When newborn Jim and Jill were left outdoors in the cold Michigan winter last January, their owner covered up the frostbite they endured as a birth defect. Knowing how rare it was for sibling sheep to share congenital anomalies — parts of their hooves, so badly affected by the low temperatures, were unsalvageable — Dan McKernan picked up the surrendered animals in a parking lot at Michigan State University and brought them back to Barn Sanctuary, his safe haven in Chelsea for abused or neglected farm animals. Since then, he’s traveled to Virginia so each sheep could be fitted for prosthetics by the owner of Bionic Pets, which specializes in outfitting animals from dogs to elephants. “They’re doing great,” McKernan says of the sheep’s progress. “Jill is amazing. She can bounce on her front legs pretty easily. Jim is so friendly.”
The sheep are among the over 40 animals receiving care at Barn Sanctuary. The 70-acre farm, which has been a part of McKernan’s family for more than 140 years, was left vacant in 2016. Living in Austin, the passionate vegan, who had no experience on a farm at the time, decided to leave his tech job to start the nonprofit sanctuary on the property. He traveled between Michigan and Texas for about a year while Barn Sanctuary was taking off, then moved to Chelsea in 2017. Today, he works on the farm full time as founder and executive director along with his dad, Tom McKernan, co-founder and operations director; girlfriend, Kelly Holt, marketing and community outreach director; and Christine Wagner, animal care manager and volunteer coordinator.
Animals that have endured everything from natural disasters to factory farm conditions are given a safe place to graze at Barn Sanctuary. The nonprofit is utilizing just over 10 acres, but, in years to come, McKernan hopes to expand. The farm can host up to 150 animals, and they plan to hire another care manager and farm hand, launch animal-specific barn spaces, build a center that holds workshops on veganism, host school trips, and start a gardening program. In the far future, he’d even like to have Airbnb spaces on the property, so people can learn about animals at close proximity. “I want to show that these animals can have long, healthy lives,” McKernan says. “Cows can live 20 years. They can live full lives.”
His attempt to help animals hasn’t gone unnoticed. Barn Sanctuary has dedicated volunteers. At the nonprofit’s Barn Bash event this year, people flew from Vancouver, Los Angeles, and even the U.K. to show support. The organization also has more than 90 regular helpers, who donate both time and money. The funds all go back to the main focus of the nonprofit: providing the best care for farm animals, whether it’s Stanley the turkey, Andy the cow, or Jim and Jill, who now potentially have a lifetime of walking ahead of them.
For more information on Barn Sanctuary, visit barnsanctuary.org.