Credit: Darrow Montgomery

It’s a recent Friday morning at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary, just before the sun makes the summer heat unbearable. Past a green gate guarded by a turkey buzzard and down a dirt road flanked by woods on one side and by fields of tall, unmowed grass on the other, is a cluster of Canada geese and goats—lots of goats.

They’re just a few of the more than 200 animals who reside at the refuge in Poolesville, Md., 400 acres of protected land where pigs, chickens, sheep, goats, turkeys, cows, and other barnyard creatures found wandering urban and suburban areas, spared from the slaughter, or rescued from abusive situations live out their days in peace and tranquility.

It’s where the Washington Humane Society sent several chicks recovered after a jilted man mailed them to his ex-girlfriend with the message “There are lots of other chicks out there.” WHS also turned over to the sanctuary a pygmy goat, Billy, found wandering in a neighborhood near the National Arboretum, as well as an Angora goat, Ferdinand, found inside an apartment complex. Also Alvin, the rooster, and Lita, the pig, and many of other farm animals over the years, all winners in a strange lottery that spares them from a most typical fate. 

Currently, Poplar Spring’s most famous resident is a six-month-old pig named Wee Wee.

His origin story sounds like a Disney pitch: A local family found him on the side of a road near Hagerstown, Md., during the January blizzard—small, shivering, and covered in snow. It’s assumed Wee Wee fell off or jumped from a truck on its way to or from an industrial farming facility.  

Instead of becoming dinner, Wee Wee ended up at Poplar Spring with dozens of other pigs, including another piglet rescue, his best friend Scooter. Wee Wee now has his own Facebook page, where more than 5,000 fans follow his day-to-day adventures—sleeping in mud, trotting across a field, eating one thing or another.

“I start off every morning by checking in on Wee Wee, Scooter and the gang. Thanks for all your hard work, photos and videos!!” one fan recently wrote. “Friends forever! It is heartwarming to see how they have bonded. Thank you for all your hard work,” another commented.

He’s not the only Poplar Spring animal with social media clout. A staff member near the cow field mentions Elliot, whose name would be instantly recognizable to any of the more than 13,000 followers of Poplar Spring’s Facebook page. The calf is a recent rescue, born in a pen at a livestock exchange and left there for three days without food or water until he was saved with his mother.

On this Friday, it’s the morning after Elliot spent his first night with his mom.

“She doesn’t quite recognize that that’s her baby, because I’m sure she’s had her babies taken away from day one every time,” the staff member says. “But at the very least, they’ll be very good friends… And they’ll get to stay together their whole life.”

Terry Cummings founded the sanctuary in 1996 with her husband, Dave Hoerauf. They moved to the nearly 300-year-old farmhouse on the land that now serves as the sanctuary in 1987. Cummings says she was inspired to start Poplar Spring (and become a vegetarian) after seeing a farmer abuse and starve cows, actions for which, she found, there was no legal recourse. 

She majored in Animal Science at the University of Maryland, “but I couldn’t find any job when I got out of school that wasn’t hurting animals.” Cummings then worked as a vet tech in the National Zoo’s hospital for 12 years before quitting to start Poplar. The woman who owned the farmhouse and surrounding land donated them to the cause. 

Part of Poplar Spring’s mission is to “promote compassion and humane treatment for all animals,” the extremity of which is apparent upon a visit to the sheep barn, where a blind, arthritic ewe named Daisy is escaping the heat near a fan. While many pet owners today don’t consider spending thousands of dollars and countless hours on an aging and ailing cat or dog extreme, paying money to care for an old sheep probably strikes many as a bit much and some as ridiculous. 

But it’s hard to take that cynical approach as Maureen, a volunteer for the past three years, starts listing off the other sheep’s names: Hickory, Millie, Jasper, June, Sarah, Ava, Alfie, Clover, Nicolette, Nelson, Pumpkin, Noel, Adam, and Loki (who loves attention). 

“You have to look for specific markings,” she says, describing how she tells them apart. Alfie, for example, has freckles on his nose. 

Maureen says she’s always adored animals, so despite having allergies to most of them, she decided to volunteer at Poplar Spring when she retired.  

“Some of the stories here, the only word you can say is ‘horrific,’” she says. “There’s a lot of heartbreak here, but it’s so worth it.”

Away from the sheep, past the fields where the cows and horses graze, is a barn full of humongous pigs snoozing under fans wafting them in cool breezes. These domestic pigs, who weigh up to 1,000 pounds, weren’t meant to get this old or big—pigs bred and raised for meat are slaughtered at around six months. But, for a variety of reasons, here they are, including 976-pound Mork, who came from the University of Pennsylvania vet school after Cummings says the students got too attached to him and couldn’t send him to be killed.  

Cummings explains that the older pigs prefer to sleep in the barn, while the younger ones spend part of the day wandering around the grounds. “I have a feeling Wee Wee and Scooter are in the mud,” Cummings says.

She’s right. In a muddy creek yards from the pig barn, the two are snuggled together near a fence while several much bigger pigs (there are 50 at the sanctuary) wallow nearby.  

“These pigs are just as a sweet as any dog. They like to roll over for belly rubs,” Cummings says. “They don’t have a vicious bone in their body… We even trim their teeth by giving a belly rub.”

Wee Wee definitely likes belly rubs. While he may no longer be the adorable piglet who was written up in People magazine and featured on the Today show—he currently weighs around 250 pounds and will continue to gain—there’s still something fundamentally lovable about him. 

Since Wee Wee joined the sanctuary, Cummings says they’ve seen an uptick in demand for tours. “A lot of people are Wee Wee fans. We sold out of the Wee Wee socks in our gift shop.”

Despite growing interest, visits, and donations, Poplar Spring is limited in the number of animals it can bring in due to barn space and funding. With more than 200 animals and a staff of seven, they spend $500,000 a year on basics. A newer barn cost $50,000 to construct, Cummings says, a price Poplar Spring could afford thanks to a single donor.

“I don’t think we ever thought it would get this far,” she says with a laugh. Now, Poplar Spring’s board of directors is strategizing ways to keep the sanctuary going after Cummings and her husband retire. When other sanctuaries, the ones built on not much more than good intentions, close, that puts a strain on others like Poplar Spring. 

One day, Cummings will leave her home of decades and these 400 acres behind: It all belongs to the animals, who are guaranteed a spot at Poplar Spring for as long as Poplar Spring exists. Cummings says she just wouldn’t trust anyone else to care for them.

“If you make it to a sanctuary, you should be safe for the rest of your life.”

Poplar Spring will be open to the public on July 23 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. as part of the Montgomery County Farm Tour.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery