CHELSEA, Mich. – Did you know there is an animal sanctuary a short drive from Ann Arbor?
Dan McKernan started Barn Sanctuary in 2016 on his family’s 140-year-old farm in Chelsea. At the time, he was living in Austin, Texas working in high tech when he got a phone call from his father about what do to with the land.
“Because it’s right off 94 and 52, it’s a valuable piece of property,” said McKernan. “He wasn’t ready to sell it to a corporate company. So I threw out the idea -- what if I created a farm animal rescue?”
McKernan, who had recently adopted a plant-based diet, was already thinking of a lifestyle -- and purpose -- change when he pitched the idea to his father.
Having designed fundraising platforms for organizations in Austin, McKernan knew how to fundraise at a small donor level. He designed stickers for donors to purchase on social media and it worked. Soon, he had enough funds to make his vision a reality.
His first two animals were cows, which in terms of care are long-term investments, said McKernan.
“Cows live up to 20-years-old and they eat a lot and they poop a lot and they cost a lot,” he said. “Over time, I’m going to be a cow dad. It’s a long-term commitment.”
He admits he didn’t know much about cows when he first started Barn Sanctuary, and as a habit treated them like cats or dogs. To his surprise, they responded in similar ways to domestic pets. After a video he posted with his first rescue, Cora, went viral, McKernan said he saw the value of social media as a window into life at the farm.
As he told the stories of the animals online, producers from Animal Planet reached out to start a television show and “Saved by the Barn” was born.
Currently, the farm has 113 “residents,” as McKernan calls them. These include cows, donkeys, goats, sheep, turkeys, chickens and 30 full-size pigs. Each animal has a human name and is treated like an individual, said McKernan.
The farm has supporters from around the world, who help Barn Sanctuary continue its work through donations, including animal sponsorships.
The farm also has a full-time staff of twelve.
“Just like we’re taking care of the animals, we take care of the staff, too,” said McKernan. “We have an amazing paid internship program and volunteers and everything. They keep everything going.”
The farm opens up to the public for tours in mid-May.
One thing McKernan said he didn’t anticipate was how much children love Barn Sanctuary.
“Starting the sanctuary, I wanted to get away from people and hang out with the animals,” he said. “The number one thing I didn’t think about was the amount of kids who love the sanctuary and love the farm animals.”
This inspired him to write a children’s book about Buttercup the cow being scared and anxious about moving to a new farm. The story was inspired by moving around a lot as a child, said McKernan.
The fun part? All of the characters in the book are animals on the farm and can be visited in real life.
“This Farm is a Family” is currently on sale at Nicola’s Books, which is having a virtual storytime event with McKernan for his book release on Wednesday. All proceeds will go toward supporting Barn Sanctuary’s residents.
To learn more about the farm, visit www.barnsanctuary.org.