Caring for animals in need is difficult and often heartbreaking. Those of us supporting the animal rights movement are deeply grateful that sanctuaries exist, that there’s shelter and compassion for the lucky few animals who escape testing labs, factory farming and the slaughterhouse.
But it takes courage, determination and deep pockets to run a sanctuary, not to mention the fortitude and strength to do the often back-breaking work and to make difficult decisions, regardless of what’s going on around them or if they’re feeling a little under the weather.
Those brave enough to open their hearts and homes to abused, neglected and abandoned animals are grateful for the invaluable help from volunteers, and the much-needed donations. And they also find tremendous satisfaction in the simple things like being in a position to accept one more animal in need of love and attention and going to sleep at the end of a tough day knowing all those in their care are safe and healthy.
This was life for Susan Morris while she was a Toronto paramedic and running Snooters Farm Animal Sanctuary in Zephyr, Ontario. But in April of 2014, once retired and following the breakup of her 25-year marriage, she closed the sanctuary and stopped accepting new rescues. But she didn’t give up on the animals already in her care. Instead, she found a new home for herself and the animals on a beautiful piece of property north of Orillia.
A potbellied pig named Valentine, a gift from Susan’s husband for her fortieth birthday, was the start of what would become an animal sanctuary. When Valentine joined the family in 1998, they were living on a one-acre lot in a subdivision in Stouffville, and Valentine lived in the house with them.
Wanting to be a good mom to Valentine, Susan began to research such things as proper care and the best diet, but this research also led to discovering a disturbing trend. Many people would get potbellied pigs as pets assuming—and often told by breeders—they would always stay small. Once they grew to adult size, these animals were often abandoned and discarded. This discovery led Susan to help rescue and relocate a couple of potbellied pigs to an animal sanctuary in Thunder Bay.
The experience also instilled in Susan a desire to rescue more potbellied pigs. With this in mind, in 2001 Susan and her husband moved to a 20-acre property in Zephyr, and they welcomed Sunny and Butch, two potbellied pigs who were on their way to auction to be sold for meat. Snooters Farm Animal Sanctuary was born. Susan went on to rescue many potbellied pigs who were considered pets as babies, but whose owners became indifferent to the adult-sized pig. Many were rescued from euthanasia when the sanctuary was contacted by a veterinarian who had been hired to do the deed. Only one person who surrendered her potbellied pig is still in touch with Susan today as she continues to care for Snoot.
“For a lot of pigs when they’ve been with a family for a while and then they’re rehomed, they don’t do well. Their little hearts are broken. We had two that died within three weeks of coming to us. They wouldn’t eat and despite syringe-feeding them, they just died. They basically died of a broken heart. It’s horrible, but fortunately, that wasn’t the case with most of them,” explains Susan.
Trixie arrived at the sanctuary in 2006 when a friend approached Susan about taking in a three-legged piglet. While the missing leg wasn’t a problem when Trixie was small, it became a problem when she was full-grown. If Trixie was lying on the side with one leg, she needed assistance getting to her feet. “We used to have to lie down behind her back, put our feet on her back and push. It was almost like a bench press to get her to a standing position. It worked for a long time. One day I was home alone, and I did this. I thought she was up, and she thought she was up. But she came down on my leg and broke it in three places. I didn’t have my cell phone on me, so I had to do the army crawl back to the house to call for help,” she reflects.
Susan had to undergo surgery, and to this day her leg is affected by this incident that occurred in 2008. They tried many alternative ways to get Trixie on her feet, including fashioning a sling to get her up with a block and tackle pulley and attaching pool noodles to a Velcro band to deter her from lying on the side she favoured—the side with one leg. Nothing worked long-term, so about a year later, they made the difficult decision to euthanize Trixie.
Susan gets emotional as she shares this story: “That was really hard because she was healthy otherwise. She’s one that gets to me. She was so sweet. You love them all, but there are always a couple that pull your heartstrings. When I think about them individually, there is something very special about every single one of them. But when I’m thinking about the whole group, Trixie, Edgar and Valentine—my first potbellied pig—are the ones that touched me the most.”
While donations were appreciated and accepted and fundraisers were held for Snooters over the years, Susan and her husband provided the bulk of the financing needed to care for the animals via their jobs as paramedics. Now retired and divorced, Susan provides for the care and feeding of the animals through her pension. She was lucky to find the 58-acre property she and the animals now call home—most of which is low-maintenance forest, but a lot of work needed to be done to make it suitable for them. Fencing was needed, and she turned the heated workshop into a barn with stalls.
Because she is now on her own, Susan did not want to risk moving to her new location the two steers that were in her care—Norman and Ashli—the latter named after an activist friend who was killed in a car accident around the time Susan got him. “One of them almost hurt me once while playing. They’re big with big heads. He got me in a corner and kept bashing me with his head. Finally, I was able to crawl over the fence and get away from him,” she recalls.
Susan decided the best option was to rehome Ashli and Norman, something that weighed heavy on her. To make their transition to Wishing Well Sanctuary easy for them and the owner, Susan provided financial assistance to build a new run-in shed and purchase a round hay bale holder. Additionally, she provided two years of support in advance, and she continues to support Norman to this day; Ashli passed away from cancer a couple of years ago.
Susan’s dedication to her animals is apparent. She doesn’t want to take volunteers and funds away from sanctuaries that need help when she can manage. Her life revolves around the animals in her care because there is no one available to step in if she ever wanted to take a vacation. Reflecting on the stress that comes with this responsibility she says, “It’s like Groundhog Day. Every day it’s the same thing. All the worry is on me, and I’m a worrywart anyway. I have to force myself to not think of all the worst-case scenarios that can happen. And when I don’t speak to a human for a month, it gets to be a little much.”
Susan became a vegetarian when Valentine came into her life, then she gave up all animal products in 2002. While she lived in Toronto, she was often taking part in street-level activism. Today, she primarily supports animal rights organizations via donations, but she was instrumental in helping shut down the Tarzan Zerbini Circus brought to Toronto, Barrie, Newmarket, and Orillia by the Shriners.
Susan is never aggressive when it comes to talking to others about veganism, and her supportive demeanour has resulted in many people following in her footsteps. “In 20 years, I estimate 100 people have said to me that they don’t eat meat anymore because of me, because of what I told them.”
Ironically, being vegan was more challenging than being a woman in the male-dominated field in which she worked. Non-vegans she worked with frequently made fun of her and asked questions only pretending to be interested. “As soon as I would start to answer their questions, they would say, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, get off your soapbox.’ It was so frustrating. Or I would get invited to a pig roast. That was difficult because you don’t want to argue with people every single day about stuff like that.”
Susan and her animals have been in the limelight over the years. She and her potbellied pig Easter appeared on Breakfast Television with Ann Rohmer, a segment meant to demonstrate that potbellied pigs don’t make good pets. And when Snooters was at its height, documentary filmmaker Liz Marshall shot footage of the sanctuary animals as a way to balance the remainder of the film, The Ghosts in Our Machine, that follows Jo-Anne McArthur, Canadian animal rights photographer and founder of We Animals Media.
Despite the challenges she’s faced, Susan does everything she can to ensure her animals are comfortable and happy. She’s respected and well-known in animal rights circles in Ontario, and she’s committed to supporting the animal sanctuary community she knows well and to being a voice for the animals that can’t be saved.
Sadly, Susan lost three animals in 2022. Tommy the sheep, Easter the potbellied pig, and Edgar.