Farm that rescued abused animals in Brandon struggling financially
BENSON/BRANDON — It’s been exactly five months since police seized more than 400 animals at a farm on Kimball Road in Brandon. So, what happened to them?
The answer lies at Kinder Way Sanctuary in Benson, where the animals are thriving, but the cost of their care is taking a toll.
While several goats, pigs and sheep taken on Jan. 31 from the Kimball Road farm were given to local foster families immediately following the seizure, most of the animals, including hundreds of birds, were taken in by Kinder Way. In an agreement with the state’s attorney’s office, Kinder Way owners Erika and Mark Gutel agreed to become the umbrella nonprofit to take in the animals when William Hegarty, 54, surrendered ownership prior to his arraignment on animal welfare charges. The Kimball Road property owner pleaded not guilty to two counts of animal cruelty.
Police executed a search warrant and the condition of the animals and the neglect described by authorities shocked area residents. The case made regional news, but has not seen the inside of a courtroom since Hegarty’s February arraignment thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most court proceedings have been put on hold until the pandemic eases, although more proceedings are being held via video conferencing. There are no court dates related to the Hegarty case as of this writing.
It is not the first time animals owned either by Hegarty or his wife Suzanne have been taken by authorities, leading to a call for a change to state animal welfare laws.
In 2000, the Addison County Humane Society seized one of the Hegartys’ horses from an East Middlebury property because it showed signs of being underweight, according to court documents. No criminal charges were filed, and the horse was returned less than two weeks later after receiving veterinary attention.
In 2008, officers from the Rutland County Sheriff's Department took roughly 100 animals from the Kimball Road farm and a farm in Hubbardton owned by the Hegartys following a three-week investigation. The animals included cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets, doves, goats, Shetland ponies and roughly 60 horses.
Suzanne Hegarty pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty in that case and accepted a plea deal in exchange for an eight-year deferred sentence and probation. She was allowed to keep 17 of her pets and livestock but was not allowed to breed animals, was ordered to spay and neuter her pets, and make monthly veterinarian visits.
Still, the current Hegarty case is high in the minds of many area residents, including Michael Shank of Brandon, who adopted several goats, and their offspring from Kinder Way — goats that were seized from the Hegarty farm. In fact, Shank has become a vocal advocate for the sanctuary and changing state animal welfare laws to prevent another Kimball Road occurrence.
Two weeks ago, one of those goats died from anemia caused by parasites after deworming failed to prevent worms.
“When feces is mixed with food, which I understand describes the conditions at the Kimball Farm, that’s how an animal gets worms,” he said. “She died in my arms.”
But Shank said he knew the Gutels had witnessed so many more tragic deaths of animals that had been seized from the Hegarty farm in the last five months.
“Mark and Erika have such big hearts and there has been such an injustice here, and you’ve got a big need to fix the injustice,” Shank said. “We have an obligation as a community and as a state to support them financially.”
BARELY GETTING BY
The last five months have not been easy for the Gutels, who are struggling to pay their bills, including their mortgage, and have spent thousands of dollars caring for the animals they took in. When the pandemic hit in March, they were forced to close their café, Kinder Way Coffee House in Castleton, their main source of income. Mark is working a few part-time jobs here and there, and more people are visiting the farm
The Gutels have three children, Sara, 15, Mason, 12, and Noah, 3. They practice what they preach and are a vegan family, meaning they do not eat any animal products, including dairy and eggs.
Still, they feed the animals before they feed themselves. They run a coffee house out a food trailer in the barnyard and another one in the barn under the silo.
Kinder Way is open to the public and welcomes visitors each weekend. There is yoga offered on Sunday mornings, and the Facebook page is constantly updated with bucolic scenes, adorable baby farm animals and slice-of-farm-life videos. The farm encompasses 20 acres of rolling meadows and another 10 acres of leased land with a large farmhouse and two barns. Myriad chickens, ducks and turkeys roam the barnyard freely, pigs grunt from the nearby pasture where they graze with goats. Roosters crow randomly despite the hour.
“It’s exciting because customers come out every weekend and support us,” Mark said. “This place is special. I think humanity is looking for a little compassion and I think that’s the way we change things, through compassion, not power.”
The Gutels weren’t supposed to end up with as many animals as they did, but offers from others to take animals fell through or didn’t materialize. There were a few places that stepped up, but the Gutels ended up with 250 of the Kimball Road animals.
“Not only did we take in all these animals, they were all sick, they were all pregnant and they were all intact,” Erika said, meaning they were not neutered.
Most of the females were pregnant and most of the males were unneutered. Babies started coming in March, all the way up to last week when one of the turkeys gave birth to a clutch of eight chicks.
“It’s really hard to adopt out a farm sanctuary animal because by adopting you have to agree not to sell, kill, breed or give away this animal,” Erika said.
Every day visitors ask about the animals and how they came to the farm, and every day the Gutels tell the story of Kimball Road. They have had heartbreaking moments, like when one of the sows died of pneumonia that had gone untreated prior to arriving at the sanctuary.
“She drowned in her own blood, and all we could do was watch,” Erika said. “It was absolutely horrible.”
“Since this rescue, I have jumped more on our cause than ever before,” Mark said. “I will protect these animals. They have been though it and they’ve had enough. Now, they’re happy and lazy and grateful.”
And while they have struggled both emotionally and financially, the Gutels say they would do it all again.
“We’re normally quiet about it,” Mark said of their troubles. “We do what needs to be done. I think the point is, this should have never happened. There should have been laws in place to make sure this doesn’t happen where you can cripple a resource like us.”
The Gutels continue to be grateful for the visitors to the farm and the community support they are getting.
“The community likes what we stand for, and everybody wants to stand for something,” Mark said. “It gives them something to root for. Some of this is negative, but you can pull the positive out of it. I will not lose this farm.”
They both paused, then Erika said she remembered an appropriate phrase going back to the Greeks.
“They tried to bury us,” she said with a smile. “They did not know we were seeds.”
A GoFundMe fundraising campaign that began in February for Kinder Way has been resurrected; it is at gofundme.com/f/help-support-kinder-way-farm-sanctuary. To contact Kinder Way, visit the Facebook page.