Keeping them down on the farm is not a problem

Livestock: Terry Cummings and Dave Hoerauf have turned their leased 400 acres into a safe haven.

October 04, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

POOLESVILLE -- This is no way to start a story. There is no medal or certificate of appreciation attached to the iron gate at mailbox No. 15200. There's nothing to reward a Baltimore traveler for actually finding the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in this ruralsville known as Poolesville.

But we enter, and a dirt road dirties our plucky Volvo (once, a woman got her Mercedes stuck in a cornfield as she searched for Poplar Spring). The road finally empties before barns and barn-like things and animals. Animal animals -- not cats in windowsills or Labradors in heat or gerbils treading in exercise wheels.

"Did you see any cows on the way in?" asks Terry Cummings, a woman nearly 40 with untamed red hair and sensible farm boots. The cows, her cows, have wandered off to munch elsewhere on this 400-acre sanctuary for livestock, as all creatures are wont to do.

"The grass is always greener," Cummings says without question.

Cummings and her husband, Dave Hoerauf, run the 3-year-old, nonprofit animal sanctuary with the uneven help of volunteers. Today, Cummings is a lone speck of human on all this succulent land. The volunteers don't work Mondays, and Dave is in some barn doing some barn work.

Terry (when you step in as many cow patties as we do today, last names are too formal) offers a tour of the farm and of her life. She makes all the usual introductions you'd expect from someone who has devoted her life to saving the very creatures we eat at McDonald's and at Thanksgiving.

"This is Chester."

Chester the rooster, that is. Dashing comb. Chester has a harem of chickens. "We get a lot of chickens from D.C.," Terry says. "There's a big Santeria following." Apparently, the voodoo religion calls not only for poultry sacrifice but for chicken release in cemeteries. Poplar Spring gets its animals any which way.

"This is Alice."

A top-heavy turkey that follows Terry and Dave everywhere. Part-dog, maybe. Alice, found wandering in Frederick and now wandering here, could be the sanctuary's mascot. "She's a real cool bird," Terry says. Visitors quickly find themselves stooping to pet and talk with a turkey named Alice.

"This is Linus."

In the hog pen, Linus the pig snuffles under a heavy blanket, air from his fist-sized nostrils kicks up dust. His broken leg isn't getting better; the infection is spreading. One of 22 pigs brought here last year after a livestock truck flipped over, Linus might have to be put down.

"We need to make a decision," Dave says, more to Terry than to us. She nods. She knows. Even in the animal-saving business, death is part of the deal. (Two days later, Linus was put down.)

"That's Virginia," Terry says.

She means Virginia the state, which dents the horizon in the form of 11 high-rises for retirees. Even 400 acres of farm can't escape progress. "The city is coming to us," she says, as a jet sounds like it's landing at our feet. "That's Dulles. We're in the flight path." Shoo planes, shoo.

Raised in nearby Hyattsville, Terry received a degree in animal science from the University of Maryland before becoming a veterinary technician at the National Zoo in Washington. She met Dave, her future husband, in high school. He studied zoology at the University of Maryland. They studied each other quite a bit, too, and were married 14 years ago.

Twelve years ago, they settled on this farm and still lease the land (buying this multimillion-dollar tract in Montgomery County is a bit out of their game plan). One routine day on the farm, they watched a truck back up to the hog shed. The very pigs Dave and Terry had come to feed, name and love were sent for slaughter. One part of their brains knew, of course, that hamburgers and ham sandwiches don't fall from the sky. But another part of them was stunned, awakened.

So begins what people do with the rest of their lives. "I always wanted to live on a farm," Terry says, "but not kill any animals."

There were many places for abandoned dogs and cats, but nobody seemed to care about saving livestock, Dave and Terry thought. What if they used the farm as a shelter? Bring us your tired and poor bovines, your retired harness-racing horses, your one-horned Nubian goats (one later to be named Heidi), your veal calves, your herniated hogs and frisky roosters.

"Our parents thought we were insane," Terry says. "They kept saying, `What do you mean save farm animals? Save them from what?' "

It's about choices. Dave and Terry chose to save as much livestock as their barns could hold. And, yes, they are vegetarians.

"That's Petunia, Emma, Rosey and Huey over there. I don't see how much more a pig could wish for," Terry says. They eat, sleep, eat, sleep, make little piggies, then really nap. "Happy," of course, is a human invention or illusion. But it seems safe to say that Huey, a 700-pound Yorkshire mix, looks "satisfied" with the accommodations. Satisfied works extremely well when observing hogs in shaded repose.

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