Living close to nature is a dream for many people, but for Debra White, it’s a calling. As the founder of Winslow Farm, a nonprofit animal sanctuary in Norton, Massachusetts, White has been caring for abandoned and mistreated creatures since 1996. She also advocates for the preservation of wildlife habitat. But it wasn’t an easy path to running the 17-acre, 164-animal farm, built next door to her childhood home. White, 68, had to overcome early family trauma and financial stress before getting there. And she brings discipline to the job: She won’t take on more animals than she can handle, and raises $250,000 each year to pay for their care. — As told to The Story Exchange.
I’ve gone from hell to heaven.
My father had just built the log cabin I was born and raised in, when he got stricken with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 28. My childhood was back and forth to New York City hospitals with his experimental brain operations. It took away his voice. I was the only one who could tell what he was talking about — I was sort of an interpreter. I was 3.
My mother was a closet alcoholic. My brother was a bully. So I took to the woods — that was my solace. I could hear my dad trying to get out of bed and it would take him hours just to stand. He wouldn’t let anyone help. I absolutely adored him. And I think that’s why I connected to the animals in a special deep way. Because I had to do that with my father.
I spent most of my time observing and listening to the endless variety of sounds from the birds. The chattering of squirrels and the slow movement of turles. Pines, oaks and maples made me feel safe under their canopy. Nature truly was embedded deeply in my soul from an early age.
As an adult, I worked inside and I felt like a caged animal. Due to budget cuts, I was laid off [as an administrative assistant for a government mental health agency] the very year I built my house, on the property on which I grew up. I needed, of course, to make money. I took care of an elderly lady, in my house. I typed notes for psychiatrists that were at the clinic. I made stained glass windows.
But I really needed to do something more. I retreated to the forest and found myself sitting in the spot of my younger years, where I always felt calm and safe. For three years on a daily basis, I sat by the pond in a meditative state for hours at a time. I also felt a strong energy of Native Americans, who respected nature and gave thanks to the animals that nourished them.
Feeling that energy, I started to pull my ideas into something concrete. I knew there were animals in surrounding towns being auctioned off for meat. Dogs that were on chains their whole lives. Wildlife that needed to heal from injuries.
So I finally had a goal. I went back to my newly built home and told my step-uncle, Charles White, the story and he said, “Well, you better start somewhere.” So I put a cardboard sign on the roadside saying “Animal Sanctuary.” That was 1996.
I made this farm, and everything in it, with my father in mind. Every thought has gone into the flow and existence of harmony. The animals are housed in a beautiful environment. It is not a petting zoo. The animals can just walk away. They’re on their own free will, whether they want to be interacted with or not.
Animals can bring healing. Almost 80% of the people say that to me. They walk in and say, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” They always say the energy is beautiful to them. When the Boston bombing occurred, people sent letters asking: “Can we come there? We just want to be somewhere safe.”
I love the goats. They are very playful, even when they’re older. They’ve very cool, very wise. You never know what they’re going to do next. They keep you challenged. They’re funny. They’re sweet.
I like the alpacas, too. They’re pretty whimsical animals. They kind of float in the air when they walk or run. They’re beautiful. They don’t ask for anything. They just exist.
And chickens! I have a pet chicken that I bring to my house every night. He doesn’t have a foot. Chickens are very sociable. They’re sentient. The other day, a lady bent down to pet a chicken, and she said: “I never thought I’d see a chicken like this — I don’t think I can eat a chicken now.” And I said, “Perfect.”
Editor’s Note: The Story Exchange is celebrating its 10th anniversary by launching the annual Women In Science Incentive Prize. Apply now for a chance to receive $5,000 in funding for your climate-related research or startup. Deadline: July 31.