Out & About: Springfield, Vt., Sanctuary Offers Refuge for Animals of All Shapes and Sizes

  • Domino the alpaca is a resident of VINE Sanctuary in Springfield, Vt. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli)

  • Asher Schutzius, age 7, pets Willie the turkey during a Pasture Pals program at VINE Sanctuary in Springfield, Vt., as his mother, Jennifer Schutzius, looks on. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli)

  • Residents of VINE Sanctuary in Springfield, Vt., gather for Hannaford Day. The grocery chain's Claremont location donates produce twice a week to the animal sanctuary. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli)

  • Residents of VINE Sanctuary in Springfield, Vt., gather for Hannaford Day. The grocery chain's Claremont location donates produce twice a week to the animal sanctuary. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli)

Valley News Calendar Editor
Saturday, July 29, 2017

Springfield, Vt. — Domino the alpaca extends his head toward mine, coming a little closer than I’m expecting, and nibbles softly at the hair on my temple.

“OK, sweetheart,” I say, “that’s a little too close for me.” He seems to understand and backs up slightly.

I met Domino on a recent visit to the VINE Sanctuary in Springfield, Vt. (VINE stands for Veganism Is the Next Evolution. Vegans do not use or consume any animal products.) He’s one of more than 600 animals who make their home on the 100-acre property.

This summer, the nonprofit organization, which describes itself as an LGBTQ-led farmed animal sanctuary, has started a series of children’s programs called Pasture Pals. Led by educator Aimee Bittinger, of Enfield, the workshops combine education about the animals with volunteerism.

While only one child was present during my visit — 7-year-old Asher Schutzius, of West Lebanon, who attended with his mother, Jennifer — sanctuary staff hope others will attend the three remaining Pasture Pals sessions, to be held on three consecutive Tuesdays, Aug. 1, 8 and 15, from 1-4 p.m.

“It’s something that the organization has wanted to do,” said Ayeshah Al-Humaidhi, development and administrative coordinator at VINE Sanctuary who earlier served as director of the Upper Valley Humane Society in Enfield.

But back for a moment to Domino, whose deep brown eyes seemed to keep finding mine as I watched him and the others participate in what VINE staffers call “Hannaford Day.” The grocery chain’s Claremont location donates produce twice a week, and when it arrives at the sanctuary, it’s quite the event.

As Cheryl Wylie, the animal care coordinator at VINE, begins to unload the fruits and vegetables from a pickup truck, the residents of all shapes and sizes — the sanctuary refers the animals it cares for as residents — gather for what they know will be a feast.

Oxen, cows, goats, sheep, alpacas, chickens and others gobble up the goods — well, most of the goods. The lemons remain mostly untouched, though, as Wylie said later, a cow named Rose has been known to favor them.

The animals are able to roam the property as part of what VINE refers to as freedom of choice, Al-Humaidhi said. This means letting animals be where they want to be and choose who they want to interact with.

“It’s one of the most important aspects of the sanctuary,” Al-Humaidhi said. Some of the residents have been victims of animal cruelty and are cautious of humans. Domino, for example, came from a petting zoo and doesn’t like hands. “Most of the time they develop a trust with us,” she said.

I will admit to being a bit cautious myself when I first stepped onto the property — I grew up in suburban New Jersey and my contact with farm animals has been limited. I also have a fear of larger birds, which I guess comes from being bitten by a Canada goose when I was a child.

So when I arrived and saw all the animals — some much bigger than I am — wandering around and was met by Willie, a turkey who was greeting visitors that day, I was intimidated.

But then I witnessed Hannaford Day.

Side-by-side, the animals munched on the donated produce while I tried to avoid the cow tails swinging around to swat flies. Scotty, a 22-year-old ox, nudged the containers of food in the truck a few times and Wylie playfully chided him, reminding him to wait his turn.

It was a charming scene. And I wasn’t afraid.

I might not have had enough courage at first to pet Willie when he walked up to me and leaned against my leg, but I soon came to appreciate the trust he showed.

Later, as I stood there talking with Wylie and the others, Domino quietly approached me from behind and began nibbling on my ponytail.

“Well,” I lamely joked, “I need a haircut anyway.”

When I told my best friend about this later, she said it sounded like Domino had a lot of game. I agreed, and said a few more looks into those deep, brown eyes and I would have cut my ponytail off and given it to him.

At the beginning of the education program, Bittinger spoke about empathy and compassion and what it really means to care about someone or something. The group talked about who they care for in their lives, with a focus on family and, naturally, animals.

“It goes along with our lifestyle and our beliefs,” Schutzius said about the decision to attend the program with her son. The pair, who had never before visited the sanctuary, clearly enjoyed it. Toward the end of the program, Asher was asked if he’d like to come back. His answer was an immediate “Yes!”

“I’ve been to a lot of animal sanctuaries,” Bittinger said, “and (VINE) really stood out as special.”

It’s easy to see why.

Editor’s note: The next Pasture Pals program will be held on Aug. 1, from 1-4 p.m. Registration is encouraged, but not required. For more information visit www.vinesanctuary.org or e-mail sanctuary@bravebirds.org. VINE will also be holding a volunteer day from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 5. Registration is required. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at 603-727-3221 or esauchelli@vnews.com.