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Timothy the steer has no eyes — just two little dents on his white furry face where they used to be. As a calf, he developed a pinkeye infection that was left untreated on the farm where he lived at the time. His infection worsened to the point that his eyes had to be removed.

By then, Timothy was living at Farmaste Animal Sanctuary, a 28-acre farm outside Lindstrom, Minn. Since 2017, the nonprofit farm has provided cows, pigs, goats and sheep (and plans to include chickens, once their coop is finished) with a comfortable place to sleep, veterinary care, good food and space to run around.

Once malnourished and underweight, Timothy regained his health and befriended another cow named Mags. The two have been inseparable ever since.

"Mags is Timothy's 'seeing-eye cow,'" said Kelly Tope, who founded and runs Farmaste. "Once, we had to take Mags to the vet, and he was racing around the field trying to figure out where she was."

At Farmaste, animals aren't nameless assets to be monetized. They're individuals that can form relationships with people and each other. Farmaste tour groups "can see that they have personalities, like cats and dogs," Tope said. Indeed, a sheep named Blue likes to affectionately nudge her head under a visitor's hand just the way a dog does when it wants to be petted.

Farmaste is one of "hundreds if not thousands" of sanctuary farms across the country, said Jessica Due, senior director of animal care and rescue at Farm Sanctuary, a 38-year-old organization that bills itself as the country's oldest and largest.

Sanctuary farms acquire animals from various sources. Sometimes from law-enforcement agencies that have seized abused or neglected animals. Three of Farmaste's pigs were born to a sow rescued from a Massachusetts farm with conditions a police sergeant described as "disgusting ... extremely unfortunate and sad."

On the other end are animals that farmers have taken a special liking to and can't bear to have slaughtered but also can't afford to raise them without revenue. Mags, who was born with a spinal deformity that left her unable to breed for dairy production, was one of these.

And sometimes animals are caught as runaways, like Farmaste's Buffy, a goat that apparently escaped from a slaughterhouse and wandered around South St. Paul for weeks before being captured and sent to live at Farmaste.

Farmaste gets five or six requests a week to take in animals; the much larger Farm Sanctuary gets "tens of thousands a year," Due said.

"There's no shortage of animals that need to be rescued," Tope said. "Unfortunately, I have to say 'no' a lot."

Even farm animals not considered abused often bear the marks of mass livestock production: horns and testicles removed, beaks clipped, tails docked — standard farm procedures, typically performed without anesthesia. Discomforts continue throughout their lives as they're jammed into small spaces with concrete floors, bred or fed to grow so large that their legs sustain damage. Dairy cows are separated from their calves shortly after birth so they can produce milk to be sold.

"I've watched videos of how much distress [the mothers] are in — it's really heartbreaking," said Heather Cronemiller of Isanti, Minn., a Farmaste volunteer.

Emily Meister, a part-time employee of Farmaste, fed sheep.
Emily Meister, a part-time employee of Farmaste, fed sheep.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

On regular farms, animals are typically slaughtered when they're young — for example cattle, which can live upwards of 20 years, usually are slaughtered at about three or four, Animals at sanctuary farms live out their natural life spans.

Tope sometimes hears accusations that sanctuary farms are trying to put regular farms out of business — an unlikely prospect, considering the country's nearly 10 billion farm animals. In 2021, according to the Department of Agriculture, the United States slaughtered about 128 million hogs, 33 million cattle and calves and 1.9 million sheep and lambs.

"There's no way sanctuaries could drive them out, even if there was one on every corner, like Starbucks," Due said.

Like most or maybe all sanctuary farms, Farmaste promotes veganism, but Tope's message is low-key. If someone, after a visit to Farmeste, wants to swing into the Lindstrom Arby's (slogan: "We have the meats!"), she doesn't judge. Her father, one of Farmaste's most active volunteers, grew up on a farm and will be "a meat eater until the day he dies," she said.

Part-time Farmaste employee Emily Meister, left, and Sierra Stukenholtz, who will take Meister’s role when she leaves in November, cleaned around the goat barn.
Part-time Farmaste employee Emily Meister, left, and Sierra Stukenholtz, who will take Meister’s role when she leaves in November, cleaned around the goat barn.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

"People need to be able to make their own choices," Tope said. If visitors go away saying, "That was really cool and fun and I'm glad I got to go meet them," she counts it as a win.

But some might consider changing habits. Tope recalls a woman who visited with her husband and the next day sent Tope a message: "This morning at breakfast at the hotel, he did not eat the bacon!"

Whether that husband swears off animal products permanently, "We had a moment with him, and that time he chose differently." Tope tells people that forgoing meat even one day a week makes a difference.

Tope's own veganism wasn't entirely voluntary. She's allergic to eggs, dairy and red meat. She can eat chicken, but by her 30s, "was sick of chicken," she said.

"Then I was like, chickens are really cute," said Tope, now 51. "It's time."

Tope lives about 35 miles from Farmaste in Stillwater, where she has a full-time job in franchise development. Some years ago, after caring for a sick dog, she had an epiphany: She wanted to help animals. She learned about sanctuary farms and visited Farm Sanctuary in New York, which offers training to prospective sanctuary operators.

"I mucked out barns and really got into the nitty gritty of it," she said. "I loved it. It was such a happy place for me."

A goat munched on hay at Farmaste.
A goat munched on hay at Farmaste.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Many people — including Tope's daughter, a teenager diagnosed with depression and anxiety before Farmaste began — find time spent around animals therapeutic.

"There's a ton of research that shows being around animals is good for us," said Cronemiller, a therapist at Oak Haven Counseling and Wellness in Chisago City, Minn. She's certified in animal-assisted therapy and often takes patients to visit Farmaste's animals. Conscious of the animals' feelings, too, she looks for those "that love human interactions."

Skeptics who say animals don't feel emotions might think differently if they watched cows in the spring, Tope said. The bovines spend the winter mostly cooped up in the barn or getting fresh air in a small patch of cleared ground outside it. Then the snow melts, and they're let out onto the grass.

"They're super excited," Tope said. "You get them dancing around, kicking up their heels, loving life."

Open house

Farmaste's annual open house, Farmaste Fallapalooza, is 1-4 p.m. Oct. 8, at the farm at 35890 Oasis Road, Lindstrom, Minn. Entry donation is $10 for adults and $5 for children 5 and up (younger kids free). Planned festivities include walking tours, face painting, local vendors, pumpkins for sale and other family activities.