Posted on Nov 07, 2023
By Ellie Laks, Founder of The Gentle Barn
I met Julia when she was 16 years old. She came to The Gentle Barn with her high school class for those with disabilities. The teens were holding the chickens and petting the animals when I approached Julia with a red hen named Bonnie. The teachers yelled at me to stop and explained that Julia was not safe for the hen because she was prone to violence, rage, and anger, even though she was blind and selectively mute, not speaking a word for over twelve years. I looked over at Julia and saw her sweet face. I wanted to give Julia a chance to decide who she was today. Not who she was yesterday, not based on what people said about her or what she had done in the past, but who she decided she was in front of me at The Gentle Barn. The teachers kept advising against it, but I insisted on taking the risk and they relented.
When I placed Bonnie in Julia’s arms, a smile spread across her face like a sunrise. She stroked the chicken for hours, not wanting to put her down. She was gentle and kind the whole time and treated the hen like a precious china doll. Julia started looking forward to coming to The Gentle Barn and would smile the minute the bus doors opened and she heard the rooster’s crow. In the two years that Julia was part of our program, she was never violent or angry. She hugged the cows, cuddled the turkeys, held the chickens, and walked the horses with a smile on her bright face.
We had a turkey at the time named Chloe who we rescued before Thanksgiving. When she came to The Gentle Barn, she was very angry. We thought that she would hate people forever. However, to our surprise, after four weeks of being at The Gentle Barn, she climbed into our laps and fell asleep. She was a hero and a role model of forgiveness to the kids we worked with.
One day, we had a booth at a fair and brought Chloe with us. Chloe sat quietly on the grass while we set up our tables and tents. When the guests arrived, Chloe allowed them to pet her, cuddle her, and pose for pictures with her. We were situated about 50 yards from the stage, which was also being set up.
When the music started playing, Chloe sprang to her feet and started running toward the stage. She positioned herself in front of the band and started swaying back and forth to the music. I sat in the front row for three hours and watched my turkey dance and sway, with her eyes closed, almost in a trance. There were lots of people dancing around her and she joined in. Finally, the band took a lunch break. The minute the music stopped, Chloe opened her eyes and walked herself back to our booth.
After seeing how important music was to Chloe, we had a radio set up in the barn. No matter where the radio was or what kind of music was playing, Chloe positioned herself next to the radio, and with her eyes closed, she swayed to the music.
With their shared love of music and past trauma, I thought that Chloe might inspire Julia to speak again. I explained to Julia how important it was to sing to Chloe every day. I asked her if she would help me, and she nodded yes. For the first three months, I sang while Julia patted Chloe. At four months, Julia hummed along under her breath. At five months, Julia sang along with me. By the time Julia graduated our program, she was fully vocal because of a turkey and their shared love of music.
The “real” world sees animals as things we can eat, wear, use, and throw away when we don’t want them anymore. But at The Gentle Barn, we see animals as healers, teachers, and ambassadors who are here to love us. We work hard every day to create a gentler world where more animals can find their song, dance their dance, shine their light, and be the ambassadors they have come to be to teach, heal, and love us all!