Ellie Laks has been obsessed with animals her entire life.
“From the time I could walk, I was mucking around in the lake, playing with salamanders and watching the tadpoles turn into frogs, hanging out with bunny rabbits in the woods by my houses,” remembers Laks, who grew up in Boston, St. Louis and Connecticut.
By the age of 7, she was bringing home injured animals that she’d found, much to the dismay of her parents. Though they made her stop, Laks (pictured right) vowed that one day she would have a place full of animals she’d rescued.
In the interim, after her family moved to California, Laks got her degree in psychology and special education, tabling her dream for lack of know-how, not desire. About 15 years ago, she stumbled upon a petting zoo in Tarzana, Calif., that was in a terrible state, filled with abused and neglected animals. She blew the whistle, but it fell on deaf ears.
So she began rescuing animals from the place, starting with a baby goat. She want back for dogs, cats and chickens and other animals, and soon she had 50 animals in her half-acre yard, and the Gentle Barn was born. Four years later, Laks moved to a six-acre property in Santa Clarita, with a 15-acre healing center nearby.
But saving animals is just half of Gentle Barn’s mission.
“I was very lonely when I was a kid. Animals were my playmates, my teachers, my witnesses and my friends,” says Laks.
Once she started the Gentle Barn, she contacted inner-city schools, probation programs, alcohol and drug rehab centers and invited them to come. And they did — from field trips to scout troop visits, the Gentle Barn has visitors every day.
What transpires is transformative. “These kids are used to being told to sit down, shut up and behave. Nobody’s talking to them soul-to-soul. At the Gentle Barn we don’t talk at them. We want to know who they are, what their dreams are, what they think of themselves and the world,” Laks explains, “At the Gentle Barn there’s an animal that mirrors every child’s story, and they understand they’re not alone, because if the animal can make it, they can too.”
She tells the story of a boy who arrived in a group from an orphanage, a kid so angry and disruptive that his minders didn’t want to bring him; exactly the kind of child that Laks believes needs the Gentle Barn most. True to form, the boy remained aloof and hostile, unwilling to participate, until Laks began to talk about a miniature horse named Banzai who’d been abused by his alcoholic owner. Before she could even finish, the boy ran up to her, begging to hear it again, and then threw his arms around Banzai, whispering in his ear, "You’re going to be OK."
"Of course, he was really taking to himself," Laks says. "Slowly, that child got off his meds, stopped hurling desks through windows, started behaving in school and making friends, and started opening up with his therapist. Banzai the miniature horse saved his life.”
Laks’ current mission is to increase funding so that she can accommodate all the animals in need of rescue and all the youth and community groups who want to participate. She envisions a Gentle Barn in every state, and eventually, around the world, enabling people everywhere “to be able to cuddle a cow, hug a turkey, give a pig a tummy rub and learn that we’re all the same. We just look different.”
So she’s ramping up fundraising, starting with the release of her memoir, “My Gentle Barn,” which candidly delves both into her less-than-happy childhood, and her fulfilled life now as an animal advocate, wife and mother. She plans to write books for children and to develop a line of Gentle Barn kids’ products as well. The Gentle Barn is open to the public every Sunday, for a $10 suggested donation.
At a release party for the book at the Gardein meatless food products headquarters and kitchen in Venice, Calif., Laks marveled at how far she has come. “When I started the Gentle Barn, and it was just me in my backyard full of animals, I thought I couldn’t be happier. But now we have a staff of 12 and a thousand volunteers and we’re known all over the world and we’re able to affect so many people," Laks said. "I’m living my dream every day. And I’m so happy that I can inspire children to live theirs.”
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Photo courtesy of Ellie Laks