Laurelee Blanchard talks to us about why she left California to pursue her dream of saving animals in Maui
Laurelee has an incredible story to tell. Her upcoming book, Finding Paradise: Leilani Farm Sanctuary of Maui, is an emotional and truly compelling tale of her lifelong commitment to animal advocacy. Her astonishing book is a vividly written account of her journey from a Senior Vice President of a real estate company in Southern California to opening a farm sanctuary on the island of Maui, Hawaii.
Laurelee has always been an animal lover and her story begins in 1966, when she was just a young child, and describes her relationship with her animal companion.
Smokey, a black cat, and Laurelee were inseparable and when the time came to visit her grandparents’ house, she was allowed to take her companion but, to her abhorrence, her father locked the cat in her grandparents’ basement despite Laurelee’s protests. Laurelee says: “That painful experience of not being able to protect my beloved companion cat would profoundly shape the course of my life. Someday, I would become a protector of animals.”
Laurelee became involved in Animal rights in the early 90s when she joined the Orange County People for Animals (OCPA). A leaflet, which she picked up at an OCPA meeting, led to her to veganism after learning about the destructive impact of factory farming on the environment.
OCPA also introduced her to animal activism and not long after her transition to veganism she joined protests against poultry production and the fur trade. However, Laurelee still felt that she could do more: “Making large donations to animal protection organizations had given me some satisfaction, but I yearned for a deeper and more direct involvement. I decided it was time to focus my energies toward helping a non-profit organization specialising in farm animal protection.”
Laurelee abandoned her hard-earned career in real estate and decided to move to Maui, an island of Hawaii, to follow her dream of opening an animal sanctuary. Laurelee’s sanctuary started with just two chickens, which she saved from a local factory. Just a few years later, Laurelee details the heart-breaking moment when she saved the 64 live hens from an abandoned farm, which had been left there to die.
She said: “Dead hens littered our path, and we gingerly stepped on and over them to reach the living. One poor bird died a slow, miserably death, her head jammed between the bars of her cage. Others had been flattened by factory vehicles. The place reeked of manure and chicken corpses, and I was sickened almost unbearably.”
The 64 chickens that she saved have prospered under her care and her flock has grown. The chickens can range freely over two thousand square feet and part of this area is dedicated to chickens that need specific care such as Limpy, whose legs were so weak that she could not walk. Despite the cruelty she had endured, Limpy loved to sit on Laurelee’s lap and be held with affection. Laurelee says that chickens, just like cats and dogs, love to be held and petted. Visitors to Leilani are shown how to hold a chicken caringly and many have unexpectedly fallen in love with them, vowing to never eat these loving animals again.
Fifteen years after Laurelee left California, her core values of love, kindness and empathy mean that she now cares for hundreds of animals on the farm including Ned (a goat saved from a dairy farm), Dorothy (a cow saved from slaughter) and Blind George.
George was one of the first arrivals to Leilani. As the population of Maui became aware of the work that the sanctuary was doing, Laurelee started to receive more and more calls asking her to take in needy animals. She remembers one story in particular. A man called Laurelee after rescuing a pig which was living behind a neighbourhood restaurant. The pig was being fed takeaway scraps and unsurprisingly, the potbellied pig was enormous. George was so obese that the fat rolls on his head covered his eyes completely. When he arrived at Leilani, Laurelee put him on a strict diet which saw him return to a healthy weight within months but the skin, which covered his eyes, remained. Laurelee contacted a local vet who told her that George’s eyeballs had atrophied (wasted away) as a result of the immense pressure that the fat had put on his eye sockets.
A couple of years later, George’s bad luck changed when a programme called Aloha Vet, filmed by National Geographic, arrived in Hawaii. The programme followed a vet called Dr Sims who performed various surgeries on animals around the islands. When the producer asked Laurelee if she had an animal in need of medical aid, she immediately thought of George. The vet agreed to perform blepharoplasty (an eyebrow lift) on George, despite the fact he had never performed this surgery before. Dr Sims put George under anaesthetic and used a scalpel to remove the excess tissue around his brow until his eyeballs were revealed. After a few weeks healing, Dr Sims proclaimed that George’s sight had been restored and he could finally enjoy the breath-taking views of the ocean.
Happy stories like George’s are not unusual at Leilani. Dorothy was, in the eyes of the dairy industry, spent and headed for the slaughterhouse. Thankfully, she was saved by a farm worker called Steve who had built such a strong bond with the cow that he paid the owner of the farm to save Dorothy’s life. Steve had no way to care for Dorothy himself and so he turned to Leilani for help. Laurelee took in Dorothy, who has since become a key part of the sanctuary’s education around the dairy, meat and leather industries for its visitors.
Laurelee often finds that the people who bring her animals in need are as affected by the experience as the animals themselves. Don, a life-long deer hunter, brought an orphan deer to Laurelee’s door after having shot her mother. He was forever changed and vowed never to hunt again. Since then, as he has become increasingly involved in the support of Leilani, he has started to experiment with a vegan diet and educating others about the work of the sanctuary.
Laurelee has created a safe haven where the public bring rescued animals and interact with them to learn about how animals and humans can live together peacefully and without cruelty. However, Laurelee does not have an endless pot of money to care for all of the animals that need her help.
Laurelee has set up a ‘Promise Fund’ to purchase the sanctuary land to ensure that the Leilani Farm Sanctuary can continue to home hundreds of animals now, and after she is no longer able to run the sanctuary. “I am determined to ensure the animals will be cared for after I’m gone.” She said, continuing: “Owning the land will make certain that the sanctuary animals will have a home far beyond my lifetime.”
Laurelee’s dream to set up a farm sanctuary was a risk and has been rocky road for her, but she wouldn’t change her decision. She said: ‘I no longer measure success by how much money I make, how many deals I broker, or how I can out-earn my competitors. As director of Leilani Farm Sanctuary, my life is richer and more meaningful than I’d ever imagined possible…
I am making a real difference in the world by pursuing my path.”
You can help Leilani Farm Sanctuary by making a donation to assist them in caring for rescued animals, providing humane education to the community, and to buy the property to ensure a sustainable future for the animals. Laurelee’s book, which details all of her animal rights efforts and more wonderful stories of the animals she has saved, will be available from her website soon at leilanifarmsanctuary.org.