By Wendy Kilmer
Photography by Laura Seaton
Brenda May says she and her family are city folk. Yet Brenda shares her home and land with more than 150 animals.
May Farm in Hawley is well known by almost anyone in the area who has had children in the last 30 years. A favorite school field trip location and a traveling petting zoo have made it a staple among Abilene families and kid-oriented events.
And despite her claim to be a city person, Brenda admits her family always harbored a love for land and animals.
“Dad grew up on a farm, and he didn’t want to be a full time farmer, but he still kept a farm with cows as a weekend getaway,” Brenda said. “We’re city people. But we couldn’t ever get rid of the farm.”
Brenda and her late husband, Jeral, inherited the farm and the herd of cows from her dad, and it wasn’t long before her two children wanted horses too.
“We didn’t have the excuse of no place to put them!” Brenda said. So, horses it was.
Not long after, they added donkeys to their crew – to help keep coyotes away, Brenda said. Other animals trickled in as well.
“My husband loved buffalo so we went to an exotic animals sale and bought llama and buffalo,” she said. “Jackson Elementary school had a contest to name the buffalo. Tahtonka lived for 21 years.”
Today’s farm roster includes not only cows, horses, donkeys and llamas, but also goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits, tortoises, cats, dogs and even Beefalo – a cattle-bison hybrid.
In the spring of 1988, a group of fifth graders from Alta Vista Elementary visited the farm as a reward for participating in the school’s Just Say No program. In addition to animal interactions, Brenda arranged for a hay ride and set up a ping pong table. That summer, word spread among local teachers and schools, and the field trips started lining up.
Brenda and the animals of May Farm now serve as hosts to field trips every day of the year, March through October, weather permitting.
Kim Shuping and sons Brady and Samuel have visited May Farm twice.
“One of the benefits of kids interacting with animals at May Farm is for them to learn the importance of caring for animals,” Kim says. “It requires a great deal of time, effort, and resources to own pets and livestock. You don’t stop providing for an animal just because the new wears off. It should be a long-term commitment.”
Samuel, age 6, said his favorite animal at May Farm is the turkey.
“I like getting to feed and pet all the animals,” said Brady, who is 8 years old.
“The animals have such personality, and we show the kids that personality,” Brenda said.
Because many of the May Farm animals are rescues, however, they don’t always start out with a warm, friendly personality.
“We get rescues from other farms, or even some abandoned on the highway or rescued from animal cruelty situations,” Brenda said. “Local shelters call us often. Sometimes the animals are initially defensive or scared. It just takes a lot of kind, gentle touches, and gradual exposure to kids.”
Cotton Eyed Joe, a 35-year-old horse holds the title of oldest animal on the farm. Lucy, a baby llama born in January is the youngest.
“One of the comments many people have is how do we get all the animals to get along,” Brenda said. “Well, really, God does that. They just learn to be together. They are family to each other, and family to me.”
They are also a travelling family. A petting zoo with one of each type of animal on the farm, plus several sheep and goats, loads up and moves out regularly for various festivals, child care center visits and other family- and child-oriented gatherings.
The cold temperatures in winter and the frequent draught conditions present frequent challenges for maintaining a farm of 150 animals.
“But when I see kids out here enjoying the animals, it’s all worth it,” Brenda said.
“I think kids need to have the chance to enjoy being around animals. And they need to know where their food comes from. When our first group of fifth graders came out here, I asked ‘Where does milk come from?’ And one kid said ‘Safeway!’ I really believe they need to know where it comes from and that people worked hard to get it to them. We have a responsibility to care for and enjoy animals. “