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Atkins family opens farm animal sanctuary

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The work being done by the Atkins family at Driftless Farm Animal Sanctuary in the Town of Gilman, Wis., is a two-way proposition.

The family provides shelter there for animals in need and teaches youths to care for them. But its members are also learning how to operate a sanctuary themselves and one, in particular, has a condition which can be eased through a relationship with some of the non-human population.

That special one has come to be known as the sanctuary’s “founder.” Eleven-year-old Sam, who deals with autism, not only helped the Atkins’ dream to progress through his inquisitiveness, but is working with the equines as a kind of beneficial therapy.

“Why doesn’t everyone rescue animals?” was Sam’s innocent question spurring along the family’s project, his mother April said. Once he shared a book he found about a woman who started a sanctuary in Upstate New York, the family realized if they could handle the workload accompanying animal care, they should.

So when a visitor drove into the sanctuary’s driveway one day this month, the Atkins’ two large dogs, Millie and Bo, bounded across the yard for a pre-car-disembark greeting. The oldest son, 14-year-old Olin (also referred to as the operation’s “I.T. or Information Technology Director”), immediately introduced the guest to the resident feline representative, Inga the cat. And after 11-year-old daughter Elle brought a rabbit to the kitchen table for all gathered around to appreciate, it was Olin again holding a duck to preside at the visitor’s departure, while his father, Bill, insisted the outsider take home a dozen farm-fresh eggs as a gift, including two duck eggs.

Others at the farmhouse table were the youngest, 9-year-old Elise, and April’s mom, Judy.

Like Sam, the matriarch of the clan can also be credited with contributing to furthering the sanctuary idea had by her children and grandchildren. Just as the Atkins are doing now with those farm animals, Judy took her offspring into her home 4 miles down the road at an opportune time for them to act on their notion.

The couple are both educators in Woodbury, they said — he a middle school media specialist and she a second grade teacher. They were living in the Afton vicinity while originally pondering a plan to relocate nearer their jobs in Woodbury. At this point, things got ahead of them and they ended up staying at Judy’s in the Gilman-neighboring Town of Martell, Wis., for two months.

“It was then we decided we couldn’t go back (to the suburbs),” April said.

Beginning with horses

She had grown up with a fondness for horses, she said, plus it wasn’t unusual for her to hatch ducklings right in her classroom — to the delight of the second graders. The Atkins began circling her mom’s neighborhood in search of a place to pursue the sanctuary they envisioned, seeing their present 30 acres a couple of times before finally reaching an agreement to buy it six months later. They moved there last November and have since hired a contractor to restore the 100-year-old barn on the parcel and, with an assist from brothers and sisters, fenced off 12 of the acres.

“We dug all of the post holes with a hand digger,” Bill Atkins said.

Their first animal acquisition was a pony left in someone’s yard — still with them, April Atkins said. Next came a skinny horse, arriving in a starved and depressed state. Then among the take-ins were two horses described in an ad they saw posted at the Red Barn Store, Station, Bar and Grill. All had been abused and needed a home.

“We had seen rescue places,” she said, aware of the large amount of paperwork and expense involved in starting one.

They care for most of their charges temporarily, hoping to “re-home” them, if possible, she said. Her husband added they expect it to be something they can do in retirement, which will happen approximately 10 years from now.

Pierce County residents brought them two ducks and other on-premises poultry were once subjects of a Stillwater High School lab experiment, they said. A fellow teacher gave them a chicken; others have offered bunnies. Presently, the total population for the following species are: 10 ducks, 10 chickens and 10 horses.

“The horses will live 30 years and beyond,” said April Atkins, who also said they’ve lost five pets to date.

A professional farrier, David Kidd, has been retained to trim the horses, she said. Her spouse said a local farmer rents cropland from them and grows the hay they use for feed. A damp storage situation this year resulted in some of the hay getting wet — so much so as to be unsuitable for the horses. It’s one of the lessons they’ve learned, Bill Atkins admitted.

In addition to observing a regulation about the number of animals they can keep in proportion to the number of acres they own, the Atkins recently filed paperwork to register their sanctuary business. A Hudson, Wis., attorney has supplied input on how to establish a nonprofit enterprise. In the process of getting organized, they’ve created a GoFundMe web site, which can be found by visiting and clicking on the Donate button.

The sanctuary’s name originated with research indicating their acreage is within a driftless zone, according to Bill Atkins. They intend to make an educational component available next summer, holding day camps for elementary students at the site. The children of fellow teachers who’ve already spent a day with the animals typically don’t want to leave at day’s end, he said.

The family’s mission

This month, he sent a copy of the sanctuary’s mission statement to the newspaper. It reads:

“Driftless Animal Sanctuary’s mission is to provide a safe and loving home for farm animals in need while educating future generations about responsible animal ownership through positive and respectful hands-on interactions with animals.

“Driftless Animal Sanctuary will accomplish this mission by providing homes and loving care for farm animals who have experienced neglect or abuse. We will work with professionals to provide the best health and nutritional care as well as work with the animals to reestablish positive relationships with people.

“We will engage future generations in positive and respectful relationships with animals during several one-week-long summer day camps. Once we have the year-round, on-site staff, we would like to provide more educational opportunities by opening the sanctuary to schools for field trips.

“As a family of educators, we believe that in order to stop animal neglect and abuse from occurring, young people have to be provided the opportunity to learn about animals’ unique needs and have the opportunity to have personal relationships with animals.”

Bill Kirk

Bill Kirk was editor of the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth, from 1988 to February, 2015 and is now on staff as a reporter. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He previously worked in the media distribution department at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus and is past editor of The Tri-County News in Osseo, Wisconsin.

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