Zoom calls getting boring? This animal sanctuary found a solution: Buckwheat the Donkey

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Zoom calls getting boring? This animal sanctuary found a solution: Buckwheat the Donkey

In the predemic times, the Farmhouse Garden Animal Home, an Uxbridge-based sanctuary, sourced donations during in-person tours and events. They depended on people from across the province driving out to see their cows, chickens, donkeys, ducks and horses. But when Covid-19 hit and farm visits were verboten, staff scrambled to find new ways to generate income. The solution? Bring the animals to the people. Now, anyone with WiFi access can invite one of the sanctuary’s most popular attractions—Buckwheat, the 12-year-old donkey—to drop in on their Zoom meetings. We spoke to Edith Barabash, who co-founded the sanctuary in 2016, to learn more about it.


So, how does someone even start an animal sanctuary? 
Farmhouse Garden was a beef ranch for more than 30 years, operated by a third-generation farmer named Mike Lanigan. I started interning there in the summer of 2014, learning how to take care of animals and selling produce at the farmer’s market. In 2016, Mike was out in a field, working with a newborn calf, when he had a realization: it was hypocritical to love and care for these animals, only to send them to the slaughterhouse. That’s when we decided to become an animal sanctuary instead of a beef ranch. We still have the 29 cows that were in the herd when we made the switch. They would have been sent off for slaughter, but instead, they get to enjoy their lives, socializing and spending time in the pasture. We’ve also got a horse named Melody and smaller animals, like ducks and chickens. And Buckwheat, of course.

Switching from a beef ranch to an animal sanctuary sounds complicated, to say the least…
Mike had always grown vegetables on the farm and sold them at a farmer’s market in Thornhill. So, to compensate for the lost income from selling to slaughterhouses, he decided to expand his vegetable growing operation. But he still needed a way to fund the animal sanctuary. So, we shot a video explaining what we were doing and why he’d given up the beef business. It got thousands of views on YouTube and people were asking how they could help in the comments. That’s when we started a crowdfunding campaign, which raised a couple of thousand dollars right away. As more people started to contribute, we were able to find new fundraising avenues, like larger visiting days, selling vegetables and merchandise at the farm, and hosting more events.

Before the pandemic threatened everything, how did the sanctuary bring in cash? 
During the summer, we held free visiting days every weekend. For the rest of the year, visiting days were once a month. Obviously, we’d encourage people to donate, but if they just wanted to come in and walk around, that was fine. They could purchase a cow-themed Farmhouse Garden T-shirt for $30. Or they could buy a box of vegetables for $10, then go over to the pasture and feed it to the cows themselves. We also did special events, like $15 movie nights in the barn, with proceeds going toward a new chicken coop. People sat around on hay bales with blankets and ate popcorn, and we projected a movie on the side of the barn. In the spring, we did an event called “Letting Out the Cows,” when the cows come out of the barn into pasture for the first time after winter. The cows get really antsy when they realize Mike is going to let them onto the field. There’s usually a chorus of mooing. Then, when they get out, they do the happiest dance, leaping and frolicking about. Visitors cried when they watched it. We also offered the option to sponsor individual animals on our website, where you get a letter of thanks and regular updates on what your animal is up to. All of the proceeds went to feeding and caring for the animals. We raised about $40,000 a year, which goes to food, vet bills, farm maintenance and improvements.

Edith, Buckwheat and Mike Lanigan outside of Lanigan’s house, where he lives with his family

And then the pandemic hit….
It had a massive impact. One of our biggest fundraisers, the Toronto Vegan Boat Cruise, got cancelled. Normally, we’d raise around $6,000 a month at this time of year, so we were looking at a large funding shortfall. We have an emergency reserve fund, so we knew we could at least continue to care for the animals, but if we couldn’t do events all summer we would have some difficulties, like not being able to take in more animals.

Then some genius in the marketing department thought, Hey, let’s put a donkey on camera. Or what?
Well, Zoom has become super popular, and like everyone else we’ve been doing a lot of Zoom meetings, planning and brainstorming ideas on how to adapt. Our first idea was to just put a live camera on the animals and let people watch them hang out. Then one of our directors, Tim, said he’d seen an animal sanctuary in the States that was letting people Zoom with a goat.

And obviously, Buckwheat was born to be a star…
When Mike first got Buckwheat, she was meant to be a guard donkey, who lives in the field with the cows to protect them from predators, like wolves and coyotes. But she was too sweet and the cows were bullying her, so we had to move her into the same paddock as Melody the horse. Now they’re best friends. If you separate them, Melody gets really stressed out. Buckwheat gets along with nearly everyone who meets her and she loves attention. That’s why we knew she would be good on camera.

Let’s say I want Buckwheat to meet my boss. How do I get her to join my meeting?
It’s really easy. You fill in the form on our website and we’ll get back to you to confirm that Buckwheat is available at the time you want. But she’s so busy these days it’s best to book a few days in advance. She even has an Outlook calendar. We try to customize the experience for everyone. Do you want Buckwheat to come in during the middle of the meeting as a surprise? Or do you want her there at the start? Do you want a volunteer to give you a virtual tour of the farm? Do you want to meet Melody the horse, too? You can also visit the cows. There’s Meathead, who has a really big head; Gord, who got his name because he was born on the day that Gord Downie died; and Einstein, who when photographed, looks like that classic picture of Einstein with his tongue sticking out.

Courtesy Farmhouse Garden Animal Home

I’d imagine Buckwheat demands a pretty hefty fee for her services…
It’s $75 for a 10-minute session, $125 for 20 minutes and $175 for half an hour. People usually get more than they expected, because the meetings often go longer than what they pay for. We’ve even had some participants come back and donate more after the meeting is over.

Does Buckwheat have good Zoom etiquette?
It depends on her mood. At first, we were feeding her oats out of a bucket, but we had to stop doing that because she stuck her head right inside the bucket and you couldn’t see her face. That’s not great etiquette. Sometimes she’d try to nibble on the camera. Then we switched to the front-facing selfie camera on the iPhone, which worked perfectly, because she saw herself for the first time and she was fascinated. She’s usually well-mannered, though. Buckwheat is very food motivated and she loves belly rubs. So we give her lots of oats, carrots and apples to keep her happy.

So far, who has she Zoombombed?
We’ve had people from all over Canada. There’ve been lots of school groups and some corporate clients. We had families Zooming for Mother’s Day. We had some women doing a girl’s night in. Buckwheat was definitely one of the girls by the end of that call. This week she’s booked to work with a cancer charity. But one of the coolest meetings we did was with a team of ICU doctors. They said it had been a difficult few months and they were hoping for something to lighten the mood and spread some joy. Everyone loves Buckwheat. People say she really helps with morale.

Has the sanctuary been raking in donations since this experiment started?
In the three weeks our “meeting crasher” fundraiser has been live we’ve raised just over $3,000. We also did a virtual visiting day, which is a virtual tour of the farm. Everything from where we house the animals to a Q&A with Mike. That brought in $2,500. By the end of the month, we might even be able to surpass our fundraising for this time last year. It’s only a small fraction of the $20,000 bare minimum we need to raise each year to cover food and veterinary care, but it’s a promising start.

When Farmhouse Garden (eventually) re-opens and social distancing mandates are loosened, will Buckwheat and the other animals continue to make Zoom cameos?
I think they will. It’s amazing to be able to reach people who wouldn’t normally be able to make it to the farm. We’re streaming “Letting Out the Cows” this weekend and that might be the way of the future.