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Hugging it out with cows and sows

Jun 01, 2023

Alex, a sheep who lives at the Gentle Barn. Photo Courtesy of the Gentle Barn.

Ever wondered what it would be like to hug a cow?

Me neither, until the earnest folks at The Gentle Barn kind of insisted.

“You can’t come all the way out here and not hug a cow,” said Jay Weiner, who along with wife and Gentle Barn founder Ellie Laks runs Gentle Barn locations in three states. The Tennessee location is about an hour south of Nashville, in the Christiana community in Rutherford County.

If you can empty your mind of the fear of clasping a large animal to your bosom, not to mention feeling silly, the effect is, well, kind of pleasant.

Weiner thinks of cow-hugging as meditation.

“You’re with the animal with eyes closed and breathing deeply,” said Weiner, who radiates gentleness himself. “That animal is sitting there in a similar way.

“The word I use to describe it is meditation.”

On a visit to the 40-acre Tennessee location of The Gentle Barn on June 10, it was abundantly clear that Weiner and his staff relate to all animals with the affection most people reserve for their pet dogs or cats. The cows, pigs, peacocks, emus, parrots, donkeys and alpacas at the Gentle Barn are all treated as individuals with feelings and rights, the most important being not being served as breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Although most of the staff and volunteers are vegan — meaning they don’t eat animals or animal derived products — they are not in-your-face about it to the people who book private tours or visit on Sundays, when most visitors are welcomed.

“I personally have been vegetarian (abstaining from meat) since seventh grade,” said Terry Barkley, program specialist at The Gentle Barn in Tennessee. “I learned that baby cows have to be taken away from their moms to make milk, which I didn’t know, and all these things about the egg industry that are horrible. … I decided the summer after my freshman year of college I was going to transition from vegetarian to veganism.”

Instead of the hard sell, The Gentle Barn employees and volunteers just want people to experience animals with a new perspective, figuring the rest will follow.

Animal therapy has gained acceptance. Many hospitals now allow dogs to visit to comfort patients, and some colleges do the same during final exams.

“You can shed off depression, loneliness, feelings of anxiety,” Weiner said. “We already know how amazing animals are to humans as far as a healing capacity.”

Cows can’t visit people in hospitals. But visitors can encounter them at The Gentle Barn, and Weiner says he’s seen people’s lives changed by cow therapy. Pigs too, although it’s better to settle for belly rubs with them rather than full hugs.

A 2011 study in Norway, “Animal-assisted Therapy with Farm Animals for Persons with Psychiatric Disorders,” found that “animal-assisted therapy with farm animals for humans with psychiatric disorders may reduce depression … and increase self-efficacy in many participants.”

Grady Lunenschloss, 3, didn’t appear depressed, but he is obsessed with farm animals, said his mom, Lucy Lunenschloss, who runs an eating disorder clinic in Nashville. So for Grady’s birthday, they booked a family tour at The Gentle Barn in Tennessee. Their party had three children 4-years-old and under.

“I was trying to find something to give him experience with animals,” Crystal Lunenschloss said. “I looked on (The Gentle Barn) website and we booked the family tour immediately.

“The day has been perfect,” she said. “It’s not crowded and we got up close with the animals and just didn’t feel rushed or anything, but just really connecting with animals.”

The Gentle Barn was founded in 1999 by Laks on a half-acre of land in the San Fernando Valley of California. She was inspired by a visit to a petting zoo that didn’t treat its animals correctly, in her opinion.

“She was bee-lining for the door, and a goat got in her way and basically told her, ‘Help me,’” Weiner said. “She took the goat home, healed the goat and brought pictures back to the petting zoo and said, ‘Look, if you have other animals that need help, no questions asked, please give them to me.’”

Eventually, Laks had 45 animals in her backyard, leading to the founding of the California Gentle Barn.

Weiner joined up as a volunteer in 2002. He and Laks fell in love and married.

“My first interaction with Ellie was in the barnyard, and she had been facing the other way,” Weiner recalled. “When she turned around, she had a big steaming pile of poop in her hands.”The poop anecdote reminds Weiner of something that bothers him.

“They don’t want to live in their filth,” he said of animals. “For example, this misconception that pigs are dirty is just so far from the truth. They don’t ever, ever poop in their stalls. As a matter of fact, you can cause trouble for them if you don’t let them out because they won’t go to the bathroom in their stalls.”

The rule at The Gentle Barn is, “The way that you would want to live is the way that they want to live.”

As already stated, The Gentle Barn doesn’t lecture on the merits of veganism or vegetarianism. They do, however, have an agenda.

“We find ourselves to be advocates of a way of thinking and a proven lifestyle that promotes more health, more life and also support for our planet,” Weiner said. “It’s just kindness.

“There’s nothing kind about killing an animal, no matter how anyone decides they’re going to do it.”

About 500 people visit the three locations of The Gentle Barn (Tennessee, St. Louis and Santa Clarita in California) each week. Family tours of up to 10 people cost $400. One-hour cow-hugging therapy or building confidence with horses’ sessions cost $200. There are a variety of other programs and experiences available.

Jim Patterson is a freelance writer in Nashville. See more of his work at