Six beady eyes were set, intently focused on my hand. There was only one small piece of apple to go around, and three beaks wanted it. My fellow volunteers were gathered around me, encouraging me to extend my palm to feed the prehistoric birds that stood almost eye to eye with me. I reached my open hand forward then quickly retracted from the frenzy of pecking was about to go down. I chickened out.
But, I wasn’t the only one who was nervous around the birds.
Last time Rox Chwaluk, co-curricular record and volunteerism coordinator, and organizer of the March 18 community project visited the Ranch, she too was frightened of the emus. Before reaching our destination that morning, Chewaluk asked the team of 15 volunteers to set a goal for themselves before arriving at the ranch. Hers was to pet an emu.
“No one goal is better than another,” said Chwaluk.
As Andy Parent, owner and founder of Big Sky Ranch, stood beside the gated emu pen he stroked the neck of the bird, explaining how they are misunderstood because of their scaly skin and greasy feathers. It amazed me how gently the creatures were behaving towards him and others who got close enough to touch them.
The emus account for four of the 122 animals that were saved by Big Sky Ranch, the only no-kill animal sanctuary of it’s kind in Ontario. Every one of them that now call the ranch home was taken in after being abandoned.
“We believe that all animals deserve a second chance without a time limit,” said Parent.
Although Parent never intended to start an animal rescue, the position found him. After buying the farm in 2002 to teach his sons to horseback ride, animals began arriving on his doorstep— brought to him by neighbours and strangers who either found abandoned animals or could no longer care for their own.
“Most of it is common sense. Animals are a lot like people,” said Parent. “They can be shy.”
The group saw this first hand when we arrived at the ranch. It was strangely quiet and there were no animals in sight. The students anxiously shuffled in the cold air awaiting instructions to how the day would unfold.
Then Sasha, the German Shepherd-lab mix came running toward the group, tail wagging.
Sasha arrived at the ranch the previous week. She was left on the side of a country road, found by a neighbor and brought to the ranch. She was a playful and friendly welcoming committee and gave the student volunteers their first interaction with an animal for the day.
Parent stroked Sasha’s head. “It’s amazing how animals are always willing to forgive,” he said.
The day unfolded with small groups of volunteers breaking into teams. Some cleaned the sheep’s pen, some walked the dogs and some, like Keemiya Nara, first-year human resources student, volunteered to feed the animals breakfast. Nara initially joined the project for the animal interaction but left feeling a greater sense of accomplishment than she expected.
“I loved every second of it,” said Nara. “I grew up learning that if you help one another it helps the whole world.”
As a registered non-profit organization Big Sky Ranch runs on donations from the public, time from volunteers and a whole lot of respect for animals. Programs like Algonquin’s community projects aim to help organizations meet their needs and accomplish their mission.