About an hour north of Sacramento, a 600-acre ranch nestled in the Sierra Foothills is a haven for animals that may not otherwise have a home or even a life. Animal Place Sanctuary takes in animals from small and large farms, slaughterhouses, and research facilities. They also care for animals that were abused or neglected.
Three-hundred animals call this place home. One of them is well known to KSBY viewers — "Panda," the calf burned in an act of animal cruelty that shocked many residents of the Central Coast.
In 2013, then 16-year-old high school student Dylan Wilkinson was raising Panda in Paso Robles to show and sell at the California Mid-State Fair as part of the FFA program. In October, the barn at Paso Robles High School where Panda was living was broken into, and he was set on fire. Miraculously, Panda survived and, over time, was nursed back to health. The community rallied around the 5-month-old steer and its owner, raising money for his care and extensive veterinary bills.
As his condition improved, controversy swirled around his owner’s decision to continue with his plan to show and sell Panda for slaughter at the fair. There were very passionate supporters on both sides as to whether Panda should be put up for auction. In the end, Marcy Christmas from Ventura donated $10,000 to "purchase" Panda prior to the fair, allowing him to live out his days at the Animal Place Sanctuary. Christmas said at the time, "I think Panda has been through way enough, more than any being should have to endure. The thought of him going to auction to be slaughtered is unthinkable."
The Executive Director at Animal Place Sanctuary, Kim Sturla, tells KSBY News Panda is thoroughly enjoying life at this unique home. She says Panda will always have the scars from the abuse but he remains as friendly with humans as the day he was loaded onto the trailer in Paso Robles in July 2014, bound for his permanent, idyllic home. Sturla said when he first arrived four years ago, he raced around the expansive pasture and loved playing with his big, bouncy ball just like a puppy.
The sanctuary sent KSBY recent video of Panda hanging out with his other bovine friends:
Sturla says Panda was recently placed in a pasture with other cows away from his steer buddies as he had a small (unrelated to abuse) leg strain. He was healing fine and seemed to like his time with the ladies. However, Panda was obviously missing his boys as one day, he broke down a fence separating the two genders. Sturla said, "Panda had made up his mind – he picked his boys." So Panda is now back in the steer pasture, swapping stories of his adventures with the girls.
In the attack, the calf, now over five-years-old, had one ear burned off. His other ear was damaged and there were concerns about his eyesight after he was set on fire. But the sanctuary says Panda can see and hear just fine despite the damage. The majority of his body has also recovered but the bald patches and scars from the fire will remain forever.
A Paso Robles man arrested seven months after the crime, 23-year-old Garrett Kaplan, entered a "no-contest" plea in court to a felony charge of animal abuse in November 2014. With the plea, Kaplan avoided a criminal trial, which means no evidence or witness testimony was heard in court. His formal sentence of one year in jail and five years of probation drew outrage from many in the community at the time.
As for Panda, his second chance at life now includes a daily routine of grazing with the herd, visiting near the main office for water breaks and, of course, nap time. Pardon the pun, but you could call this an "udderly" amazing tale of life, heartbreak and ultimately, a destination with a happy ending.
According to the Animal Place Sanctuary website, it is one of the largest and oldest animal sanctuaries in the nation. Visitors are welcome to see the operation, take a guided tour or make a donation.