POOLESVILLE -- This is no way to start a story. There is no medal or certificate of appreciation attached to the iron gate at mailbox No. 15200. There's nothing to reward a Baltimore traveler for actually finding the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in this ruralsville known as Poolesville.
But we enter, and a dirt road dirties our plucky Volvo (once, a woman got her Mercedes stuck in a cornfield as she searched for Poplar Spring). The road finally empties before barns and barn-like things and animals. Animal animals -- not cats in windowsills or Labradors in heat or gerbils treading in exercise wheels.
"Did you see any cows on the way in?" asks Terry Cummings, a woman nearly 40 with untamed red hair and sensible farm boots. The cows, her cows, have wandered off to munch elsewhere on this 400-acre sanctuary for livestock, as all creatures are wont to do.
"The grass is always greener," Cummings says without question.
Cummings and her husband, Dave Hoerauf, run the 3-year-old, nonprofit animal sanctuary with the uneven help of volunteers. Today, Cummings is a lone speck of human on all this succulent land. The volunteers don't work Mondays, and Dave is in some barn doing some barn work.
Terry (when you step in as many cow patties as we do today, last names are too formal) offers a tour of the farm and of her life. She makes all the usual introductions you'd expect from someone who has devoted her life to saving the very creatures we eat at McDonald's and at Thanksgiving.
"This is Chester."
Chester the rooster, that is. Dashing comb. Chester has a harem of chickens. "We get a lot of chickens from D.C.," Terry says. "There's a big Santeria following." Apparently, the voodoo religion calls not only for poultry sacrifice but for chicken release in cemeteries. Poplar Spring gets its animals any which way.
"This is Alice."
A top-heavy turkey that follows Terry and Dave everywhere. Part-dog, maybe. Alice, found wandering in Frederick and now wandering here, could be the sanctuary's mascot. "She's a real cool bird," Terry says. Visitors quickly find themselves stooping to pet and talk with a turkey named Alice.
"This is Linus."
In the hog pen, Linus the pig snuffles under a heavy blanket, air from his fist-sized nostrils kicks up dust. His broken leg isn't getting better; the infection is spreading. One of 22 pigs brought here last year after a livestock truck flipped over, Linus might have to be put down.
"We need to make a decision," Dave says, more to Terry than to us. She nods. She knows. Even in the animal-saving business, death is part of the deal. (Two days later, Linus was put down.)
"That's Virginia," Terry says.
She means Virginia the state, which dents the horizon in the form of 11 high-rises for retirees. Even 400 acres of farm can't escape progress. "The city is coming to us," she says, as a jet sounds like it's landing at our feet. "That's Dulles. We're in the flight path." Shoo planes, shoo.
Raised in nearby Hyattsville, Terry received a degree in animal science from the University of Maryland before becoming a veterinary technician at the National Zoo in Washington. She met Dave, her future husband, in high school. He studied zoology at the University of Maryland. They studied each other quite a bit, too, and were married 14 years ago.
Twelve years ago, they settled on this farm and still lease the land (buying this multimillion-dollar tract in Montgomery County is a bit out of their game plan). One routine day on the farm, they watched a truck back up to the hog shed. The very pigs Dave and Terry had come to feed, name and love were sent for slaughter. One part of their brains knew, of course, that hamburgers and ham sandwiches don't fall from the sky. But another part of them was stunned, awakened.
So begins what people do with the rest of their lives. "I always wanted to live on a farm," Terry says, "but not kill any animals."
There were many places for abandoned dogs and cats, but nobody seemed to care about saving livestock, Dave and Terry thought. What if they used the farm as a shelter? Bring us your tired and poor bovines, your retired harness-racing horses, your one-horned Nubian goats (one later to be named Heidi), your veal calves, your herniated hogs and frisky roosters.
"Our parents thought we were insane," Terry says. "They kept saying, 'What do you mean save farm animals? Save them from what?' "
It's about choices. Dave and Terry chose to save as much livestock as their barns could hold. And, yes, they are vegetarians.
"That's Petunia, Emma, Rosey and Huey over there. I don't see how much more a pig could wish for," Terry says. They eat, sleep, eat, sleep, make little piggies, then really nap. "Happy," of course, is a human invention or illusion. But it seems safe to say that Huey, a 700-pound Yorkshire mix, looks "satisfied" with the accommodations. Satisfied works extremely well when observing hogs in shaded repose.
Huey hails from Ohio State University and arrived courtesy of veterinary students there who, after repairing Huey's hernia, decided that his pending slaughter didn't seem right. So, Poplar Spring took Huey, who will spend all of his days here.
Word-of-mouth is how people hear about a farm in Poolesville; animal lovers communicate through a grapevine the size of Napa Valley. Once Humane Societies and such groups caught wind of the sanctuary, Dave and Terry suddenly had a full-time, no-vacation-days job.
"This is Cowvin and Joey."
A Jersey and Holstein. Terry has finally found her cows, which indeed had found greener pastures. On this acre, other cows repose like caramel-colored Buddhas. One named Charlotte had jumped from a truck bound for the stockyards. Debby was removed from a petting zoo. It took a month to catch Lisa Marie, who had been strolling off Interstate 270.
At last check, 87 farm animals lived here with the two humans. Well, one human now. Dave just left for work at a printing office. He works "so we can eat," Terry says. What dream doesn't sometimes punch a clock?
The couple's grand plan is to raise enough donations to hire a staff, so Terry and Dave could take a day or two off to leave the farm. Maybe go antiquing, maybe go the beach. Being your own boss and sitting on all the good land in the world can become its own box. Freedom's just another word for spending five hours every morning mucking out stalls and feeding very large pets.
By mid-afternoon, salt-and-pepper clouds scroll across the big sky over Poplar Spring. Next to their home (built in 1740 and still with the original kitchen fireplace) is a tree swing built for two. Two people swing, as gnats pester and, far on the horizon, Virginia high-rises graze. The birdsong interrupted by a howling jet. A goat named Annie pokes its E.T.-like head around the fence. Alice the turkey lurks.
There's nothing to do -- or everything. There's nothing happening here -- or everything. All depends on which side of the latched gate you're on. Terry lives on the inside, where all the animals have names and futures, where she and her husband are making a name and future for themselves.
This is Terry and her life. End of tour. Now, point us the way home.
Pub Date: 10/04/99