Writer Joseph J. Airdo // Photography by Alexandra Buxbaum

Once upon a time, there lived a woman named Megan who loved animals so much that she regularly volunteered with nonprofit organizations dedicated to their care.

Megan and her partner Phil especially enjoyed volunteering at Better Piggies Rescue in the beautiful town of Cave Creek. It was not long until Phil fell madly in love with one of the residents at Better Piggies Rescue — a particularly adorable swine named Solange.

One day while recycling newspaper to wrap Christmas gifts, Megan and Phil came across a listing for a small piece of property in Peoria that looked like the perfect place to call home for themselves and Phil’s curly-tailed friend. Because Solange had developed a strong bond with another Better Piggies Rescue resident, they invited him to join them as well.

“We thought, it will be them two and us two, we will live happily ever after and that will be it,” Megan says.

However, fate had bigger plans for them when a friend of Megan’s father called to ask if they would adopt a charming goat named Barb whom his daughter had raised as a member of Future Farmers of America — an organization dedicated to preparing youth for leadership and careers in the science, business and technology of agriculture.

Megan and Phil happily invited Barb to join their clan and had the thought to open their home — and their hearts — to other four-legged individuals who might otherwise have no place to go.

“We felt really supported and encouraged by our friends, family and community,” Megan says. “We started building pens and setting up living structures and now we have 27 residents who live with us. I feel like a Disney princess because, every day when I walk outside, I have got all of these animals [saying in their own unique ways], ‘Hey Mom! Come play with us! We love you!’”

Vegan Venue
Megan Howell and Phil Walker founded Lamuella Animal Sanctuary in 2020, a few years after they had made the decision to go vegan. Having heard great things about the lifestyle from friends, Howell in 2016 cut out all foods derived from animals from her diet for 30 days. She felt so good after her trial period that she stuck with it. Walker followed suit shortly thereafter.

“Phil’s family is from Minnesota, so they are all about their cheese and dairy,” Howell says. “It was very surprising to them when he decided to go vegan after I introduced him to the individuals at Better Piggies Rescue. He did not do it all at once like I did, though. He took it in steps, cutting out one product at a time. Cheese was the last one to go and that was the hardest one for him.”

The two have since learned how to make cashew cheese, thereby allowing Walker to still enjoy the creamy concoction that is deeply rooted in his family’s culture — albeit in a modified form.

Unlike non-vegan animal sanctuaries, Lamuella not only provides rescue, rehabilitation and enrichment to its residents but also respects their space, boundaries and circumstances.

“For example, we have chickens that lay eggs and we feed those eggs back to them because, in our view, they do not lay eggs for us,” Howell explains. “They lay them out of a natural thing. But it is actually very healthy for those chickens to eat those eggs and get those nutrients back. We also do not use any of their droppings as fertilizer or compost because they cannot enthusiastically consent to us taking those things away from them.”

Residents at Lamuella Animal Sanctuary are also discouraged from breeding with one another and no one is expected to be friendly or social if they do not choose to be.

“We have some individuals that have been very severely traumatized by humans in their lives,” Howell says. “So some of them do not want to hang out with people. They just want to hang out with their own friends that are in the backyard. We just kind of let them do their thing. If and when they feel like blessing us with their attention, then they will. They follow their own rules. We are just the side characters in their movie.”

And there certainly are a lot of characters at Lamuella competing for the starring role, from Muchacho the cat, who casually strolls across Howell’s keyboard during Zoom interviews with journalists, to Paul the pig, who greets guests and excitedly invites them to see his little corner of the sanctuary.

“Paul is the friendliest and most remarkable pig that I have ever met in my entire life,” Howell says. “He is black and white and kind of looks like he is wearing a little tuxedo. He has the most commanding personality. He is always trying to help us out with our chores.

“He also loves to collect things in his room, which is made out of deconstructed pallets. Some of the wood makes little shelves and he collects rocks, sticks and other things that he finds around the yard. He even has a golf ball and a coconut shell on his shelves. The personalities of these animals are just mind-blowing.”

Speaking of personalities, you might say that Red the turkey is the resident diva.

“Red likes to put her big tail feathers on display,” Howell says. “She only does that for new people. She likes to show off and walk around as if she is saying, ‘I need you to think that I am gorgeous so I am going to show you everything that I have got.’”

Bright-Eyed & Bushy-Tailed
In addition to Paul and Solange, Lamuella Animal Sanctuary is home to six other pigs. Red is the lone turkey of the bunch but shares the yard with three hens, one rooster and one currently hibernating tortoise as well as Babe and seven other goats.

