a great partnership and collaboration we have. It’s probably 20-30 years ahead of schedule I would be able to afford. It’s a beautiful thing.
Note: Sky River Meadows works with Woodfield to provide animal facilitated healing to people, including kids and families struggling with health issues. Learn more about Woodfield here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.