A peaceful animal kingdom: Local couple rescues animals in need

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KOHALA — Nestled among the pastoral hills of North Kohala, partially submerged in a shroud of mist, sits a little slice of heaven owned by Doreen and Michael Virtue.

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KOHALA — Nestled among the pastoral hills of North Kohala, partially submerged in a shroud of mist, sits a little slice of heaven owned by Doreen and Michael Virtue.

The couple was in search of more room for family — both human and the animal kind — when they found and bought their unique home and 47-acre parcel of land on Hawaii Island. They moved there from Maui last year.

At the time, the family consisted of just Doreen, Michael and a few beloved pets: a small but eclectic collection of dogs, cats and chickens, four horses, two miniature horses, a few pygmy goats and a parrot named Sprout.

But even with a small animal kingdom, the move presented a problem.

“We knew we had only two options to get them here: by boat, which is slow and not very pleasant for animals, or by plane. And not a lot of airlines want to haul goats, chickens or even parrots,” Doreen said. “Our Maui friends were all laughing at us and said, ‘Just leave the chickens,’ but we couldn’t. We love them.”

And so, in a modern-day rendition of Noah’s ark, the adventure began. The animals were transported to Hawaii Island one by one in the back of a single prop Cessna 170.

It was an apropos and auspicious beginning for a home and family destined to become an animal sanctuary in little more than a year. Michael and Doreen call their new home the Avalon Animal Sanctuary, “just like the mists of Avalon.” Their intent for the property is to have a place that’s safe for animals who need rescuing, who are nonaggressive and who need a little love and TLC.

Whether by happenstance or divine intervention, ranch residents now include their original pets to which they’ve added rescued cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, geese and roosters. There’s also a couple alpaca and a pair of peacocks named Simon and Garfunkel.

Even at a young age, Michael and Doreen were focused on animals. He rescued cats, and she remembers bottle-feeding kittens as a child. She also had a pet skunk named Flower, and loved horses.

Her first job was mucking stalls at a Shetland pony farm in Vista, California in exchange for riding. At age 12, she organized a campaign to protest the shooting of wild mustangs in the Midwest because they were grazing on land needed for cows.

Fast forward to today and the two still cannot bear the thought of any animal being mistreated, abandoned or slaughtered for food. They are vegan — initially for health reasons, but also in visceral response to the butchering process.

Each animal at the sanctuary has a name and all are known by Doreen and Michael, who spend as much time as they can with the animals daily.

“We touch them, feel them, handle them and feed them, making sure they feel wanted and loved,” Michael said.

Not only is it fun to be around them, he added, it’s also important for the animals to feel comfortable around humans, should they ever need medical care or transport.

The animals’ lives today are a far cry from their pasts when each faced maltreatment, slaughter or were simply victims of situations when their owners no longer wanted them, could no longer care for them or both. The sheep, for example, were rescued from a wool farm in Waimea. Doreen and Michael saw an ad on Craigslist for lambs being sold for slaughter.

“The lambs were tiny little things, so cute, and the ad said ‘juicy legs,’” Doreen shudders. “I thought, ‘We have the room for them,’” so they drove their horse trailer there, loaded it with as many lambs as they could and brought them home.

With lambs raised for wool, if they don’t produce the right kind of wool or enough wool, they’re slaughtered, Doreen learned.

“I had no idea. I knew shearing can be painful for the animal but I didn’t realize there is a culling process,” she said. “The sheep don’t crave food as much as they crave affection and they’re also low-maintenance. We’re used to animals who are like ‘feed me, feed me’ but the sheep are like ‘pet me, pet me.’ Now we understand why they’re a symbol of Jesus. They’re so sweet.”

The sanctuary’s pig population started with Missy, another animal advertised for slaughter on Craigslist.

“There was this ad with a pig dressed in a dress, sitting on a satin pillow,” Michael remembered. “The ad said, ‘will make a good pet or a good graduation feast.’”

“A pig who sits on a satin pillow does not belong on a spit,” Doreen thought.

Upon rescuing Missy, they had one pig. But feral boars visited in the night, so soon they had six. Last December, they woke up to find 16 domesticated pigs on their driveway. The pigs had wandered down from a farm above.

“I saw them and instantly knew they came here for a city of refuge,” Doreen said. “Pigs are smarter than dogs and they knew they were being raised for slaughter elsewhere.”

The pigs were purchased from their owner and the males have since been neutered, as must be all males that come into the sanctuary. The only other “rule” is the animals must get along.

“If any animal harms another, they’re out of here,” Doreen said. “We want a peaceful animal kingdom.”

There are countless other touching stories of how animals have arrived at the sanctuary. Noah, a rescued calf, had been found lying next to his mother in a ditch in Waikoloa. His mother had died but Noah was rescued and carried out on horseback by locals. When they could no longer care for him, they contacted Doreen and Michael. He bottle-fed Noah for weeks and also laid by him on the front lawn at 2:30 a.m. to comfort him when he was crying for his mother.

A senior horse came when his owner got too old and couldn’t care for him anymore. Two miniature horses were a little girl’s pets until she got older and was bored with them.

The sanctuary is self-funded but as one might imagine, the feed bill is tremendously expensive. There are also three full-time ranch hands to support, and a contractor who helps with the fencing.

“We’re not a charity so we have to work to make the money,” Doreen says. “It’s enormously expensive and time-consuming, but we love each and every one of the animals so much.”

Doreen toured for 25 years on stage so she has a lot of stage clothes and jewelry she’s been selling on eBay. What she makes in one month of selling approximately 60 items is just about enough to cover the monthly feed bill.

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No matter the cost, every animal is loved and every one receives care.

“It’s all about managing things so the animals have enough to eat, are safe, have their medical and are protected from outsiders,” Doreen said, adding that any animal looking for refuge deserves it. “If you show up here it’s like the place of refuge. If you get here, you’re safe.”