“I wasn’t even thinking Animal Farm,” I say, slightly peeved. I slip Animal Farm quietly back onto the shelf.
- Resident pigs at Edgar’s Mission in Lancefield
- Pam Ahern, founder and director of Edgar’s Mission
The Mission offers various forms of rehabilitation, most of them overseen by qualified vets, but I’m here to investigate one of their more unusual programs: reading to animals. “We started the reading program a few years ago with two goats, Marieke and Michaela,” says Ahern. “Probably the most frightened goats I’d ever seen. They were climbing the barn walls to get away from us. It’s always the way with animals that come through here: we can treat their physical wounds, but psychological damage is much harder to fix.”
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- Sanctuary hand Jayce Thewlis moves a flock of sheep from one paddock to another
Ahern put out a call for reading volunteers on Facebook. One of the women who answered was ex-academic and Kyneton local Nicky Peters. She’s been reading to injured animals at Edgar’s Mission for the last three years. “Usually children’s books,” Peters says, sitting on a plastic stool beside Anastasia, a fly-struck sheep undergoing rehab, and Rin Tin Tin, a baby goat who moves in excited sideways hops. “They seem to like Enid Blyton at the moment. Well, you can see!” Nicky holds up several goat-chewed pages from The Secret of Spiggy Holes.
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A 300-pound pig named Willy was the first animal rescued by Little Bear Sanctuary when it opened in 2017.Christoper Vane / Little Bear SanctuaryMany people buy pigs as pets but then surrender them when they get “too big.” Before that happened to Willy, his owner taught him to sit like a dog for treats.
- Nicky Peters, a volunteer reader for the animals at Edgar’s Mission
“I’ve been a strict vegetarian most of my life, but I became a vegan a couple of years ago. Most of the staff here are vegan – there’s actually no animal products allowed on the property. And the reading program is just fantastic. I get so much joy from being around the animals, feeling their warmth and affection in some small way.”Veterinarian and behavioural expert Dr Emma Hughes says the Edgar’s Mission reading program might be unique in Australia, at least for livestock and farmed animals. “We know animals do become calmer when they associate voices with something positive,” she says. “Reading works because it’s non-confrontational. Most of these animals are prey species, so they don’t like people getting too close or making direct eye contact. It’s a brilliant way to get humans to behave appropriately.”
In the afternoon, Ahern organises a reading session for me with three sheep: Lady Samantha, Harry Potter and Harmony, a lamb whose little front legs are set in blue splints. I settle down inside a corrugated shed and pull out my copy of Roald Dahl’s Going Solo. “I’m not sure if you’ve read this before,” I say, slightly self-conscious, “but it’s always been one of my favourites.” Lady Samantha gives me an inscrutable sheep stare. Harmony hobbles closer and sniffs my hand, cautiously. Her wool is oily and soft.
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The sheep are a little standoffish at first, but after 30 minutes of reading they seem to have drifted off to sleep (I decide to take this as a compliment). Watching them causes an uncomfortable knot of non-vegan guilt, somewhere just below the sternum region, mixed with a little low-grade hypocrisy.
- Anastasia, a recently rescued sheep with debilitating flystrike, watches a wildlife video during her afternoon therapy session at Edgar’s Mission
Pam had warned me this sort of thing might happen. “I believe people don’t set out to be cruel to animals. I believe in the goodness of the human heart. And when people come and see the animals, these emotional beings who experience happiness and joy, fear and sadness, it really gets to you here.” She touched her chest and said again, “it really gets to you here.”
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