A herd of farm animals meanders across a grassy knoll, trailing after a slim, dark-haired woman in a straw-dusted barn jacket and rain boots.
“As long as I’m outside, they just want to be with me,” says Miyoko Schinner, a vegan chef and the force behind the Rancho Compasión Animal Sanctuary, a newly minted nonprofit in Nicasio. “When I leave, they wait for me by the fence before they go off and do their own thing.”
On this chill and sunny winter afternoon, several goats and two small cows are close on her heels. A mocha-colored Barbados sheep hovers shyly on the edge, along with her longtime goat companion. Rotund potbellied pigs nose along a rail fence farther afield, and four large ducks—white, under a mottled layer of mud—waddle in a quacking line through the grass.
Ms. Schinner kneels down and puts her arms around the necks of two goats—black and white Rufus and pure white Reggie. “I love you both so much,” she says. Reggie nuzzles her and, laughing, she explains, “This is my boyfriend goat—because he kisses me all the time.”
When Ms. Schinner is around her animals, she is often talking to them and touching them. “They are seen as lesser, but they aren’t,” she said. “If you treat them like you would your dog, they are just as loving and connected.”
Opening a sanctuary for “previously neglected, exploited and abused animals,” as her website puts it, was one of Ms. Schinner’s “bucket-list dreams,” she said. Two years ago, while living in San Anselmo, she casually mentioned the idea to her husband, Michael Schinner. At the time the couple owned cats and a dog, and tended a coop of rescue chickens.
“Two days later he came to me and said, ‘There’s a place available in Nicasio right now.’ We were literally in escrow a few weeks later,” she said.
The seven-acre hillside property is screened from Nicasio Valley Road by a line of eucalyptus and redwoods and includes a pond (which the ducks strictly avoid, Ms. Schinner said). It came with a house, a paddock, a three-stall barn and a pagoda-like outdoor aviary that now serves as a chicken coop.
When the Schinners purchased the property, they thought that they would wait to acquire any more animals, in part because she was fully occupied with her burgeoning vegan cheese company, Miyoko’s Kitchen. “The company was going gangbusters, growing at 300 percent per year, and I really didn’t think I had time,” she said.
But though they didn’t announce their plans for a sanctuary, word trickled out to the vegan community, where Ms. Schinner has what she calls “a pretty big following.”
First, an animal sanctuary in Grass Valley called and said they had two goats they couldn’t find homes for. A month later, another call came in about three pigs whose owner had passed away. Soon other animals followed: Angel the cow had been slated for slaughter when a dairy closed down; goat Benny and sheep June were retrieved from a hoarder; the ducks were hatched in a classroom. The sanctuary was off and rolling.
At the moment, Rancho Compasión is home to 26 chickens and 15 other farm animals. Ms. Schinner tends them daily, feeding them, mucking out stalls and often taking them on walks.
“I didn’t know a thing about farm animals at first,” she said. “I thought, what if I start this and hate it? But I love it. This is really where my heart is—this is what I want to do, long-term.”
The inspiration for a sanctuary came during a visit to a vegan taco truck in Austin. The owner had two pigs in a small yard behind his truck, and Ms. Schinner realized you didn’t have to have the layout of a traditional farm to support animals—whose welfare has been a central goal for her since childhood, she says.
Ms. Schinner said she became a vegetarian at age 12, teaching herself to cook because her mother would no longer cook for her. As an adult, she went vegan, started two bakeries and a restaurant, wrote five cookbooks and co-hosted the Vegan Mashup cooking show, which aired on PBS.
“For many years I was afraid to speak up,” she said. “So I found the best way to reach people was through food. If I showed them there were alternatives, and they didn’t have to wake up and wonder, ‘What am I going to eat for three meals a day,’ then they could feel more empowered and inclined to make that transition.”
This fall, Rancho Compasión earned nonprofit status; the organization has a web site, a board, volunteers and big plans for the future. “If I can grow the cheese company and sell it, I’d like to buy a lot more land,” she said, squatting as Reggie nuzzled her hair. “We can have a few more here, but we have to build the infrastructure... The issue is making sure that they all get along at night.”
She also is exploring starting an umbrella organization for small animal sanctuaries that would help with fundraising, infrastructure and other support.
“I dream of a world where all creatures are treated fairly and have equal opportunity to happiness and liberty,” she said. “I just want to encourage people to really think about where their food or clothing comes from. You don’t have to be 100 percent vegan, but just do what you can to be more conscious.”
To learn about volunteer opportunities, visit ranchocompasion.org/volunteering.