August 24th, 2015
Gentle Barn Heroes


By: Debra Dylan


Ellie Laks’ memoir, My Gentle Barn, is a triumphant love story.

Ellie Laks with Dudley in the new Gentle Barn location in Knoxville, TN.

Ellie Laks with Dudley in the new Gentle Barn location in Knoxville, TN.

Against significant odds, author Ellie Laks’ childhood dream of a healing sanctuary for abused and forsaken animals became a reality. The evolution of The Gentle Barn, headquartered in Santa, Clarita, California, was simutaneously a healing balm for Laks, who survived a harsh childhood, and an early adulthood dominated by unhealthy relationships and drug addiction.

In a gentle way you can shake the world. – Ghandi


Illustration by Katlynn Armstrong.

By her mid-20s, Laks was sober and rehabiliting dogs and cats on her small property. On the day she and her little son visited a deplorable petting zoo, she knew what she had to do. After making eye contact with a sick goat with grossly overgrown hoofs, there was no turning back.

For twelve straight days Laks and her son staged a sit-in at the petting zoo. She finally returned home victorious. With the help of a mobile veterinarian, she learned how to care for Mary. Three months later, she returned to the petting zoo to claim more animals.

For readers unfamiliar with animals beyond household pets, My Gentle Barn presents a fascinating look at the farm animals’ playful and affectionate side. The mutual healing and companionship between the animals, including animals of different species, is unforgettable.

Even animals who are still afriad and recovering provide valuable body language lessons to Gentle Barn visitors.


Nalla (right) wants to be with Zeus (left) all of the time at The Gentle Barn California.

Destiny plays with Dudley's heavy duty beach ball at The Gentle Barn Tennessee.

Destiny plays with Dudley’s heavy duty beach ball at The Gentle Barn Tennessee.

The greatest healing therapy is friendship & love. – Hubert H. Humphrey


Illustration by Katlynn Armstrong.

Jay Weiner, a dedicated Gentle Barn volunteer, was haunted by a past of  physical abuse from his step-father. While working at the Barn, he found solace with the horses. He was charmed by an affectionate chicken. He took one of Laks’ dogs home for a play date. Weiner’s emotional healing was underway.

The eventual marriage between Laks and Weiner is also one of My Gentle Barn’s triumphant love stories.

Together they endured moving the farm, major financial crises, and a natural disaster. The book is surprisingly suspenseful at times, as is the unexpected endorsement from a celebrity.

Alone, or sometimes with a videographer, Weiner rescues animals from the most horrific situations. The book contains a few ugly stories about hoarders, abusers, and the food industry.

My Gentle Barn is not a manifesto against meat consumers, but harvesting animals for food is a grim business. The details are unavoidable when The Gentle Barn takes on the intense physical and emotional rehabilitation of veal calves.

What are you doing for others? – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mike Stiles was rescued by The Gentle Barn seven years ago. When he wasn’t at work as a retail manager, he was looking at life through his apartment window, or playing video games and cards. Wanting to make a change in his life, he began volunteering at The Gentle Barn during the intense rehabilitation of suffering veal calves.

Stiles says, “The calves had pneumonia, pink eye, and skin fungus. I helped raised them. I became more involved and spent more and more time at the barn. Six years later I quit my job and became The Gentle Barn’s Healing Center manager.

Mike with Faith. He raised her from her infancy as an abused veal calf.

Mike with Faith. He raised her from her infancy as an abused veal calf.

“I also had an epiphany while working with special needs adults. One man had early onset Alzheimer’s and he communicated with a Ouija board on his wheelchair. He never talked. One day I saw him holding a chicken. He was smiling and talking and petting the chicken. A week later I heard the man died. It meant a lot to me that I helped to make him smile at the end of his life.”

My Gentle Barn is a must read for any animal enthusiast or anyone interested in healing. There are many heroes in this unforgettable story.

The Gentle Barn Tennessee

Dudley, a young and injured Nashville steer, avoided slaughter, but his health was rapidly deteriorating. Laks, Weiner, and Stiles came to Tennessee to rescue Dudley. They moved him to the University of Tennessee Veterinary School’s Large Animal Clinic, and they established a Gentle Barn in West Knoxville.

