The Earth & I spoke with Terry Cummings, founder of the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville, Maryland.
E&I: What does a typical day for you at the animal sanctuary look like?
Terry Cummings: Well, we have over 250 rescued animals—horses, cows, pigs, goats, sheep, and chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and a few other animals: a peacock, peahen, two alpacas—a little bit of everything. We get up early and start feeding and watering them. We have a couple of baby animals still on bottles—they need care around the clock.
This morning I took some sutures out of a wound on a goat’s udder and trimmed some hooves, and bottle-fed my little baby piglet that I’m taking care of. So, we’re pretty busy. I don’t even really get a whole night’s sleep right now.
Usually at about 8 a.m., the staff comes in. We have about fifteen paid staff working here. Volunteers arrive at 9 a.m.
During the day, we get twenty or thirty phone calls from people looking for homes for animals, and for advice about how to take care of their animals. We are limited by our barn space and funding, so we really don’t take in a lot of new animals every year because we keep them for their whole life. Since we don’t adopt them out, our turnover is low. We never want to take more animals than we can properly care for, so we network with other groups to help find homes for the ones we can’t take.
We work with humane societies and other organizations. They take stray animals or [those] from cruelty cases, and they ask us if we can help. If we can, we do.
Recently, we are getting a lot of calls from people who are keeping pigs as pets, and a lot of backyard chickens, which has become legalized in many suburban areas—although most of the communities allow only hens. Of course, if people are hatching baby birds, 50% of those will be boys. But they’re not allowed to keep them. People try to keep them, but then neighbors complain about crowing.
Humane societies will tell them they have to find another place for them, and so they call us. Unfortunately, roosters fight with each other, so we can’t take very many. That has become a real problem.
E&I: How did you start all this? What motivated you to do this?
Cummings: I’ve always loved animals. I majored in animal science at the University of Maryland in College Park and got a lot of exposure—I worked with cows, pigs, goats, and sheep.
When I graduated, I was looking for a job that didn’t involve harming animals. All the animal science careers that I looked into involved using and then killing animals in some way.
I went back to school and got my degree as a vet tech also. I ended up working at the [Smithsonian National Zoological Park] in DC for twelve years as a veterinary technician because that seemed to be the least harmful to animals at the time.
I really enjoyed it, but then started feeling bad about zoos because I really got to know wild animals in captivity.
Then I thought, maybe, I could help animals that are domesticated like farm animals. During the time I was working at the zoo, my husband Dave and I started renting the little farmhouse in the middle of this 438-acre farm. It was next to where a farmer was keeping about 200 cows just roaming the property. We thought, “Oh, that seems like a good life for them. They get to do whatever they want.”
But after the first couple months, I saw that “maybe it’s not a very good life for them” because the farmer just rented the land and would come here only once a week. In the summertime, the cows had lots of grass to eat, but in the wintertime, the farmer wouldn’t bring enough hay, and the cows were starving.
We had started making friends with the cows. We named them, we watched them having their babies. We saw their social relationships with each other—how the mother cows all knew their babies and would all go out together and leave some of the younger female cows to babysit.
I was shocked to see them being starved to death. If one of them got too weak and fell on the ground, the farmer would just put a chain on a leg, use his tractor, drag it into the barn behind us, and leave it there to die, slowly, with no food and water. I called the Montgomery [County Maryland] Humane Society and reported him for cruelty to animals.
I was shocked when they told me that farm animals are exempt from anti-cruelty laws, not only in Maryland but in all states. Back in the fifties and sixties, when anti-cruelty laws were created, farmers lobbied to be exempt because so many of their common practices would be considered cruel.
Farm animals are exempt from anti-cruelty laws, not only in Maryland but in all states.
All these things were coming into my awareness. I could not live in a place where someone was torturing animals. So, Dave and I told the owner of the farm that we just can’t live in a place like this. She said, “Well, I don’t like it either. I didn’t know this was happening.”
She told the farmer to leave and said to us, “I will let you [the Cummings] rent the whole farm, if you could do something agricultural so that my taxes will be lower.”
We said, “What about an [animal] sanctuary?” She said, “Well, as long as that qualifies, yes.” The tax people said, “Yes.” That’s how we started.
I quit my job at the zoo; we made up some brochures, sent them out to the local humane societies, told them if they ever took in any farm animals that we would be available to give them a home.
We incorporated as a non-profit organization and started getting donations as people heard about us. Volunteers started to come from our local high school and our local elementary school. The students were getting service-learning hours for coming here.
E&I: So, this was a new beginning for you?
Cummings: One day before all this [starting an animal sanctuary] happened, I had observed men with baseball bats and electric shockers taking the [cow] mothers away from their babies. The babies were crying, the mothers were crying. … The men said, “What do you think we’re doing? We’re taking them to the slaughterhouse. That’s what they’re here for.” When I pleaded, “Please don’t take them,” they just laughed and kept putting the cows on the truck.
That was the day that Dave and I both became vegetarian. A couple years later, we became vegan. … We started thinking: “We changed because of meeting the animals.” … We thought, if we start a sanctuary, then other people can get to know them, too, and maybe care about them more. If nothing else, these animals deserve better treatment. We hope … that people maybe reduce the number of animals they eat even if they don’t become vegetarian or vegan.
“After … about ten years, the owner of the property donated the whole farm to us.”
That was our goal in starting a sanctuary for farm animals—not only to rescue the ones that we could, but to also open our sanctuary and let people see how wonderful these animals are, how they all have personalities, how they all deserve our care and compassion. That is how we started Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary.
