Terra Optima Farm opens it doors, and friends, new and old, sit with frightened rescues

Goodness comes to an Appleton barn

Fri, 01/01/2021 - 12:30pm

    APPLETON — Farmer Cheryl Denz is not quite sure what compelled her to rescue two small starving pigs — she gets appeals on a regular basis to help animals out of bad situations, and she often refers people to organizations built for that purpose. But this time was different. She wasn’t sure why, but she acted on instinct. And is now grateful she did.

    Denz had received a text from a stranger, asking her to take in the pigs that were barely surviving.

    The exchange took place 10 days before Christmas, when cold weather was settling in, and animals who are well tended — livestock, fowl, pets — are brought inside barns and shelters, tucked in with straw and blankets. They ride out the cold, and most Mainers take care of their animals, many before even taking care of themselves.

    Not in this case.

    These two pigs, since named Noel and Christopher, were on the verge of dying; neglected and dehydrated, their physiological systems shutting down.

    “At first, I said no,” said Denz. “I’m up to my eyeballs in pigs.” (She does have quite a few: Some are larger than life pets and boarding in the barn; others are raised for meat, and spend their days rummaging through hay and vegetables in the pastures.)

    But the person persisted. She had tried to rescue the pigs herself, but could not catch them.

    “She said they were in a condition that they needed help, and she didn’t think there was a lot of time,” said Denz. “ I told her I would think about it.”

    Again the woman texted Denz, whose thoughts, by this time, were starting to shift.

    “The temperature was really falling,” Denz said. “So, Mike and I left what we were doing and shot over to the house where the pigs were.”

    One glimpse was all it took.

    “We immediately went back and got the trailer,” she said. “I dropped a pail of grain and Noel went into it head first, so that was easy. I picked her up by her hind legs and handed her to Mike. Christopher was a different story. He was terrified and started running around. But he didn’t have much energy so we cornered him and put him in the trailer.”

    Mike and Denz transported the pigs back home to Terra Optima Farm, in Appleton, into the large, sturdy barn that had originally been built by the Sherman Family in 1790. It is tall and roomy, but inside, with the scent of grain and hay, old leather and animals, it is a cozy home. Especially when the wind blusters outside, driving temperatures below zero.

    “We took in a dog igloo, with bales of straws and shavings, and then we carried them in,” said Denz. “We needed to help retain their body heat, because they had no weight.”

    “Please survive,” Denz told them.


    Love steps in

    Terra Optima Farm is familiar to many. Denz has been gardening, and raising animals there for meat and chickens for eggs for decades. 

    The land was originally settled in the mid-1700s and it was a branch of the Sherman Family that built the house and the barn, and the nearby mill. Later, the Cummings bought the farm, raising chickens and selling eggs. Connie Cummings had an early Model T truck, but after she drove it through the cooper’s shed on the corner she returned to doing business with her team oxen.

    Denz purchased the farm almost 30 years ago, and has been working the land there and raising livestock as a livelihood. Her Facebook page is home to daily stories and reports from the farm, mostly about the animals, and their adventures.  

    They are often joyful accounts, but sometimes there is sadness: A beloved creature dies, or someone gets ill. There is comedy, drama and intrigue in the daily posts, usually written around 4 a.m., when Denz dedicates time at her desk.

    Her followers often greet the morning with the farm reports, and their are plenty of comments, mostly encouraging, or there is collective laughter at the latest antics of resident donkeys, dogs, horses, pigs, roosters, and, the always fallible humans.

    It is Maine’s own All Creatures Great and Small, and a little reminiscent of E.B. White and William Carlos Williams.

    But the story Denz posted Dec. 16 grabbed at the heart (see sidebar for full account).

    They would not have survived much longer

    May not even with intervention

    They’re dehydrated extremely thin about 12 pounds each

    One may have an old injury that could be permanent damage

    I’m not sure yet


    In the post, Denz laid out the situation, appealing to others for help.

    And, readers responded.

    “Thank you for helping these two! Please advise on how to help with the vet bill. I can't give a lot, but it will be something,” wrote one person.

    “I have some expired goat yogurt you can have, as well as a piglet warming mat if that helps,” wrote another.

    “How do I get you some Piggy Help Money?” wrote still another.

    As word spread, and as the Solstice and Christmas approached, donations began arriving. First with oatmeal, as Denz described how the pigs’ digestive system could handle nothing but the smallest bites of yogurt and cooked oatmeal.

    “I first went to feed them a few pellets, and they immediately started to vomit, because their bodies had started to shut down,” said Denz. “So I called Katherine Williams, my vet. I didn’t know if they would live. I kept coming out and talking to them, and asking them not to die.”

    The next day, the vet arrived and diagnosed severe malnutrition. For several days, it was touch and go.

