At 7 years old, Ellie Laks already had a mission in life. She knew she wanted to create a sanctuary for animals.
Growing up in St. Louis, she would take lost or injured animals home to take care of.
Her parents did not particularly appreciate this, and she would come home from school to see her orphaned animals gone, which was a painful experience.
“How could you do this to me?” Laks asked her parents.
Her parents would respond by assuring her she can have as many animals as she wanted when she grows up. And Laks took that statement to heart.
“You’ll see, when I grow up, I’ll have a huge place full of animals and I’ll show the world how beautiful they are,” she would tell her parents.
Even at 7 years old, Laks understood she saw something special in animals that was not seen by everyone.
That life goal finally came into fruition over 20 years later. Laks founded The Gentle Barn in 1999, which celebrated its 18th anniversary on Friday, Aug. 25.
The first animal Laks officially took care of was a goat named Mary. Laks found Mary at a petting zoo in the San Fernando Valley when she was 31, and Mary did not look like a healthy goat.
“I was absolutely sick to my stomach,” said Laks about her first time seeing Mary. “She literally looked at me and said, ‘Will you help me?’”
For Laks, there was no other alternative than to help Mary. For 12 days straight, she would go to the petting zoo and spend the entire day with Mary. At the end of the day, she would ask to purchase Mary.
Finally, on the 13th day, Laks got the answer she was looking for.
“The owner said…take the goat and get the hell out of here,” said Laks.
She took that goat to her half-acre home in Tarzana and finally gave her the life she deserved. But, one goat was not enough for Laks when she saw how many animals are abused at some petting zoos. She called the authorities, such as Animal Control, letting them know about the abuse that is happening.
When no authorities reached out to help, Laks took the initiative herself. She bought some 20 animals from that very same petting zoo, and brought them home to Tarzana. That was the official start of The Gentle Barn, which has greatly grown since then.
Laks now takes care of 170 animals in two different states—California and Tennessee, with 150 of them in Santa Clarita. She is even opening up a third location in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri in a few weeks. She has already rescued the first six cows who will live there.
The Gentle Barn is much more than an animal sanctuary though. It is a place where struggling youth can find relief in life and relate to the animals. Thousands of people come to The Gentle Barn every month.
“For me, animals were teachers, healers, angels (and) friends,” said Laks.
One such person who finds herself at The Gentle Barn time and time again is Angel Gulermovich. She has a season pass now, after visiting for several years with her husband.
“It’s a good way for an animal lover to be able to come and be with lots of really wonderful animals and it’s also a good cause,” she said.
All money that is raised at The Gentle Barn goes right back into helping the animals.
Laks now lives full-time on the same property in Canyon Country where the 150 animals live. It is a family endeavor, as she lives with her husband and daughter, who are both dedicated to the cause.
“It feels like it’s the first day,” said Jay Weiner, Laks’s husband and the co-founder of The Gentle Barn. “Every day we come down, it feels like a new day.”
Laks has become an inspiration for animal lovers all over the world. She has people visit her sanctuary from England, Italy, France and all over the United States.
Eight-year-old Sawyer Hylton was at The Gentle Barn for the second time in his life on Sunday and already finds himself in a familiar place as Laks. He wants to open up his own sanctuary to save animals.
“I just love animals so much…and I wish I was raised in a barn,” he said. “Animals are just such beautiful creatures and they do so much for us.”