Founder of the Children's Nature Retreat
Just outside of San Diego's bustling city life, Agnès Barrelet created a serene, magical haven for animals and people alike. Agnès founded the Children's Nature Retreat to provide solace to rescued animals — from guinea pigs to zebras — and shares the oasis with visitors. In our Animal People interview, Agnès tells us about the healing power of her work and what inspired her to create this little slice of heaven for animals.
Did animals have a big influence on your early life?
When I was young, I had to go to the mountains every summer for a month. I had bad lungs and I needed to go and breathe fresh air. So, starting at 4 years old, I was going to a small village in the south of France, and they had cows, goats and sheep. We were milking the cows and goats, and getting the cows to and from their field. I would play with the field mice. Then, I was rescuing kittens. My parents later told me people knew that I was taking them in, so that's why I kept finding kittens at the door. I thought it was a miracle!
What inspired you to create the Children's Nature Retreat?
I started my nonprofit work in Burkina Faso, Africa. I created Hands United for Children, a preschool, scholarship program and nursery, which has a deep impact on the community. We help about 200 kids a year. I really wanted to do something that impactful in San Diego, since I live here.
As an adult, now with my own family, I've had a number of animals — we have a bird, dogs, mice, guinea pigs and hamsters. And we were always going to the zoo and the wild animal park. I was volunteering at a rescue when I saw the movie "We Bought a Zoo," with Matt Damon. After seeing the movie, I had the idea of creating the retreat. That's how it started, and it took me a year to find the right property and two years to build.
I've always been attracted to animals, and I think the animals were attracted to me. I thought it was normal, but now, having the retreat, I feel like I have a special connection with animals.
What made the location in Alpine perfect for the Children's Nature Retreat?
The property was perfect because it is 20 usable acres of land — not too flat or hilly and it has some trees. It's beautiful and it just inspired me. I don't know if the land itself has some healing powers. Whenever you come here, of course, you have all the animals around you, but even the land itself is soothing. It's a wonderful place to be.
How many animals are you currently caring for?
We have 198 animals right now. The smallest animal would be a guinea pig and the biggest one is a camel, and we have everything in between. We have mini pigs and big pigs, mini goats and big goats, horses, donkeys, llamas, alpacas, watusis, a bison, zebras, sheep, a geep (which is a very rare sheep-goat hybrid), horses, chickens, ducks, turkeys and, of course, birds — we have peacocks, a macaw and cockatoos.
Most of the animals come from individuals, and they were pets who lost their home when their people had to move, got sick, had financial issues or passed away. We have some animals who came from slaughter houses and dairies. We have some pigs who came to us from a rescue that closed down, and two who were just found on the road and someone called us to pick them up. Those two got pregnant and we have their babies now!
I promise the animals that they will stay here for life. They are retired and I don't want them to work one day of their life. They come and see the visitors if they want to, but they are not obliged to be in the presence of humans. That's the beauty of it.
How has the pandemic affected your operation?
The pandemic has brought hardships. I may have to close down to the public and slash my team to care for the animals. What I love is caring for the animals. But I want to share what we do, because that's why I did this, for kids and for their parents. It's too beautiful to close the doors. That's why I'm working seven days a week, and not getting paid, because I put everything I have in this project, and now we have to make it work. So we're trying to get the word out.
What's the experience like for people visiting the retreat?
The most difficult part of the project has not been to get the word out to people, but to get people to understand just what the retreat is. It's very difficult to put the experience into words, because you've never experienced something like this. It's magical. You feel at peace. If you have struggles — stress, problems at your job or in your family — your first steps at the retreat actually make you feel better. When you meet your first animal, all your bad thoughts go away. For adults, I feel like it gives them the opportunity to actually step back and reflect. It gives them this window of opportunity to stop and make sure they are going in the right direction. What's incredible is you can just forget about everything and live in the moment, because the animals always live in the moment. They don't live for tomorrow or yesterday. That's the most beautiful thing.
Is there an animal who has left a lasting impact on your life?
It's hard to pick one … I have a few. I went to Texas to pick up Hope, our girl zebra. She was 2 weeks old and injured on her head with a second-degree burn on her face and ears. She needed to stay in a padded stall for about seven months, I bottle fed her for 12 months and walked her several times a day on a lead so she could not open her wound. I developed such a strong bond with her. I introduced her to Bamboo, our male zebra, and was afraid he would hurt her by being too rough with her, but he was always a gentleman. In fact, she's the one that became a little naughty with him. Once she was a year old, I knew she was ready to stay with him full time and they've been together ever since.
Flicka and her mom, Anna Maria, are two of our Friesian horses. Flicka was born here at the retreat when Anna Maria became pregnant at 14 years old. Anna Maria was rescued and was actively eating dirt, but we did not know about this. She had a sand colic when her daughter was 2 years old and sadly passed when our large animal vet tried to save her. Flicka had learned the pattern of eating dirt from her mother and got the same sand colic two weeks later. We rushed her to San Luis Rey Hospital. After colon surgery, three weeks of ICU and three months of stall rest, she made a full recovery. She's my little miracle.
How do the animals bring meaning to your life?
Caring for the animals is very soothing and rewarding. My life is bigger than my family and friends — 198 animals count on me to live a wonderful life, and stay well fed and safe. It's a huge responsibility but their love and affection is well worth it. I wish I could spend more time with the animals because it is therapeutic for me. There nothing better than raking manure in the pasture with your animals. It keeps you in the present and your worries disappear for a while.
Learn more about the Children's Nature Retreat and plan your visit at childrensnatureretreat.org.
Published: January 17, 2022