Memories of his grandfather’s farm in Poland haunt Ernest Smuga.
He was a child then, but even now Ernest can still remember animals being slaughtered in front of him. Animals were a resource in his family, Smuga also had an uncle working as a taxidermist, and it was only years later as an adult he realized the trauma he’d suffered on the farm.
“That really impacted me as a child,” says Ernest. “It didn’t really come out until I realized there was no reason for it.”
Ernest, who works as a web developer, has his own farm now. It doesn’t produce any food, but that’s the point.
The Smuga family, which includes Ernest’s wife Patricia, nine-year-old Sofia, five-year-old Phoenix and one-year-old Bodhi, have started Cici Life Farm Sanctuary, a refuge for abused or neglected farm animals located outside Winlaw.
The non-profit farm is already a busy place despite only being in operation for just over a month. There’s Terry Cox, a rooster with a deformed foot, who shares a coop with chickens Acorn and Walnut. Patricia the Goat is followed by her twin boys Pender and Island, while Ellie the Potbelly Pig is waiting for Ernest and Phoenix to finish her new house.
Eighteen animals currently live at the farm, and more are on the way. The BC SPCA is asking the family to take seven more animals, including a llama, a horse and more pigs. The Smugas want to expand, but they need help.
“Right now we’re at capacity because we don’t have a barn we can put them in,” said Ernest. “The BC SPCA guy who came around said that it was OK because a tree is considered shelter for some animals. But the thing is, we want these animals to come to a place where it is a sanctuary. It’s not just a place where we dump a bunch of animals.
“We want to take care of them. We want to make sure they are healthy and happy and thriving. So a barn would be essential for that. Then also to feed the animals, because right now everything is coming from my pocket.”
To make the farm work, they are asking for public support. In addition to the larger barn, which will replace a small one they currently have and Ernest estimates will cost $15,000, the family also needs hay for the winter, electric fencing to protect the farm from bears and money to pay for transport of larger animals like horses to the farm. Right now they have one volunteer, but could use a few more.
There are no other sanctuaries like Cici Life in the Kootenay-Boundary.
Blewett farmer Helen Jameson, last year’s Citizen of the Year, has cared for injured wildlife since 1966. But whereas Jameson works with conservation officers to care for animals such as deer, cougars and birds, the Smugas are focused on animals who were bred for the slaughterhouse.
“It’s not even just farm animals,” said Patricia. “Our pets are dogs from breeders. The trophy hunts, the rodeos, the entertainment, the captive whales, it’s global abuse of animals, and completely not being conscious of the fact that maybe they are also just creatures put on this Earth for whatever reason they are here.”
Farm animal abuse made headlines last month when a video captured employees kicking, throwing and tearing apart chickens on a Chilliwack farm.
Finding homes for neglected farm animals is difficult. Ernest says some local farms will take animals, but there’s nothing to prevent them from flipping the same animals to slaughterhouses.
“There’s already so many shelters for dogs and cats, so we don’t need to help with that very much,” says Ernest. “But for farm animals, if there’s nobody around to take them then they have nowhere to go, and if they go somewhere then it’s probably not going to be a very good situation for them anyway.”
Ernest and Patricia had been toying with the idea of a sanctuary for several years.
The family were living in Lublin, Poland, where Patricia was going to medical school when they adopted their first dog Jaggy. Another named Kiki soon followed, and when they moved back to Canada the family visited sanctuaries in Ontario. They were mortified by what they learned.
“When we realized what was going on and really opened our eyes to the world of factory farming, it became really hard to deal with seeing all this suffering that people are contributing to, whether willingly or non-willingly, because it’s a very masked subject,” says Patricia, who named the farm to honour her animal-loving mother Cecilia.
“You don’t really see what goes on in these slaughterhouses, you don’t really see the abuse, you don’t see the way these animals are treated. You just see the package that you buy in the store and it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong.”
Aside from providing a safe place for their animals, the farm has also become different in another way from the one in Ernest’s memories — it’s brought him closer to his son Phoenix.
In addition to Ellie’s house, the pair have also built a fence, changed hay and worked on their barn. The only quality time Ernest remembers with his own father was when he got to work with him.
“Then I realized a couple days ago, wow, the same thing is happening again,” he says. “The same story is happening. So now I’m going to teach Phoenix all the stuff that I know.”
And maybe make some happier memories along the way.