Pot-bellied pig

A very special farm experience awaits those who make the trip out to Big Sky Ranch Animal Sanctuary. Founded by Andy Parent, this Kemptville-area farm has taken in over 1500 unwanted and abused animals since 2002. Unlike most animal sanctuaries, the refuge takes in not only cats and dogs, but also horses, pigs, cows, goats, reindeer, and even bison. At any one time, there are usually about 150 animals on site, most of whom are available for adoption.

I met Andy Parent on a sunny fall day in September. He arrived from a back field on his ATV, followed by five dogs of varying sizes, including the boss of the pack, a little white maltese mix. Although I hadn’t called ahead, Andy was very welcoming and took the time to introduce me to the sanctuary and its history.

Andy Parent bought the 25.5 acre property as a hobby farm, a place to retreat from his busy life as a successful property manager in Ottawa. But it wasn’t long before he started taking in animals that had nowhere else to go, especially larger farm animals that didn’t fit into regular rescue protocols.

For two years, Andy funded the sanctuary himself, going as far as using up his RRSP funds and the proceeds from the sale of a house in Ottawa. In 2004, out of money and now devoting himself full-time to the sanctuary, Andy turned to the community for help. With significant media and community exposure, donations started coming in, and are now the sole means of support for the sanctuary.

Visitors are welcome at the farm from Tuesday to Friday (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and Saturdays and Sundays (10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.). If you book ahead, Andy or a volunteer can give you a guided tour. Or you can do as I did, which is to drop by and walk around the farm on your own. The volunteers are very friendly, and are happy to answer any questions that you have.

While you’re there, you’ll see a few of the permanent residents, such as the bison who was rescued from a farm where he spent each day standing knee-deep in mud. The owner was planning to sell the bison for meat, so some concerned animal-lovers pooled their money and bought the animal at market rates. Now he lives at the sanctuary, spending his days grazing with the other farm animals.

Other farm residents include goats, ducks, geese, reindeer, an alpaca-llama cross, miniature and full-size horses, and a 1200-pound pig that was purchased as a baby “pot-bellied pig”.  Andy is also the animal control officer for the area, so there are a number of kennels with impounded dogs waiting to be adopted or picked up by their owners.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to spend some time with Andy, who was described by a Globe and Mail reporter as sounding like “a cross between Oprah and the Dalai Lama”. He’s a remarkable man; a former foster child and ward of the Crown, he deeply cares for not only the animals, but his fellow man. Seniors, schoolchildren, troubled teens, and abused women have all benefited from his various community programs. His philosophy is that we only live once and must make it count, which is all the more poignant given that Andy Parent is terminally ill with chronic leukemia, and does not know how long he has left in this world. But as he told me, he has never been happier in his life, and each day is a joy.

Location: 810 Pelton Road in Peltons Corner (Kemptville)

Phone Number: 613-258-7118 or 1-866-433-7118

Web site: http://www.bigskyranch.ca

Reservations: Not required, but call ahead if you want a guided tour

Hours: Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m, Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., closed Mondays

Cost: Free, but please provide a donation if you visit