Farm animal sanctuaries across the country have had to adapt in these unprecedented times. Here’s a case study of how one has innovated.
Rachel B. Levin
Since its founding in 2016, Charlie’s Acres—a farm animal sanctuary in Sonoma, CA—has been a place where visitors can make personal connections with animals who’ve been rescued from traumatic circumstances.
But in March, when Sonoma County issued shelter-in-place orders to contain the spread of COVID-19, in-person tours were cancelled. Overnight, a major source of income evaporated, and layoffs of part-time staff ensued. That, combined with a volunteer freeze, left fewer people to provide animal care.
Within a couple of weeks, “We started to realize we needed to adapt,” says Charlie’s Acres founder Tracy Vogt. Indeed, the innovations that Vogt and other sanctuaries’ leaders have spearheaded to survive in the COVID-19 era demonstrate that animal sanctuaries, while vulnerable, are also resilient—just like the animals who call them home.
Each of Charlie’s Acres’ residents—nearly 150 pigs, goats, cows, chickens, and more—has their own unique story of evading abuse, lab testing, or even the dinner plate. In sharing the animals’ stories on tours, the sanctuary aims to educate visitors about how animal and human welfare are intertwined. Tour guides typically offer information about “how [visitors] can personally make choices in regards to food and what they can do to help animals, to combat climate change, and to help their own health,” says Vogt.
Because tours lie at the heart of the sanctuary’s educational mission and business model, Vogt knew that she had to find a way to keep them going as the pandemic played out. Charlie’s Acres, like many other sanctuaries, quickly pivoted to offering virtual tours, and they’ve proven to be very popular. “It’s basically the same thing as an in-person tour,” says Vogt. “You just unfortunately don’t get to experience the in-person petting.” One silver lining is that online tours have expanded Charlie’s Acres’ audience, with people logging in from all over the world.
In June, Charlie’s Acres was able to resume in-person tours—limited to 10 people each and with COVID-19 safety protocols in place—but demand for these tours is below what it was pre-pandemic. Virtual tours, however, are still going strong.
A new go-to
In April, Charlie’s Acres began participating in another online innovation called “Goat 2 Meetings,” which are the brainchild of Sweet Farm, an animal sanctuary in Half Moon Bay, CA. Companies and individuals can hire a goat or other animal to “Zoom-bomb” online meetings or virtual events like birthday parties and happy hours, offering an unexpected delight for participants. As Zoom meetings became a way of life, popularity of the Goat 2 Meetings soared.
Charlie’s Acres became so busy fulfilling requests for Goat 2 Meetings that, in April, Vogt was able to hire back some of the part-time staff she’d let go in March. Though demand has tapered off since June, the meetings were a bright spot for the sanctuary’s bottom line during the months of sheltering in place.
A long road
While online offerings have helped make up for lost in-person tour income, Charlie’s Acres and other sanctuaries are still grappling with additional financial hardships. For one, Charlie’s Acres missed out on the chance to raise money at its first-ever gala fundraiser, which was planned for early May but was postponed indefinitely due to restrictions on in-person gatherings.
There’s also been a drop in merchandise purchases, sales of fresh produce from the sanctuary’s garden, and donations. Since the pandemic’s onset, “We haven’t seen very many monthly donors pop up. People are more hesitant to commit,” says Vogt, likely due to the fragile economy.
In August, one-off donations of funds and supplies did increase when Charlie’s Acres became an evacuation site for animals and staff from nearby sanctuaries who were displaced by local wildfires. But the need for assistance at sanctuaries—financial and otherwise—is ongoing (see “Lend a hand”).
Charlie’s Acres continues to explore new ways to adapt amid the pandemic—for example, by developing virtual educational programs for children.
And with the holidays on the horizon, Vogt hopes that sanctuary supporters will consider giving animal sponsorships as gifts. Each sponsorship goes toward providing individual animals with food, vet care, and more and includes animal-themed swag. At a time when COVID-19 has disrupted human interactions, the sponsorships impart the joy of forging a bond with a new friend—fuzzy or feathered.