    “I cook the oatmeal slowly in milk — we have lots of that on the farm — add yogurt, and toss in a few grains of Mazuri pig grain,” said Denz. “It goes against everything that we know about pigs, which is eat, eat, eat. But these guys can’t. They have to go slowly. There’s no treats. But we have all kinds of animals we can feed treats to. Just not these guys.”

    Initially, the pigs would barge into Denz’s hand, grab the food and run away with it. They were so hungry, but their bodies could tolerate only small amounts.

    They were also terrified, tunneling under the straw at the far side of the stall, burrowing their heads into a sense of safety.

    “We would go in and just sit, to get them over their fear,” said Denz. 

    She invited visitors to the farm to sit with the pigs.

    “I just reached out,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen but the response has been overwhelming.”

    “People are good,” she said, with conviction. “In spite of what you see here. This is an awfulness that is not the norm, that is not prevalent, thank God.”

    And yet, it is not just the pigs alone who are finding solace in the barn. Humans are discovering simple connection in this animal rescue.

    Denz senses it as visitors arrive out of the blue.

    “People need an outlet with the pandemic,” she said. “Everyone’s life has changed so drastically. And this is is safe. I want it to be a safe place.”

    One morning, she went out to the barn, and a woman in her 70s was sitting in with the pigs, knitting.

    “A lot of times, people will message me, but I am have out there with letting people just come,” she said. “And they do. They have the common sense to close the door, and not feed them anything they are not supposed to be fed.”


    What’s next for Noel and Christopher?

    When Denz made her first post about the pigs, Susan Walker, a farrier and horse owner in western Maine, took notice. She follows the Terra Optima daily reports, and her sister and niece live in Rockland.

    “I have followed Cheryl’s page,” said Walker, who dropped by the farm on Dec. 26. “She and I have had several conversations over the years.”

    Walker has two pigs herself, and it crossed her mind: “So I have two... I don’t need to add more to my plate, but, if the situation calls for it, I’d take them.”

    “And I said, ‘you’d be perfect,’” said Denz, quickly.

    On the day after Christmas, Noel and Christopher were satisfied pigs. Walker, her sister Jill and niece Selah were sitting in the stall with the pigs. Holiday lights had been strung over the stall, and toys lay scattered beneath the straw. A radio was playing 98.9, soft rock, and the pigs were munching on hay, and talking, almost incessantly — grunts, sighs and short expressive comments, all in pig language. 

    They are still skinny, their spines poking high above the thin flesh on their backs. But they have gained three or four pounds each, and they have stopped grabbing food, eating more leisurely and with confidence from bowls. 

    Likely, said Walker, they will grow to weigh 150 pounds.

    Walker took Noel and Christopher on New Year’s Day. She will post updates about the two on the Terra Optima Farm Facebook page, to keep everyone informed of their progress.

    Just as encouragingly, Noel and Christopher are no longer fearful of humans.

    “It’s so nice to see that they are curious and alert,” said Jill Betz, as Noel accepted her hand that was gently petting her. “And not like every movement is a fear factor. They are really inquisitive.”

    Whatever force propelled the two emaciated pigs to Terra Optima Farm, the outcome has been remarkable.

    “Because I needed a girl pig!” said Walker.

    “And we obviously needed a lot of Christmas cookies, because that’s what been arriving here,” said Denz.

    She remains astonished by the community’s generosity.

    “It was going to really be a hardship, financially, to bring them here,” she said. “They talk about sustainable farms, but I have yet to find one. I don’t try to say that we are, because we are not.”

    So, she was frank about it, and readers responded.

    “Then this,” she said, gesturing toward the two skinny pigs. “This is important work. There are people that are set up for it. I don’t have that. But I do have a lot of knowledge and experience. And I knew when we saw them, when we drove up there, we were like, ‘we’re getting the trailer.’”

    Terra Optima Farm has been a regular stop for the Fed Ex driver these past two weeks, dropping off donations — most large bags of Mazuri pig food, ordered from Chewy by kind souls.

    The driver is happy about this, because he has more opportunity to visit with Marilyn Monroe, a four-month-old Heifer, who has reigns over the barn in her stall by the door.

    “I don't have a clue who ordered the bags,” said Denz. “A couple of of people told me. It’s been great. Today, someone in town dropped off three tubs of oatmeal.”

    By herself, she has reflected on the crueler aspects of this story, why the pigs, born last spring, even landed in such neglectful conditions.

    “I heard stories of abuse and survival from some of the women who have come to sit with Noel and Christopher,” she said. “It’s not as if we haven’t heard or lived these stories, but it certainly took me aback in the setting of my barn.

    “I always think there is a more profound action happening when something this incredible occurs. I may not know what it is for a while, but I can say it felt like a huge deal to be chosen to hear the struggle of several people relating their escape from misery in relation to Noel and Christopher.”

    In the meantime, it’s better days ahead for the two of them, as they look to 2021, with full bellies and a happy home.

    Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657