Then, after we’d been doing it for about ten years, the owner of the property donated the whole farm to us.
We feel so lucky. We started filling up in a hurry. We started getting calls from all over the country because there weren’t—and still aren’t—very many places that can take these types of animals.
E&I: When you see the children and adults interacting with the animals, what’s their reaction?
We open our doors to school groups. We do internships. Children are the future, so, we want them to learn about compassion for—and better treatment of—animals, to experience interacting with them because most kids and adults never had an opportunity to do so.
I think deep down, our instinct is to care for and love these animals, but we have been taught, “No, don’t feel that way about them because it’s too difficult.” At least for me, growing up I was told, “Don’t think about them like that because you have to eat meat.”
“Our instinct is to care for and love these animals, but we have been taught, ‘No, don’t feel that way about them because it’s too difficult.’ ”
When I see these young people coming through ... we’ve seen a lot of change in the children. At first, they’re all excited, noisy, and loud, just thinking it’s like a petting zoo—they’re just going to have fun.
But then we tell them about where the animals come from, and how they were treated before they came here. Sometimes, the parents would say, “I don’t want my children to hear terrible stories.” I would respond, “Watch the kids. They don’t cry because of the stories. They are concerned, they want something to be done.”
I used to visit schools before COVID-19 and show pictures of the animals: for example, a turkey who had her toes and her beak cut off because that’s what they do at turkey farms. The farms keep them very close together and don’t want them scratching or pecking each other. So, when they first hatch, they de-toe and de-beak them.
One little boy raised his hand. “The persons who did this, they’re in jail, right?” I thought, “As they should be.” The children understand this is wrong; it shouldn’t be legal. I said, “No, it’s totally legal, the farmers are allowed to do that.”
Nobody cried, but these little kids just said, “No, this is bad. This is wrong. The man should go to jail.” I thought, “This is really encouraging—that’s their instinct.” I love having children come here so we can talk to them, and they really understand.
Obviously, we talk to them age specific. ... It’s planting a seed, if nothing else. They’re learning, they’re understanding a different perspective they didn’t have before.
We’ve had some groups visit with children who themselves had been abused, some of them had been taken out of their parents’ home because of child abuse. These kids say they really relate to the animals who have also been abused. They say, “Yeah, I understand like why that animal doesn’t want to be touched.”
“These animals are so gentle, they don’t judge, they are calm and loving, and they’ll come up to the kids and let them put their arms around them and let them pet them.”
Many children groups from the inner city in Washington, DC., also visit. They have never worked with or seen these farm animals before—they’re not used to walking on grass, they’re overwhelmed by everything. It’s a very good experience for anybody to spend time with the animals, interacting with them. Because these animals are so gentle, they don’t judge, they are calm and loving, and they’ll come up to the kids and let them put their arms around them and let them pet them. I think it’s just a very peaceful, wonderful experience for them.
Many children groups from the inner city in Washington, DC., also visit. They have never worked with or seen these farm animals before—they’re not used to walking on grass, they’re overwhelmed by everything. It’s a very good experience for anybody to spend time with the animals, interacting with them. Because these animals are so gentle, they don’t judge, they are calm, and loving, and they’ll come up to the kids and let them put their arms around them and let them pet them. I think it’s just a very peaceful, wonderful experience for them.
E&I: Obviously, it takes a lot of effort and staff to take care of the animals. How are you funded?
Cummings: We’re funded totally from donations from the public. We don’t get any county, state, or federal funding. We do about four fundraisers a year. We have a “race” for the animals in the spring, a 5k-run, and a 1-mile “fun walk.” We have an open house and a “Thanksgiving with the Turkeys,” where the turkeys are the guests of honor.
We do tours and charge a small fee for the tour. We also do animal sponsorships: Instead of adopting an animal, people pay a monthly donation, they get a framed photo of their animal, they get the animal’s story, and then they get to come and visit their animal when they want to.
E&I: When you summarize your experiences, what do you plan for the future?
Cummings: We’d like to grow our community involvement. There’s a new program just coming out educating high school students called “leap4animals.” It stands for Leaders for Ethics, Animals, and the Planet (LEAP), a compassionate agriculture program for students. It is sort of on the lines of 4-H, but it’s about teaching compassionate treatment of animals.
Hopefully, we will do more educational outreach to the community—also using social media. … We started in 1997. So, we’ve been doing this for about twenty-seven years now.
E&I: What has been your experience with interns and volunteers that have come?
Cummings: It has been a really great experience with those we have worked with. As part of their Global Ecology program, Poolesville High School allows some students to get school credit for coming here and doing an internship during the school year. They get to come here for a couple of hours a day as part of their curriculum.
They work with the animals here, and really benefit—how to care for the animals, how to medicate, how to interact with them. A lot of our students have gone on to become veterinarians and doctors.
E&I: When you look at all your experiences throughout your life and look at the general society, the trends you see, what will be the alternative? What would be necessary to change?
Cummings: Well, it’s so easy now to be vegan that people could start [being vegan] maybe one day a week? Just to try. It’s scary to think of doing it all at once. …
I didn’t know how to make one thing vegetarian when I decided that I didn’t want to eat meat anymore. I had to figure it out. But it’s so much easier now. I think a lot of people even for health reasons are looking to more plant-based diets. It’s better for the planet, it’s better for the animals, it’s better for the people.
E&I: Thank you very much.
Editor’s Note: For The Earth & I, Christoph Wilkening spoke with Terry Cummings. For more information visit the sanctuary’s website at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary.