Under the Sun

Herd Mentality: Bonnie and Tom and the Urban Phoenix Barnyard

Robrt L. Pela
Visitors regularly stop by at the Backyard Barnyard Foundation and Sanctuary in central Phoenix .

Editor's Note: Robrt L. Pela writes about the people and places that define the Phoenix area.

Bonnie Drescher West heard a goat crying one day at her veterinarian’s office. She was there with her dog, and she asked to meet the goat. “His name was Cedric, and he had been abused,” she said. “I came home and said to my husband, Tom, ‘We’re adopting a goat.’”

“I’m always the last to know,” Tom said, and then he laughed. Cedric the goat still lives with Tom and Bonnie at the acre-wide Backyard Barnyard Foundation and Sanctuary in central Phoenix.

It can be hard to explain, Bonnie said on a recent Saturday afternoon, what Backyard Barnyard is. “People know we’re here,” she said, “although we don’t advertise. We don’t give out our address. But people come to the fence every day to talk to the animals, and feed them. They bring us animals and we have to tell them we aren’t a rescue, we’re a sanctuary. We don’t adopt out. We don’t sell eggs or take every stray. When it comes to pigs and goats, I sometimes have to say, ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t.’”

Courteous people come to the front door with their strays, Tom said. “Then, there are the chuckleheads who dump chickens over the fence in the middle of the night,” he confided. “We get a lot of chickens that way.”

Once, Bonnie and Tom found a box of bunnies tied to the fence. Another time, a family brought a pig named Hammy and said they were moving and couldn’t take her with them.

The woman who sold them their house and its plot of land in 2011 left behind her two Labradors.

“We bought the house from her because there were all these animals living here,” Bonnie said, “and we were worried about what would happen to them.”

“I think I found the house,” Tom said.

“You didn’t,” Bonnie replied. “It was me.”

Bonnie and Tom had lived in the neighborhood for nearly 15 years before buying the sanctuary. They also share their land with two sheep, five donkeys, three goats, and a lot of chickens. There were three turkeys, most notably Eddie, a meat-bred turkey rescued from a Tucson post office, who waddled because his breast was so large. There were seven pigs, one of them named Albert Swinestein.

“We’re not zoned for cattle,” Bonnie explained, “otherwise we’d have cows. We have five dogs.”

“Six dogs,” Tom said, and they both laughed. “This is what happens when you live with this many animals. You lose track.”

One of the swine, 150-pound Romeo, came from a woman who collected ceramic pigs. “So her son thought it would be a good idea to buy her a real pig,” Bonnie said, then rolled her eyes.

Someone recently brought a chicken named Miley Cyrus to leave at Backyard Barnyard. The man left a donation and some feed. A few days ago, he texted to ask how Miley Cyrus was doing. Tom texted back a photo of the hen, posing with a rooster and looking content.

Sometimes, Bonnie said, people ask her to feel guilty. “They say, ‘If you won’t take this pig, I guess I’ll just have to slaughter it.’ I tell them that shouldn’t be their first choice. I give them the names of other sanctuaries.”

Bonnie doesn’t feel guilty. She and Tom share their house with 11 cats, those six dogs, and a 17-year-old pig named Frank. The cats have the entire upstairs to themselves: 1,200 square feet of gambol and sunbaths. There was no odor of animals in the house.

“Cleaning is an all-day, ongoing project, especially with the cats,” Bonnie admitted. “The pig is house-trained, so he’ll let us know when he needs to go outside. Sometimes, one of the dogs poops on the floor. It’s just who we are.”

Bonnie works at a local law firm, Tom for the Humane Society. “If we had the time, we’d formalize our outreach,” Bonnie said. “Right now it’s evenings and weekends. I have a Girl Scout troop coming next week to visit the animals.”

The Backyard Barnyard’s nonprofit status allows Bonnie to take donations toward food and veterinarian care for the animals. She wished there was more time and money to spend educating about potbelly pigs. She pleaded with people to spay and neuter their pigs. “Female pigs are fertile once a month and get real bitchy,” she warned. “Males will hump your leg nonstop if they’re not fixed.”

Breeders don’t tell prospective pig owners that pigs grow until they’re about 6 years old, Bonnie said. “They lie and say that these little pigs stay little. In five years, that little pig is going to weigh 70 or 80 pounds. Pigs are wonderful, but they’re more difficult than an 80-pound dog.”

That family that turned up at Bonnie and Tom’s with Hammy, the cheerful 100-pound sow with health issues — “they paid $5,000 for her from a breeder in Utah who said she was a micro-mini pig," huffed Bonnie. “There’s no such thing.”

The family told Bonnie they would mail a donation. “They never did,” she said.

“We don’t normally name our pets after food,” Tom explained about Hammy. “She came here with that name.”

“We call her Hampton,” added Bonnie, who’d like one day to write a children’s book about caring for animals.

A group of people stood at Backyard Barnyard’s cyclone fence, talking to Romeo. “We come here every week,” one of them told Bonnie, then pointed to Albert Swinestein. “I’ve always wanted a pig, but not a big one like this. One of those cute little ones that fit in your lap.”

Bonnie smiled at the woman. Tom raised a hand in greeting. “Thank you for coming out here to say hello to everyone.”