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Visiting Animal Sanctuaries Encourages Awareness, Funding to Save Lives

Two rescued pigs at Piggins & Banks.

As someone who loves and rescues animals, I’ve always enjoyed reading stories about how people open sanctuaries to help abused or abandoned animals. But what I didn’t realize is that a number of these sanctuaries are open for tours—sometimes to the public and other times privately—which can add a really unique aspect to any road trip. It can also help bring awareness and provide much-needed funds to go toward the animals’ care.

During a recent trip to Winchester, VA, for example, I was able to arrange a visit with two sanctuaries that rescue farm animals in need of a forever home. These animals, which range from turkeys, chickens, ducks, cattle, goats, sheep, horses, pigs and more, are not available for adoption; they will live out the rest of their lives being cared for and loved by people who are committed to giving them a safe place to stay.

At Piggins & Banks, for example, 60 abandoned, neglected and unwanted pigs roam in outdoor pens located on 34 acres in Cross Junction, VA. Every Sunday, visitors can take a guided tour of the sanctuary, which is run by Aaron Riddle and his wife, Christie, who first became interested in pigs as therapy animals.

“We adopted Mary Piggins and Mr. Banks with the idea to use them as therapy animals, but quickly got involved in the pig community and wondered if there was more we could do,” explained Riddle. “We hadn’t realized that while many people adopt pigs with good intentions, more than 95 percent of them are re-homed within the first year.

“People think they’re buying mini-teacup pigs, which don’t exist,” he added. “They may look small when you see them, but pigs don’t stop growing until they are 3 or 4 years old. And they can grow up to 300 pounds.”

Some of the pigs, like Hulk, were found just walking down the road; others come from breeders or from farms. “Pigs are some of the most misunderstood animals out there; they are one of the smartest animals in the world and have amazing memories,” said Riddle. “They are also very emotional and feel the same things that humans do, including happiness, joy, and depression. And if they don’t have constant mental stimulation, they can be pretty destructive in a home.”

In addition to pigs, the sanctuary also houses rescued rabbits, feral cats, free range chickens and ferrets. The animals are supported through tours, donations and sponsorships (that include on-demand updates of what your pig is doing).

Peaceful Fields Sanctuary, located close by in Winchester, is heading into its eighth year of helping farm animals, and now has 70 permanent residents. One of their goals is to highlight the cruelty of animal agriculture by showcasing the personalities and lives of their residents and engaging in vegan outreach to prevent further harm. The sanctuary usually hosts a monthly tour, as well as open houses at least three times a year. Private tours can also be arranged.

Run by John Netzel, the haven is designed to provide animals with the joy, happiness and kindness they were denied before. “Almost all of the animals here suffer from physical and emotional trauma,” said Netzel, who is also part of Virginia’s Animal Emergency Response Team. Some of the sanctuary’s animals include roosters rescued from cockfights, a horse and a donkey who were nearly starved to death and a three-legged Pygmy goat.

Netzel is also passionate about rescuing Kaporos/Kapparot survivors who are harmed during a sacrificial religious tradition that takes place before Yom Kippur each year in which more than 50,000-60,000 Cornish cross chickens are mistreated or killed. “Because I am Jewish, this is an especially important issue for me,” said Netzel.

Most of the animals freely wander the sanctuary’s 13 acres, including Watson, a 2,500 pound, 6’5” Holstein steer, who Netzel describes as a gentle giant.

“Still, I tell volunteers that they have to be careful, because if he swings his head your way, it’s going to hurt,” said Netzel.

The sanctuary is funded by public donations, including monthly commitments and annual sponsorships, as well as occasional private grants. Netzel also credits his volunteers with helping to care for the animals.

“We can have piles of money, but with no volunteers, nothing happens,” he said.

Travelers wanting to check out either sanctuary should contact them first to find out when public tours will be held, or to arrange a private tour. Visit or for more information.

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