“Some of our goats are a little bit shy,” Howell adds. “It takes a little bit for them to warm up to you. But if they see their other goat friends coming up and getting attention and pets from you, then they will know it is safe and come up to you as well.

“We are also home to some native cottontail bunnies that live beneath our barn and our neighbor’s house. They are frequently running around and we give them scraps and leftovers so they do not feel neglected. They like to hang out with all of the animals. We often see them sunbathing next to the pigs and playing around with the chickens. Everybody has a good time.”

Muchacho shares the house with one other rescue cat as well as a red-eared slider that was rescued from a nearby irrigation ditch. Oh, and Howell and Walker live there, too.

You might assume that with so many residents and therefore responsibilities, the pair would call Lamuella Animal Sanctuary their full-time job. However, Howell and Walker allot all money received from the nonprofit organization’s generous donors directly to the residents to pay for their food, medical care, enrichment toys and other supplies.

“We still have our normal 9-to-5 jobs,” Howell says. “Phil is a data scientist at a cancer research company and I work in DoorDash’s fraud department.”

Fortunately, their workplaces are very understanding and allow them to step away from their computers or work from home if they need to do so for the animal sanctuary. Howell and Walker also have plenty of help from volunteers who are more than happy to spend time with Lamuella’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed residents.

“Our goal is to provide these individuals with a loving and respectful home,” Howell says. “One of our residents has mobility issues as well as PTSD because he was severely abused before he came to live with us. You can tell just by looking at him that something is a little off. But once you get to know him, he opens up and is just the biggest sweetheart.”

Additionally, Howell and Walker use Lamuella Animal Sanctuary as an educational tool, discouraging people from seeing animals as accessories or things that we can use or exploit.

“A lot of people see these animals as food sources,” Howell explains. “They think, ‘I could get milk from this goat or eggs from these chickens.’ But we want to teach people that they can instead get companionship, love and mutual respect from them. That was one of the first things that I learned when I went vegan and started volunteering at animal sanctuaries.

“Once you see a pig flop down and ask for belly rubs, you make that connection and can never go back. That is very much what it was for us. And that is what it is for our volunteers and supporters as well.

“[Each animal] has a different personality and finds enjoyment in different things. Some of our residents even like a certain type of music. If you put music on a Bluetooth speaker, they will really get into it. Others really like storytime and will just sit next to you and listen as you read to them.”

Boop Your Snoot
To further spread that lesson, Lamuella Animal Sanctuary often welcomes groups of individuals — such as at-risk youth — who help with projects and chores or simply just hang out with the residents. Howell says that it is a great way for kids — or even adults — to learn a few skills that are not typically taught nowadays.

“Who has farm experience these days?” she asks. “It is all about, ‘Can you code?’ or ‘Can you crypto’ or ‘Can you make a TikTok?’ But do you know how to brush a goat? Do you know how to help a chicken get themselves clean? Have you ever mucked a stall before?

“Just spending time with animals is not something that a lot of people have the opportunity to do. But when they are here, they learn fun facts like where a chicken’s ears are and what certain body movements mean and what a turkey might be telling you when she does this or that. They get a lot of education. And they feel a sense of accomplishment, as well, because they are helping these animals.”

Even Howell and Walker have discovered new skills and unearthed their own previously untapped potential through Lamuella Animal Sanctuary.

“We have learned how to build things safely and how to predator-proof pins,” Howell explains. “But we have also learned much more about ourselves. I am a small human. I am 5-foot-5 and weigh 115 pounds. But I have learned that I am so much stronger than I ever thought I was. I can lift heavy things. I can do physical labor.

“And we have had some hard times at the sanctuary. Individuals pass and we have to go through that process. We have learned that we are much more resilient than we thought when we were. We have also learned a lot about compassion when it comes to not just the animals but people as well.”

Three years after founding Lamuella Animal Sanctuary, Howell still pinches herself just to make sure that she has not fallen into a fairytale.

“It is very much that Disney princess, ‘Snow White’ vibe here,” she says. “You can sit in the grass, literally surrounded by pigs and goats who just want to hang out with you. Our pigs will nudge you and even give you kisses if you ask for them. They will come up and boop your snoot. That is my favorite. Then they will lead you toward one of the holes that they have been digging in the backyard as if to show off and say, ‘Look at what I have been working on all day!’ And it is literally just a hole in the ground. But they are very excited about it and love making friends.”