Life at The Retreat Animal Rescue and Sanctuary
by Sorrell Hatt - Farm Animal Carer
Ever wondered what it's like to work at an animal rescue centre and sanctuary? For many it is a dream job and Sorrell Hatt will do little to deter you.
My Reason for Getting out of Bed
I often get told I have the 'best job,' and it's hard to disagree. As well as the team spirit it is an absolute privilege to work with all of the beautiful individuals that we are home to at The Retreat.
From our 2 year old calves, Abbie, Panda and Evie, and our recent rescue of piglets, it never ceases to fill our hearts with joy to be surrogate mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. It really is one big happy family!
Another benefit is that during open season, visitors and workers alike get to enjoy the fruits of the sanctuary - the onsite cafe, for example. The specials menu always has something interesting to try. Even I haven’t sampled all the dishes yet! The thrift shop is great for a bargain, and the vegan pantry always has something new to try, or treat myself to after a long day
I consider the animals my friends - people I love to hang out with! Princess the cow featured in this photo, is one of the best people, and everyone on the team agrees. She speaks with a soothing hum, loves spine scratches and reciprocates by giving kisses and placing her head on your lap. She is a gentle giant. Similarly, we just adore watching the orphans and young animals grow when they come to us.
Princess the Jersey Cow
Abie, Panda and Evie when they were little.
What is The Retreat?
The Retreat is a 50-acre sanctuary, nestled in the Kent countryside, between Ashford and Tenterden. A permanent home to farmed animals saved from exploitative industries; unwanted pets, including FIV and FeLV positive and feral cats; also disabled animals, wildlife and more. Over 20,000 animals have been saved since it began 30 years ago, and currently, we look after over 1,250 residents.
The Retreat remains a free visitor centre that attracts supporters and the general public. We get to know the regulars, and it’s always rewarding to meet new visitors and tell them all about the animals. As you would guess, not everyone that enters our gates is vegan, and raising awareness is part of our job too. Very often, these conversations lead to questions, followed by answers that are responded to with ‘I didn’t know that!’.
By allowing our visitors to see the animals up close, feed the cheeky chickens, and having access to leaflets, posters and signage providing information about animal industries, as well as the animals’ personal stories, we work towards our goal of raising awareness about vegan ethics and the fallacies of agricultural farming. Our private tours are a big factor in helping people make kinder lifestyle choices. The residents make perfect mascots!
Who Founded this Charity?
The Retreat was founded by Billy Thompson with his husband Neil in the early 90s. Billy has always taken animals in need under his wing, from dogs and cats, to wildlife, and of course, farmed animals.
When he was young, it was his sister Lil who helped him, and his parents always supported them. Over the course of his life, many financial, housing, and practical challenges failed to deter Billy from his commitment to caring for animals in need, and today, his will to make the world a better place for all animals has birthed our beautiful sanctuary.
Billy remains on the trustee board, attends rescue operations, gives tours, and plays host to the public during open hours. His book Earth Boy, available on Amazon, is a comical and inspiring account of all of his best experiences.
Billy Thompson - Founder of The Retreat
I started at The Retreat as a volunteer in November 2018, and was hired in February 2019 - the best stroke of luck I have ever had! As one of three Farm Team Leaders, I am responsible for the care of all of the pigs, cows, sheep, goats, and our two rheas, Elton and Gloria. Other than birds, large farmed animals are our biggest 'department'.
We have all the biggest (and messiest) cleaning jobs, tightest schedules, and so many hungry mouths to feed! It's our job to coordinate all of that, and more, including treatments, medications, and repairs - because big animals easily break things, and they do it often!
There is a small team of staff working on the ground at the sanctuary, and with as many residents as we have, things can get pretty busy! We heavily rely on the support of a team of volunteers who help get the job done. Many are long-term, and we have a wonderful community because of what we do.
Elton and Gloria - The Retreat's Rheas
The Bitter Sweet Moments
There is one rescue that has left its mark on me. Kirsty the lamb is our baby. Her mum Margot came to us pregnant at the beginning of the summer with a bad case of fly strike. She gave birth a week after being with us, but sadly passed away several days later. We were already support-bottle feeding, as Margot was very weak. But losing her was absolutely heartbreaking.
With our sheep herd growing beyond our capacity, we had said 'no lambs this year.' Then we lost a very special lamb called Robbie, to a congenital disease in January 2022. He was a celebrity, along with his adopted brother Jenson, who frequently went for walks and met the general public, stealing their hearts.
Losing animal friends is incredibly hard. Often, we care for them on a one-to-one basis for weeks beforehand. But to love, and to have known these beautiful souls, is a wonderful thing. And knowing that we gave them the best possible care, and that we treated them with the same respect as any other being, is our privilege.
Robbie the lamb and Sorrell
So, Kirsty was a blessing and a sort of remedy for our broken hearts. We poured all our love into this beautiful little lamb, who now roams the fields with our main herd.
Kirsty soothing broken hearts at The Retreat
A Sense of Achievement
Our main pig herd is a mix of ex-pets, industry retirees and rescues. They are a range of ages, sizes and breeds. We have special areas for our delicate pigs, so our main herd are typically all well besides age-related ailments. They’re then retired into another area with family, friends or join other pig(s) once these become too problematic.
We have had a few cases of spinal injuries in pigs, which sometimes appear to be neurological, and at other times by injury from other pigs - usually accidental. Though pigs do fight, we take note of animals that are too bullied and therefore a vulnerable target, and move them if necessary to avoid potential injury. Adult pigs can weigh between 100 and 500 kilos due to breeding for meat consumption, so when they cannot support their weight following an injury, it can be incredibly hard to rehabilitate them.
During my time at the sanctuary, we have lost Nolty, Sicily and Keiron who suffered with spinal issues. Nolty was old and her symptoms came on suddenly and she instantly lost all feeling in her legs. Both Sicily and Keiron seemed to have been caught in a ruckus, either intentionally or accidentally but both were a surprise to us when they were found dragging their hind legs.
Both, unfortunately, were just too heavy for us to manually support their weight, and no one has engineered a purpose-built wheelchair or machine strong enough. Both of them had little will to use their back legs when examined by the vet. We assessed their diet, and provided pain relief, massages and physio for them under veterinary advice but sadly, we did not succeed in these cases.
In the spring of 2022, another main herd resident, Nora, was accidentally trampled by other pigs! Being generous as we are with giving animals a chance, we treated her the same as those before her. This time however, we could support her back legs, as she was less than 150kg. Nora was on display, and we were criticised and questioned more than once by other sanctuaries and members of the public who questioned her quality of life.
However, those of us that worked with her regularly saw subtle improvements in her recovery. Every day at feeding time, we would make a trail of food, lift her back end with our hands and walk her for 10 minutes or so - something she had to get used to. After a couple of back breaking months (ours, not hers!), this turned into us walking upright with our legs either side to keep her steady, once she was up. One day she got up by herself, and we clapped, with tears in our eyes! Today, Nora runs (albeit, like a drunk!), wagging her tail as she goes.
At the end of the day, when we're tired and our bodies are sore, the love for our multi-species family and our sense of achievement makes it all worth it. Not only do we help these beautiful creatures live their best possible lives, but we help people understand that they are worthy, and remind them about their brothers and sisters, unfairly lost to the food system. I have no doubt this is the best job I will ever have.