In Chelsea, a sanctuary for rescued farm animals

Nearly a decade ago, Dan McKernan left his six-figure tech job in Austin, Texas, to transform his family's farm in Chelsea into a sanctuary for rescued farm animals.

Known as the Barn Sanctuary, the 70-acre farm, home to 114 animals, has gotten some renewed attention this month with the publication of McKernan's first children's picture book, "This Farm is Family." McKernan, 33, also was the star of the former Animal Planet series "Saved by the Barn."

In "This Farm is Family," the rescued animals at the Barn Sanctuary decide to help Buttercup the cow adjust to her new home. The animals rally together to show the fearful Buttercup love and that she is part of their family.

"This picture book shares a powerful message about family and it's another way we can educate children on the ways we can show compassion to all creatures," says McKernan, who has based the main character, Buttercup, on a real cow that was rescued from a farm in Pinckney.

How did Barn Sanctuary get started: McKernan had aspirations of becoming a veterinarian but “my life didn’t go that route” and pursued a career in the tech industry, he says. When McKernan learned his family wanted to sell the 70-ace farm, he proposed creating a sanctuary for rescued farm animals. A former computer developer, McKernan was tired of being stuck behind a screen and was seeking a more meaningful occupation. "When my dad called me and asked what to do with the family farm, I decided to trade my good living for a great life. The fresh air, walking on the earth, and the animals have transformed me," he says.


Why farm animals: 
Farm animals, McKernan says, are the most abused and neglected animals in the world. He believes every animal has the right to graze, the right to breathe fresh air and should be treated humanely. While there has been some progress in the treatment of farm animals, many remain part of large corporate farms, where thousands are processed each day.

How he prepared: To gear up for his new vocation, McKernan delved into the subject, much like he had with previous jobs. He started talking to industry experts, attended a farm animal care conference three years straight and became well-acquainted with a book, “Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day,” by Gene Baur, who started the first farm animal rescue in the United States.

How rescues occur: Every rescue is done legally, with McKernan and his staff often working with law enforcement authorities. They rescue animals that have been treated cruelly or neglected, lost after natural disasters or because farmers no longer want them and can’t face euthanizing them. The animals are rescued and rehabilitated. 

Where is the sanctuary: The sanctuary is located on the family's 70-acre farm near Interstate 94 in Chelsea. The farm has been in the McKernan family for about 140 years. McKernan describes the property as a hobby farm. The family grew crops and raised animals for themselves and neighbors. Farming on the property ended about three or four decades ago.

What has been the impact: To date, the Barn Sanctuary has rescued and rehabilitated farm animals from across the country. The menagerie includes cows, donkeys, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys and goats. in all, about 400 animals have been saved. The operation has a staff of 12, four paid interns and an active volunteer group.

What inspired the book: “This Farm is a Family'' was inspired by the number of children who have visited the sanctuary and their interest in animals. McKernan came up with the concept and worked with his publishing company to bring the story to fruition. He found an illustrator, Denise Hughes, whose work reminds him of the animated TV series “Doug.” Part of Barn Sanctuary's mission is to educate and raise awareness of the plight of farm animals. 

Resources: McKernan formed a 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization to maintain the property and care for the animals. The organization is 100 percent donor funded. 

Are visitors allowed: Public barn tours are held Saturday mornings and afternoons.  Tickets are required and can be purchased at barnsanctuary.org. Tickets are $15-$20. Private and school field trips can also be arranged.