When Tamala Lester left West Orange to chase a dream of opening an animal rescue, the Barnyard Sanctuary, she knew the location in Knowlton Township wasn’t her “forever farm.” But she never thought she and her 200 animals would be kicked out with only a few months notice.
“My landlord didn’t care,” Lester told the Four Oranges. “She told me to send my animals to auction and throw my stuff in the trash.”
The rising cost of real estate is partly to blame. More and more city folks are trading in their penthouses for 100-acre farms, driving up costs in the countryside, Lester said. When her landlord realized she could charge three times what she was getting from the Barnyard Sanctuary, she gave only a few months to vacate the premises.
“I put flyers in mailboxes across three counties,” Lester said. “I couldn’t find anything.”
Finally, Lester convinced her hay dealer to let her rent 100 acres of his farm with the understanding that it was only temporary. She needs about $60,000 to move her entire operation to the new location while still keeping her sights on finding — and funding — a forever farm.
The move includes much more than transporting huge animals, such as cows, horses, pigs, goats, water buffalo, and emus. New barns, pens, and paddocks have to be built. Worse, her current landlord agreed to let her stay past the deadline, but jacked up the rent threefold.
Animal sanctuaries across the state were already feeling the pinch after suffering back-to-back blows of the pandemic and the recession, according to Gabrielle Stubbert, founder of Tamerlaine Sanctuary. “During the pandemic, we hung on by our fingernails,” Stubbert said. “When the recession hit, that was our worst year ever.”
Stubbert said a major source of income for many sanctuaries is tours, which were forbidden under Covid-19 restrictions. Her sanctuary had to take out a $150,000 loan just to stay afloat. “The amount of money that goes toward animal welfare is the lowest of any philanthropic cause,” Stubbert said. “When you have mouths to feed, you have to raise that money.”
At the height of its reach, the Barnyard Sanctuary had more than 700 animals. Today, as a result of the economy, it has downsized to 200 animals.
The Barnyard Sanctuary, on principle, never gets animals from auctions. Most of the residents in Lester’s care were surrendered by owners who were facing hardship, like foreclosure or divorce. Others are acquired through animal abuse cases or unclaimed strays.
Sanctuaries have also become dumping grounds for pet shop scams. The most pervasive is the “tea cup craze,” Lester calls it, in which naive customers are tricked into thinking that potbelly pigs will remain the size of a Shih Tzu. Once the hog grows up to its natural weight, it’s left on the doorstep of a sanctuary. That happened in the case of Boris and Tippy, two potbellies who live at the Barnyard Sanctuary. Lester said that Tippy’s legs were so weak when she arrived that they had to give her physical therapy and even performed Reiki on her until she was nursed back to health.
“My instinct is to snuggle the animals and tell them everything is going to be alright,” Lester said.
One of the most memorable characters on Lester’s farm is a goat named Leroy, who is nicknamed “the mayor” because of his duties as host. On a tour, Mayor Leroy, who was surrendered by a woman in financial hardship, followed along with the visitors from pen to pen as if he — not Lester — was the one giving the guests the lay of the land.
Lester opened her sanctuary in 2010, after a divorce. She had just left West Orange — where she was married to a doctor and living in Llewellyn Park — and decided she needed to start a new chapter.
“After 15 years, I realized that’s not where I wanted to be or wanted to do,” Lester said. “I wanted to be outside and I wanted to be with animals.”