My name is Anna, but lots of people call me Jenna by mistake. Jenna was my beautiful white dog who passed away unexpectedly soon after starting the sanctuary. I named the sanctuary after her as a tribute to her honor and kindness. Her name serves as a constant reminder for me to treat animals as equals, as my friends, all worthy of living a life that's free of fear and suffering - on THEIR terms.
I’ve always loved animals. As a child, I had dogs, cats, goldfish, gerbils, and hamsters. I related to all of them, especially my cats. I would dress them up in baby doll clothes and roll them around the cul de sac in front of my house in a stroller listening to Simon and Garfunkel. I taught them multiplication tables and long division on a small chalkboard on the back porch, carefully explaining each step as I derived the answer. I read them Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, role playing the characters and changing my voice and tone to match the level of suspense. My dad joked that we must have had the smartest cats on the block.
As a teenager, my interest in animals expanded into science. I enjoyed studying their behavior and habits, even documenting some of my pets’ oddities and reactions to their daily routines. My high school science teacher encouraged me to pursue my interest in science, and I knew that one day I would have a career as a veterinarian or animal researcher.
When I got to college in the late 80s, I quickly realized that being a scientist was far from what I wanted as a career. I didn’t like to see animals being used for testing, and the sight of blood was sickening. I am easily traumatized by suffering and sickness to this day, and these are obviously not good characteristics of a veterinarian or researcher. But I couldn’t deny that I had a deep connection with animals, and I wanted to help them.
Then I started learning about farm animals, especially pigs. When I learned about how they were mistreated in factories and bred for food, I knew I had to be part of a rescue mission. I visited sanctuaries, read books, and attended conferences to learn as much as I could about opening my own sanctuary. I discovered the Compassionate Living Festival led by Tom Regan, NC State professor and animal rights activist, and his wife Nancy. The speakers were always amazing - Dr. Michael Greger, Kim Stallwood, Ingrid Newkirk, and many others.
I yearned to be standing on that stage talking about all the animals I had rescued and how I had made such a difference. That crowd would surely give me a standing ovation!
I worked in Kanab, Utah at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary for a few months to get my feet wet and help me understand the ins and outs of running a sanctuary. There I learned a lot about all the hard work required in the animal rescue business -- cleaning, feeding, watering, giving shots, keeping records -- all in the southern Utah heat. The stream of unwanted animals who came to live at the sanctuary was endless. It was one sad story after the next.
And the need for funding was overwhelming. That was a huge eye opener for me. How in the world would I start my sanctuary with no money?
Back in North Carolina, I continued researching sanctuaries, participating in local animal rights groups, and attending conferences. I started volunteering at local sanctuaries, including Pig Pals and Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge. I kept up with larger sanctuaries like Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY, even getting an opportunity to meet its founder and my hero Gene Baur on two occasions.
I learned a lot from the larger sanctuaries, but Pig Pals was the game changer for me. Founder Penny introduced me to her 40 or so rescued potbellied pigs on her modest farm outside of Raleigh. She had created her own pig town, complete with little buildings labeled things like “bank,” “saloon,” and “grocery store.” It was like a small Old Western movie set for pigs.
And the pigs were mesmerizing. I just couldn't believe how much like dogs they were. They wagged their tails. Some knew their names. They were playful, even mischievous. They constantly grunted and squealed conversations with each other. Their personalities were incredibly strong. They looked directly into my eyes, as if looking through my very soul.
Years later, I fell in love with one particular pig at Penny’s sanctuary. Her name was Abigail, and she was blind. She walked on her front elbows from walking on hooves that had never been trimmed. I would sit with her while she munched on the carrots and apples I had brought for her. She would fall over for a belly rub, and I gave her plenty of those. Just spending time with Abigail made me feel honored to be in her presence.
What a majestic animal Abigail was. I knew at this point that I wanted to spend time with pigs every single day of my life. And I also knew that I would have my own Abigail one day, and I do.
As I started forming a clearer vision of my sanctuary, local friend and activist Justin Van Kleeck pioneered and championed the “Microsanctuary Movement.” The premise behind the movement is that basically any person, even someone with few resources and funding, can rescue and provide a loving home to at least one farm animal. The idea that every animal sanctuary requires a huge plot of land with several employees and an on-site veterinarian is just not true and, quite frankly, not feasible for most people. The underlying idea of the Microsancturary Movement is that anyone, with a little planning and a mindset that we are not to harm animals in any way, can rescue even a couple of farm animals and make a difference.
