Nobody knows exactly how Molly B the angus beef cow managed to escape from a Great Falls slaughter line back in 2006, but that's what happened. She leaped over partitions, dodged cars and trains and swam across the Missouri River in pursuit of freedom. It took wranglers more than six hours to catch her. By then, she'd become a celebrity. Sending her to the slaughterhouse was out of the question; just imagine the big-agro villain who would try, depicted with a drooling mouth and dollar signs for eyes.
Molly B was sent instead to the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary, in Hot Springs, to live with 1,200 other animals. It proved to be an unmanageable number; the animals were starving and neglected. The sanctuary went under in 2011. So Molly B and Big Mike—a steer she befriended in Hot Springs, from whom she could not be separated—were sent to yet another new home, this time the nonprofit New Dawn Farm Sanctuary, which comprises about 20 acres atop a very steep hill in Stevensville and is a home of last resort for its animals.
New Dawn was founded in 2007 by Sue and Lee Eakins, a retired couple in their 60s. Sue has short brown hair and a distinctive voice she uses to coo at the animals. Before opening the sanctuary, she spent 30 years as a social worker. Lee wears a trim beard and glasses. He has a hangar full of tools, farm equipment and a little rickety airplane built with mail-order parts"but most of his life is to make me happy," Sue says.
New Dawn specializes in "food farmed" animals, meaning its residents were at one time intended for dinner, making it the only sanctuary of its kind in Montana. As a farm, it makes not a lot of sense. They don't grow anything. The chickens' eggs aren't scrambled and the cows aren't milked. To keep a viable dairy cow, the mother needs to be kept pregnant continuously, and then what would become of the calves? Essentially, the New Dawn animals, including five cows, eight pigs, five sheep, eight goats and many birds, are pets.
There are, for example, Boris and Oliver, two very large pigs who could kill you if they wanted, although after just a few moments, it's clear that such an idea has never occurred to them. And the sheep"little Buddhas," Sue sayswhich calmly swarm anyone who enters their space. Among them is the black-faced Confetti, who gets around on just three hooves owing to a birth defect. His original owners took pity on him. Most of the animals found their way to New Dawn similarly, not by pulling off the perfect crime, like Molly B, but almost accidentally. The other livestock are joined by three dogs, a grumpy pot-bellied pig and two aloof llamas. Fans of inter-species friendships could be overwhelmed here, where pigs lie down with goats and sometimes try to herd cows. Only the roosters and geese are penned, for their safety.
There seem to be just the right number of animals.
"I'm not trying to win animal hoarder of the year," Sue says.
But how can this work?
Sue and Lee said they'd intended to fund the farm with money they got for their South Hills house, but it refuses to sell, so they rent it out and run the farm with that, along with retirement money and Lee's Social Security payments. They get a few donations and sometimes some student volunteers, but mostly Sue and Lee run the place out of their pockets, with their sweat.
And their idealism. There are about 50 animals at New Dawn. There are about 45 billion that are killed for food in the U.S. each year. Saving little Buddhas from slaughter isn't about making much of a dent in the number of lives lost. The point is to create a place for people to visit the animals, fall in love and stop eating them.
In addition to the sanctuary, Sue also runs the website othernationsjustice.org, which mobilizes animal activists in Montana. Last month, the group protested the Shrine Club Circus on the UM campus for the way it uses animals. Its fans also meet for vegetarian potlucks at Missoula's Unitarian church. The group takes its name from the American naturalist Henry Beston, who wrote of animals nearly 100 years ago, "They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time."
Comprehending 45 billion little souls might be impossible for anyone. It's much easier to shine a light on one, like Molly B, and say, "This one is special. She must have been so clever to fall out of line." New Dawn wants to gently correct this assumption. In fact, out in her sanctuary field, she's hard to differentiate from the other mostly black cows.