Tours at Animal Friends Sanctuary benefit shelter, promote compassion

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Two-year-old Blake Burkley broke down into fits of laughter when it was time to feed the cows.

Perched on her mother’s hip, the girl laughed while two cows named Mary and Jesus searched their tongues for a tasty treat. For Alexa Burkley of Irwin, a tour of the Animal Friends Sanctuary in Unity was a perfect way to introduce Blake and Briggs, 11 months, to creatures they wouldn’t normally see.

“We’re just trying to teach empathy for animals,” she said.

In addition, it was a good opportunity to support the Youngwood-based non-profit Animal Friends of Westmoreland which operates a shelter and adoption center for dogs, cats and rabbits, as well as a farmland reserve, said Father Brad Burkley.

CEO Kelly Brisbane said Saturday’s rides were the first safe haven event since the coronavirus pandemic began. The organization acquired the land in 2017 to provide a home for abused and neglected farm animals such as sheep, goats and pigs. She said it was important to start introducing the animals to people other than those who regularly care for them.

About 50 people took part in the tours. Liam Saltarelli, 6, of Greensburg, has had a blast feeding sheep and trying to get rewards of three goats and a baby mule. He was reluctant to feed the cows.

“I’m so excited we got out here,” said Grandma Jodi Morley of Janet. “He just loves animals.”

Brisbane said the organization plans to expand the preserve over 62 acres by allowing each species their own space and more freedom to come and go. The farm animals will spend their whole lives in the sanctuary.

The pandemic has been difficult for many shelters as initial restrictions have halted in-person fundraising events. Brisbane said veterinarians are also in high demand, sometimes making it difficult to get adoptable animals into new homes and making space for others. In addition, the number of people calling for the delivery of animals or reporting neglect appears to have increased, she said.

Second set of sanctuary tours scheduled for December 15 from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Advance reservations required. A ticket is a $10 donation.

Renata Signorini is a Tribune Review writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374,, or via Twitter .

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