This Thing Called Courage

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rescued from Highway Median Strip, Athena Thrives

Norton farm shelters animals and a shy goddess

NORTON - She was a shaggy brown mess when first brought to her new home at Winslow Farm Animal Sanctuary this past winter, not to mention completely antisocial, unwilling to get close not only to humans, but also most other animals.

But now the sheep, dubbed Wandering Woolie when she was found - but renamed Athena after the Greek goddess of wisdom, by sanctuary owner Debra White - is assimilating nicely at her new digs. It is a far cry from where she’d spent an estimated year and a half - the median strip between Interstate 95 and Interstate 495 in Foxborough.

Shorn clean of her thick wool earlier this summer, she’s now taking food from the palms of her handlers, White said, and gets along with other creatures at the sanctuary, which hundreds of abandoned and abused animals have called home since 1996.

“She’s doing amazingly well, where I thought it would take a year to get close to her. She’s eating out of my hand, as long as I squat down,’’ White said. “And when she got sheared, the shearer said she was the best-behaved of four others she sheared that day.’’

Athena’s progress is remarkable considering where she was found, on the median strip between two of the area’s busiest highways before being noticed and eventually captured by North Attleborough resident Linda Faber, who spearheaded the effort with volunteers and the Animal Rescue League of Boston. No one is sure of Athena’s age, but it is estimated by her wool that she had been roaming the strip for up to 18 months.

And no one is sure how she got there, though White has her theory: that the sheep had fallen off a truck on the way to the slaughterhouse. “She was probably on her way to being a leg of lamb, but luckily she fell off,’’ she said at the sanctuary nestled in the woods near Meadowbrook Pond, with peacocks squawking nearby and horses grazing in a wide enclosure.

That the sheep survived is remarkable, White said, foraging for food with no shelter and no one to shear the heavy coat she wore for two summers.

“In the beginning, I offered her branches of leaves and pine needles because this was the sort of thing she survived on being on the highway,’’ she said.

That gave way to the regular grain and hay she now gobbles eagerly, White said, and occasionally from human hands. “Our morning feeder, Heidi Medas, at our special-needs barn where Athena was housed, was the first one to actually touch her,’’ she said. “Heidi has a calm energy about her that’s so important to the well-being of animals who are unsure of humans.’’

White created Winslow Farm 12 years ago, after working three jobs for 17 years with hardly a day off to finance the nonprofit. The land had been her family’s; she was raised nearby, in a goat shed, she said with a laugh. Her father, David Sheldon White, was an engineer and developed Parkinson’s disease in his late 20s. Because of his illness, the family eventually lost the property that White has since bought back and has slowly added to over the years.

The sanctuary ( has grown since 1996, when it opened as a petting zoo. Now home to about 300 animals, it hosts educational programs, tours, and such events as Renaissance and psychic fairs. A recent addition was a sprawling wooden playground.

Another recent addition: a 300-pound pig from Berkley that belonged to a girl who got it as a piglet and whose family realized they couldn’t care for it when it matured but refused to sell it for slaughter.

On a recent hot summer day at the sanctuary, Athena meandered among other animals, including a brilliantly hued peacock, chickens, and other sheep. She warily moved away when approached by a human she didn’t know, allowing herself to be photographed only from afar.

Athena arrived at Winslow Farm about the same time last winter as Gulliver, a 200-pound Toggenburg goat that was found wandering in Middleborough. For a short time, the two animals shared the same stable at the Animal Rescue League facility in Dedham, and when they were brought to Winslow Farm together, they were friendly only to each other.

Now, said White, Gulliver is far more outgoing, “running from one end of the farm to the other, kicking his heels and romping with his friends while Athena stands in the distance and observes.’’

The sheep now lives in a barn with others of her species, she said - three other farm sheep, Clover, Enya, and Lilly.

“And, of course, Gulliver is nestled in there, too, being one big happy family here,’’ White said.

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company


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