Sue Hewitt meets a woman on a mission to change the way we think about livestock.

IN a heartbeat, the truck loses control, metal screeching on
bitumen as it rolls, violently tumbling its cargo of terrified sheep.Skidding on
its side, the truck smashes into the overpass guardrail, spilling sheep on to
the highway about 10 metres below. The sickening cries of the livestock will
soon be silenced.

Of 400 animals, only one survives. “She is one lucky sheep,” says Pam Ahern, the woman who adopted the ewe, before correcting herself. “That sheep is a miracle.”

Named after the ‘‘unsinkable’’ Molly Brown, a human survivor of the Titanic disaster, the sheep has cheated death twice. The truck was heading to the abattoir when it rolled on the Western Ring Road overpass at Laverton North on May 31. Witnesses recall it ‘‘raining’’ sheep on to the Princes Highway and cars below.

Molly was found alive a day later and taken to the Lost Dogs’ Home in North Melbourne, where surgeons repaired a gash to her head. She made international news, but after the spotlight faded, the question arose about what to do with an animal bred for the dinner table, not the backyard.

Ahern had already faced and answered that question. In 2003, she set up Edgar’s Mission, a sanctuary for neglected and unwanted farm animals, named after her first rescued pig, Edgar Alan Pig. Edgar was bought as a piglet for a photoshoot with actor and animal activist James Cromwell, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Farmer Hoggett in the 1995 hit movie Babe.

He joined Ahern and other animal lovers in a campaign to improve the treatment of farmed pigs, but after the publicity the group had to find a home for Edgar.

It seemed natural for Ahern to turn her hobby farm into an animal sanctuary. Edgar became the founding resident and ambassador, walking Melbourne’s streets on a lead and visiting schools until his death in 2010. 

‘‘Edgar really changed everything. Most people have a special animal in their hearts, mine just happened to be a pig,’’ says Ahern. ‘‘But it was not enough to save one animal when, in 100 years’ time, people will still be doing the same senseless things to farm animals unless you educate them.’’

So Ahern quit he job as a factory hand at a chocolate plant in Broadford and set up the not-for-profit mission. The sanctuary is on 24 hectares at Willowmavin, outside Kilmore in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range.

About 2000 people, including about 30 school groups, visit by appointment each year, while Ahern takes her mobile farm to another 30 schools.  ‘‘I never charge for anything because I believe in the power of kindness,’’ she says. ‘‘We don’t want the work we do to be cost-prohibitive, and we don’t want to put a dollar figure on a life-changing experience. Somehow, we get by on donations.’’

The sanctuary is home to 250 neglected or unwanted livestock and it is their stories, told along a ‘‘kindness trail’’, that Ahern hopes will change the way people treat livestock and all animals. Chickens, goats, cows, horses, sheep, a handful of dogs and Percy the dumped peacock are among the animals whose purpose at the sanctuary is to teach.

‘‘The greatest challenge is to get people to think,’’ says Ahern. ‘‘The choices we make, like buying cheap eggs, make farmers decide how the animals are treated.’’

She says the plight of most livestock, from caged chickens to failed racehorses, mostly goes unnoticed, but Molly the sheep’s story resonated with the public. ‘‘People everywhere were touched by Molly’s plight but millions of other farm animals aren’t that lucky,’’ Ahern says.

 ‘‘Molly’s wonderful story lives on and it will be told when people come to see her. I am personally touched by her ability to survive and her capacity to forgive humans and what they have done to her.’’

When Molly arrived at the mission, she was greeted by Timmy, who was found by a roadside as a week-old lamb in 2007 and was nursed by Ahern’s fireside. The two sheep bonded but Molly was scared of people. ‘‘She was terrified by humans but has slowly learnt to trust us,’’ Ahern says. ‘‘Now Molly comes up to you and eats out of your hand.’’

As if on command, the sheep with the ‘‘Zorro’’ scar on her forehead appears and accepts a Weetbix.  Molly and Timmy follow as we walk around the farm learning the other residents’ stories of hardship and hope.

