One of the hardest things we've lost during the pandemic has been physical touch and the connection of a hug or even a handshake. A hug has a calming effect that can reduce blood pressure and improve many facets of health.
Now a sanctuary in Jefferson County is offering hugs with a twist.
In Dittmer, Missouri, serenity and healing await at The Gentle Barn. It's 29 acres filled with the love and energy of all types of animals, including cows, donkeys, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys and a duck.
Ellie Laks and her husband Jay Weiner opened The Gentle Barn in Santa Clarita, California, 22 years ago to provide therapy while rescuing animals. This was a dream Laks had at a very young age.
"Since I was seven years old this has been my dream; to have a big place full of animals and show the world how beautiful they are and let all the struggling people come in and heal among the animals," Laks said.
Mental health has been more prominent these past two years and many are seeking out help in new ways, like cow hug therapy.
"'The biggest thing they've taught me is we have way more in common than separates us," Laks added. The Gentle Barn in Dittmer opened after the great escape of "The St. Louis Six" almost five years ago.
"Six cows, literally inside a slaughterhouse knowing full well what was about to befall them, ran for their lives," Laks said. "Those cows ended up being sent back to the slaughterhouse but then the community demanded their release and their freedom."
Laks said she received so many calls in California asking for their help. "We come in, save them and open a Gentle Barn here in St. Louis to be home for them and then we take them through the recovery process".
One of the six was injured and did pass away, but in honor of them as a team they were named the St Louis Six.
Laks says it took months for the cows to trust, be fed cookies and allow someone to pet them and in turn become healers. "Now right from the slaughterhouse they're cow hug therapists."
A hug is said to go a long way and the St Louis Six are proving just how true that statement is. The Gentle Barn is open to the public on Sundays where hundreds come in. They also offer private tours for small groups or events. The cow hug therapy is meant for more individual assistance and Laks added it has had a profound impact on many struggling in our world.
On their website are other stories of rescue. Animals like Petunia the pig, who was found running on the side of the road. Einstein the sheep had been living in the woods for three years having escaped from something terrible. Baron Von Goat lived in neglect at a place that didn’t want him, chained to a post.
The cow hug therapy is offered on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, not during the open public day on Sundays.
Laks said there were so many amazing stories of strength that people felt after leaving their therapy session, including a woman who came out during the pandemic feeling lost and anxious. She and one of the cows spent the full hour in a hug without breaking and just meditated and breathed together. Laks has many stories of hope and how many have felt changed thanks to these gentle therapists.
The Gentle Barn has served as an event space for many birthday parties, special events and field trips. Laks also told us first responders, health care workers and teachers who have felt much of the stress of the pandemic have turned to them to help them feel more hopeful, inspired and grounded.
To find out more on cost and reservations, click here to go to their website.