I knew I could be part of the Microsanctuary Movement. I didn’t have to be overwhelmed with land and money woes. And with a smaller operation, I could spend time with the animals on an intimate level, not hand off my farm duties to volunteers and other farm workers while I was doing paperwork or attending fundraising events.
I was ready to get started, and if I only rescued one animal the first year, that was just fine.
Now fast forward to 2015 when I bought my 2.73-acre property outside of Chapel Hill, NC. It had no farm animal restrictions and was very private with lots of woods. I bought a shelter and hired a nice man to convert it into a barn with stalls, doors, and ramps. I hired some folks to install fencing.
And then I rescued my first pig in the fall of 2015 - Miss Mandy. She was a tiny, scared girl back then, but you should see her today! What a beautiful pig.
As of today, I’ve rescued a total of 15 pigs (14 potbellied pigs and one farm pig). Three have passed away due to illness, but the rest are healthy and thriving as a herd of friends.
I always welcome visitors and volunteers to the sanctuary. There’s always poop to scoop and bellies to rub, but you don’t have to work if you prefer to come for pig therapy. I call it therapy because just spending time with the animals is good for the soul. Just grab a stool and sit in a stall with the animals as they walk up and start a conversation with you. Larry will inevitably flop over for a belly rub first, and Petey the farm pig will sniff every inch of you looking for morsels of food.
And if you’re a child, I especially welcome YOU to the sanctuary. The pigs love children, probably because they sense your innocence, playfulness, and curiosity about life. I guarantee you will connect with the animals, so ask your parents to schedule some time with me!
Welcome to Jenna and Friends Animal Sanctuary, where pigs live on THEIR terms, surrounded by love and companionship.
Just two weeks ago, Abigail was rescued in the nick of time. When found, she was literally lying in a pile of cans and trash behind a trailer, apparently abandoned by the former tenants. She had no shelter, clean water, or food. Abigail is 11 years old and has been living in squalor her whole life. Now, as a result, she is suffering a myriad of health and behavioral problems.
For starters, Abigail suffers from malnutrition and rapid weight loss. You can tell that she was extremely overweight at one time, most likely from eating a poor diet and getting no exercise. Her loose belly skin drags the ground when she walks, and she has no choice but to step on it. She also suffers from fat blindness, which occurs when folds on the face cover the eyes and block vision. She has to be led to her food and water.
All four of Abigail’s feet are extremely arthritic, and she grunts in pain when she walks. Her hooves are gnarly and crooked from years of neglect and lack of hoof trims. Sometimes she even walks on her wrists and elbows to avoid putting pressure on her front feet. Watching her move around is truly heartbreaking.
Abigail is extremely terrified of humans, which makes it even more difficult for caretakers to treat her. She must have been severely abused over the years to mistrust humans so much. Most pigs will eventually learn to trust again, but in her case, it’s hard to tell if she will overcome her past trauma. What pain and suffering she must have endured to react this way to the people who are trying to help her.
Abigail will need lots of medical attention and care to help her regain her health and mobility. She will need pain medication indefinitely and special housing to accommodate her disabilities. She will most likely face one or more surgeries in the coming months to help with her ailments. Right now, she needs constant attention and care. Years of neglect aren’t fixed overnight.
As Abigail’s rescuer and primary caretaker, I am sad to think about Abigail’s former life. What happened? Were her former owners misinformed about the size of potbellied pigs? Were the children scared of her? Did it cost too much to feed her properly? Was she too much work? What in the world could she have possibly done to deserve such neglect?
These questions haunt me, but I suppose their answers don’t matter anymore. That life is behind her now, and now she's suffering for it.
Now it’s time to focus on Abigail’s future. I can’t guarantee that she will ever completely recover from her past, but I can guarantee her a warm bed of straw, two healthy meals every day, proper medical care, and a loving hand. For however long she lives, Abigail will be treated with kindness, every day.
My promise to Abigail is to spread her story as a tool to educate people about pigs and what it takes to care for them properly. She will serve as ambassador for all neglected animals to remind us of our duty as humans to care for our fellow non-human inhabitants of the earth.
Anna O'Neal, founder and caretaker at Jenna and Friends Animal Sanctuary