Captain Midnight was a backyard chicken who grew into a rooster, much to the annoyance of his owner’s suburban neighbours. But at Edgar’s Mission he struts his stuff along with fellow roosters, the Two Ronnies, whose vocal abilities also resulted in them being dumped. ‘‘For every laying hen born there is a dead rooster; they have no value as a production animal,’’ Ahern says.

A lack of commercial value meant Samson the horse was abandoned as a colt. His sire was unknown and his mother was taken away to feed a more valuable thoroughbred foal. Samson came to the sanctuary last year, along with Monty, a miniature pony dumped because he was ‘‘not miniature enough’’, and Misty the one-eyed horse, who was heading to the knackery before she found a new home at the mission.

Dotted along the so-called kindness trail are quotes such as this one from French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “Many have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget it. You remain responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.’’

Several of the 44 tame piglets used to play Wilbur in the film Charlotte’s Web also live at Edgar’s Mission. Burpy walked the red carpet at the movie’s world premiere at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre with Hollywood star Dakota Fanning. In 2006, he was about the size of a small cat. Now he weighs more than 300 kilograms.

Another “Wilbur’’ is Mrs Peaches, who doesn’t let her 320-kilogram bulk stop her getting up close for a scratch. I am taken aback when this very big pig purses her lips and greets me. ‘‘Ooohwah,’ she says, then bows, adding, ‘‘Brrhup’’. ‘‘She’s actually talking to you,’’ Ahern says. ‘‘People come here and say that they can go to a zoo to see exotic animals, but they have never met farm animals; never realised they have feelings.’’

I decide I must respond to Mrs Peaches, saying ‘‘Nggo’’. But obviously there is a translation error and I have unwittingly said ‘‘bacon’’. Mrs Peaches demonstrates her disgust by turning her big rump towards me and urinating. A treat saves the day and there is Ahern scratching the giant porker, who sits like a dog begging for more.

Aside from former Hollywood stars, there are pet pigs who outgrew their suburban backyards. ‘‘There are no real miniature pigs in Australia,’’ she says. ‘‘All breeds grow to hundreds of kilograms.’’

But it’s not only rescued pets that find their way to the farm. Farmers themselves are bringing their former charges. “The great chicken rescue’’ began in the second week of July with a phone call from a retiring farmer, who no longer had the stomach for caging chickens to meet the demand for cheap eggs.

Hundreds of chickens arrived for rehabilitation. All but a few ‘‘special needs’’ birds have been adopted out as pets. ‘‘See how they lift their feet, afraid to put them down? They have never walked before,’’ says Ahern. She lifts a chicken up in a hug, holding its feet and embracing it to her chest. ‘‘This girl’s neck feathers have been worn off when she has been sticking her neck through the wire to feed,’’ she says.

As part of the mission’s education campaign, Ahern takes a wire cage measuring about a metre square to schools and invites several children to squeeze inside. ‘‘Then they know what it is like to be a caged hen,’’ she says. ‘‘If you say it’s only a chook and it doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t take much more for you to say it’s only a black person, only a woman, only a Jew. Once we say only, our hearts shut down to another being and we can excuse senseless violence. The greatest obstacle is getting people to think.’’

Ordinary citizens are starting to offer help. A Whittlesea resident who found a newborn lamb by the roadside, its umbilical cord still attached, took him to the vet. Now living at the mission, the lamb is an energetic ball of fleece with gammy front legs, twisted during a difficult birth, but they are growing stronger and straighter.

He is called Alan Marshall, after the author of I Can Jump Puddles, the story of his childhood growing up with a disability. ‘‘The saviour of Alan was a testament to the human heart; someone was driving along and saw an animal in need and stopped to help,’’ says Ahern.

She says it is the animals who will help educate the public. ‘‘We don’t preach. We let people see farm animals as living beings and let them decide,’’ she says. ‘‘I truly believe no one would willingly wish to cause an animal harm; we just don’t think about the consequences of our choices.’’ 

Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary will host a World Animal Day event on Sunday, October 7. Other visits are by appointment only. Details: Edgar’s Mission.