Cathy Gaynor's dream of becoming a veterinarian was quickly dashed in college when she was faced with killing a chicken for a science experiment and couldn't bring herself to do it.
She switched her major to English and psychology and taught for the next 12 years. But she couldn't shake the longing to work with animals.
Now, two months shy of her 40th birthday, the Elkridge woman is realizing a lifetime dream of caring for animals. In December, she opened a refuge and adoption operation for neglected and abused farm animals at her home near the Patapsco Valley State Park.
Heron Run Refuge Inc. shelters a 288-pound potbellied pig named Wilbur, a miniature donkey named Benjamin, four sheep, three dogs and four horses. Two more horses are due to arrive at the end of this month.
"She's a very compassionate person and you need a lot of that in this business," said Kathleen Schwartz, who runs Days End Farm Horse Rescue Inc. in Mount Airy. "She's a very kind and easy-going person, and the animals really relate to that."
Under Ms. Gaynor's care, animals who once suffered from malnutrition and parasites now thrive on 25 acres of secluded woodland.
One recent day, Wilbur the pig took shelter from the sweltering heat under a rhododendron in the front yard. He's so fat, his belly prevented him from walking up the five steps to the front door. To accommodate him, Ms. Gaynor built a wooden ramp up the stairs.
When he's not sleeping or digging up earth, Wilbur eats four cups of alfalfa pellets and vast quantities of fresh vegetables, including squash, lettuce and spinach. To keep his skin moist, he takes four children's chewable vitamins, two vitamin E capsules and three big capsules of fish oil every day.
Before he arrived at Ms. Gaynor's home nearly two years ago, Wilbur had gone through five owners by the time he was nine weeks old.
"He had been handed around and you couldn't touch him," Ms. Gaynor said. "He backed away."
She won Wilbur over by looking at the world from his perspective -- literally.
"I would get down with him on my elbows," Ms. Gaynor said. "I would sit for an hour or more each day."
Now, Wilbur stands patiently by his mistress, allowing her to feed him apple slices and stroke his bristly black hairs. Ms. Gaynor uses love, patience and understanding to befriend the animals.
"Never force, never push yourself," Ms. Gaynor said. "Wait for them to approach you. You can't let your ego get in the way."
Friends said Ms. Gaynor truly loves animals. Karen Stell, an Ellicott City vet, recalled the time Ms. Gaynor spent the night with a horse who was afraid of thunderstorms.
"She was afraid that he was lonely and needed the company of other ponies," Ms. Stell said. "I don't think I could do that."
That's not the first time Ms. Gaynor has slept with furry creatures. When she was 3 or 4 years old, she spent several nights with the family dog, who was suffering from arthritis.
"Animals have given me so much love and support," Ms. Gaynor said. "I grew up with such a respect for animals."
Ms. Gaynor collects her farm animals from a variety of sources. She got Wilbur from an Ellicott City veterinarian.
Benjamin the donkey came from a farm in Harford County. Ms. Gaynor suspects a man beat him with a 2-by-4 on the right side of his head. The donkey is so sensitive that he won't let anyone come near him.
"I can't brush him, I can't put fly spray on him," said Ms. Gaynor who spends 30 to 40 minutes with Benjamin each day. "He's gotten to the point where he'll take treats from me and let me pat him on the end of his nose."
She bought four sheep from a man who was planning to sell them for slaughter. Two of the sheep are 40 pounds
underweight. When Ms. Gaynor bought the 6-month-old lambs, they were suffering from bots, a parasite that burrows into animals' brains and nasal passages.
She estimates it will cost about $40,000 a year to operate the shelter. Right now, she is running the farm with financial help from her husband, Kevin, and money she saved from her teaching days.
In the next two months, she expects to gain non-profit status. In the meantime, she's soliciting donations. For a $20 membership fee, people "get the good feeling of helping animals and an occasional newsletter and free visitation rights" to the farm.
Before releasing animals to a home, Ms. Gaynor will inspect prospective owners' farm facilities and financial statements to determine if they earn enough to care for the animal.
She will also charge adoption fees and have prospective owners sign waivers giving up their rights to breed, sell or give away the animals.
"I've wanted to do this for a long time," Ms. Gaynor said. "This is my dream. I may go bankrupt, but I'm going to give it a shot."