Dudley spent months at the clinic. He had surgeries to heal the leg where his foot had fallen off. (Apparently, his foot withered while caught in tight hay bail string.)  He completed physical therapy, and a Florida prosthetist, who was also an amputee, crafted Dudley’s artificial limb.

Laks said, “People thought we were insane to go through all of this trouble for a cow. We believe every life deserves a chance, and Dudley will spend the rest of his life as a therapy animal.”

While Dudley was still recovering at the vet clinic, twenty amputees from The Amputee Support Group of Knoxville (A.S.K.) paid him a visit.


Dudley with his new foot at the University of Tennessee Large Animal Clinic.

Sue Stout, president and CEO of the Amputee Coalition, said, “We were pleased to be able to connect A.S.K. with Dudley when The Gentle Barn reached out to us. [A.S.K. members] heard about how Dudley had experienced similar procedures, difficulties and challenges as they have had as amputees. We believe it is important for anyone (human or animal) with limb loss to have the opportunity to bond with other amputees.”


Once Dudley settled in at the new Gentle Barn, he played and ran for the first time in his life. He also met his new best friend, Destiny, who also avoided slaughter due to an infection that settled in her shoulder.

Raised to have a meaningless life, they now have love, affection, and lots of positive attention.

Raised to have a meaningless life, they now have love, affection, and lots of positive attention.

Mike Stiles says, “Of all the animals at The Gentle Barn Tennessee, Destiny is still the least social. Often when we have visitors, she watches from across the field and does her own thing…. However, it’s as if she knew how special this boy was (photo below). They shared a connection. He was so gentle with her and she was so gentle back. They didn’t need words to understand each other. They just knew.” Stiles continues, “We cannot wait for the opportunity to help those in our community heal and make these connections with our animals.”


Photo by: David Bridges

The Peace Enhancement Program

While Destiny made a new friend during a family’s tour, The Gentle Barn offers a 10 month therapeutic program for at-risk youths and special needs adults.

Jay Weiner says, “In our Peace Enhancement program, we don’t work with individuals, we only work with programs who have their own social worker. We work with clients who have not responded well to traditional therapy. They may learn how to walk a horse, how to hold a small animals, how to be gentle, and how to be a protector and not an abuser.”

Ellie says, “We are already being well received in Knoxville. It’s amazing how people without hope, who cannot relate to anyone, respond when we pair them with an animal. They see that the animal has found peace, so maybe they can too. This relationship creates a spark of hope.”

Who Else is at the Barn?

During Dudley’s recovery, other animals joined the new Gentle Barn. A rooster who had been living in the extended stay parking lot at the Nashville airport for 8 months was finally captured and brought to The Gentle Barn. The woman who reported the rooster to The Gentle Barn named him Rick Springfield. Rick also lives with Jessie’s Girl and Rosie the Rooster.

Jessie's Girl and Rick.

Jessie’s Girl and Rick Springfield

Horton and Henry were rescued from slaughter and arrived at the barn malnourished, anxious, and covered in ticks. They now enjoy belly rubs, kiddie swimming pools, and sitting in the shade with Dudley and Destiny.


A trio of severely neglected horses were rescued in Kentucky. They joined Daisy, the Barn’s landlord’s healthy but lonely horse, and the beautiful quartet became fast friends.


Indie, Worthy, Chris and Daisy are wearing masks to keep flies out of their eyes.

Support The Gentle Barn Tennessee


The Gentle Barn Tennessee is located off of Watt Road in West Knoxville.

Mike Stiles is the Manager of The Gentle Barn Tennessee.

Tours are available to the general public on Saturdays (rain or shine). Reservations are required through the barn’s website. A visit begins with a presentation in the barn. Visitors can then meet and hand feed fruits and vegetables to the animals. The event concludes with a simple plant based lunch. Private tours, field trips, and birthday parties can also be scheduled at The Gentle Barn.

A variety of memberships and volunteer opportunities are also available. Special events, like A Gentle Thanksgiving, are another way to support the Barn. When visiting, don’t forget to visit the gift shop for souvenirs, t-shirts, and Ellie’s wonderful memoir. Follow the barn on Facebook for animal updates, photos, special offers, and opportunities to donate specific items.

Photos courtesy of The Gentle Barn and The Gentle Barn Tennessee.

© Knoxzine, 2015.

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