After enduring years of neglect and mistreatment, Penelope, Valentino and Rudy are finally home.
The trio now live on a beautiful and tranquil piece of land near Waverley that features wide-open spaces to move freely and plenty of trees when they need to catch a break from the summer sun.
Ralphy’s Retreat Animal Sanctuary has become a welcome refuge for these lovable farm animals who haven’t always experienced humanity at its finest.
There’s Darryl the alpaca who has a lot of character, horses, goats, turkeys, ducks, cows (Valentino and Hartley) and, of course, a wide array of friendly pigs like Rudy and Penelope.
There are also a couple of senior donkeys.
Apple Jack is 25 and shows no signs of slowing down while 35-year-old Radar was born without eyes, but easily finds his way as he plods along the large grassy field under a Simpsonesque sky.
Some of the animals like Valentino and Hartley were seized by animal control for being neglected or abused, while others such as Charlie, an adorable, petite black and white pig, were found wandering the streets of cities like Toronto and Bradford after being abandoned and forced to fend for themselves.
“Penelope was left living in a laundry room for nine years,” Shannon Leguizamon says as she gives the black pot-bellied pig a welcomed scratch behind the ears.
Burt, another happy-go-lucky pig, who greets strangers visiting the sanctuary like an old friend), came from a domestic violence situation.
Leguizamon adds: “The family had to find a new place to live and didn’t have a place for him.”
The story of Ralphy’s Retreat traces its roots back to 2003 when Kara Burrows rescued 18-year-old Winnie, a former show horse destined for the slaughterhouse.
While the retreat started saving 150 equines, including donkeys and ponies over the next six years, it wasn’t until 2010 that it welcomed its first porcine pair.
Gordon and Cosmo, pot-bellied pig brothers, were at risk of losing their lives so the retreat agreed to take them in and began the steep learning curve since Burrows and retreat volunteers knew next to nothing about how to care for pigs.
And while the retreat eventually settled into a farm in Norfolk County, health issues meant Burrows could no longer run it.
It might have closed for good had it not been for the kind hearts of the Shannon and Bernardo Leguizamon. They told Burrows they could take one pig at their smaller animal rescue/hobby farm.
“He loves animals as much as me," Shannon Leguizamon explains.
That was last September. In December, the rest of the menagerie arrived and they haven’t looked back.
“We have approximately 75 animals, 48 of which are pigs,” Leguizamon says, noting some people get piglets as pets but once they get past the “cute teacup stage” are no longer interested in caring for them.
She suspects this was the case with Charlie, who was abandoned on a Bradford street this past April and forced to fend for himself before kind strangers intervened and ensured he got the care he needed.
“He came in weighing 10 pounds and was emaciated,” she says. “But he’s got a heart of gold, which is amazing considering what he’s been through.
“We have a lot of hard cases come our way that sometimes other sanctuaries aren’t able to accommodate. We probably get about four calls a week to take pigs. A lot of these animals were at risk of being euthanized.”
On this particular mid-July afternoon, there are several volunteers helping out at the sanctuary along with three summer students hired through a government grant and a pair of University College Dublin veterinary students, who need to work on a pig farm as part of their studies.
“We have a lot of great volunteers,” Leguizamon says, noting Burrows remains the not-for-profit sanctuary’s president.
“We have people who come and read to the pigs, we have a lady who plays the harp for them. Pigs are super intelligent animals. They get a lot of enrichment. We are always looking for dedicated volunteers.
One of those volunteers is Alice Keith.
Keith, who lives in Orillia, is in the midst of a toy drive to raise collect toys for the animals. Toy donations for items such as Kongs can be picked up by phoning or texting Keith at (705) 305-6500 or dropped off at 164 Diana Drive.
“Can’t get out to shop, I can do that too,” Keith says. “What I do is get the e-transfer, buy toys and then text or email a picture of the items and your receipt with the date. Let’s keep the generosity going.”
The sanctuary is named after a little pig who lost his life far too young.
Ralphy was only nine months old when he joined the sanctuary in 2013.
“He was joyful, playful, affectionate and all the wonderful things a pig should be!” the sanctuary notes on its website.
“He helped us become aware of the plight of the pot-bellied pig, and when he died, we decided to rename the sanctuary after him and specifically help pot-bellied pigs. Although we still have other species of animal living at Ralphy's, today we dedicate our time and resources almost exclusively to the pot-bellied pig.”
And while the retreat is located on the Leguizamon’s property and as such remains a private sanctuary, they offer group tours during the summer months.
“We wanted to do some community events, but with COVID, it’s difficult,” Leguizamon says, noting they still hope to offer larger events in the future.
They also have a number of fundraisers, including one where donors can have their names engraved on posts used to build a much-needed new fence. As well, they shear wool-bearing animals to make hats and other items with the funds going to help run the sanctuary. And then there’s the alpaca manure, which is sold as an effective fertilizer.
A chiropractor also drops by regularly to help animals like Penelope, who could barely walk when she arrived.
As for the Leguizamons, they met in Haiti where Bernardo, who’s originally from Argentina, was working for the United Nations and Shannon, who’s originally from Walkerton, was doing mission work.
They have two children who are now in university and have lived in many different parts of the world. They decided to settle in Simcoe County a number of years ago.
“I work full-time for the Children’s Aid Society,” Shannon Leguizamon says, noting she hopes to start employing some of the animals in her work since children would benefit from visiting the friendly bunch.
“It’s good for children’s mental health. You can teach empathy and kindness through animals.”
There's also a section of the website dedicated to Ralphy's Angels, animals who have passed on featuring words from Suzanne Clothier Bones Would Rain from the Sky.
"There is a cycle of love and death that shapes the lives of those who choose to travel in the company of animals," it reads. "It is a cycle unlike any other.
"To those who have never lived through its turnings or walked its rocky path, our willingness to give our hearts with full knowledge that they will be broken seems incomprehensible. Only we know how small a price we pay for what we receive; our grief, no matter how powerful it may be, is an insufficient measure of the joy we have been given."
And Leguizamon knows these words well with no regrets about taking on what for some would be an awe-inspiring project.
“They reached out to me at first to take one pig and help out,” she says. “And we ended up with a sanctuary.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for my soul.”