Around dawn on Jan. 23, Jody Bart’s cell phone started buzzing. It was one of her neighbors.
“I think your house is on fire,” they told her.
Bart, who had been staying less than half a mile away from her Amherst County home with her mother, began frantically dressing as more phone calls came in.
“And I get back over to the sanctuary and the house was totally engulfed,” Bart remembered.
Bart, a former Sweet Briar College professor, left her comfortable and clean office job 17 years ago to start Sanctuary Farm Everlasting Care, a safe haven for rescued animals of all kinds. Only recently had she applied to become a 501c(3) nonprofit.
Now smoke, flames and debris had taken it over.
The animals who call the farm home come from all kinds of situations; there are surrendered pets from terminally ill or elderly owners who have nowhere else to put them, cases of neglect, and the all too common case of pet ducks that have been dumped at ponds and lakes. They reside in enclosures specifically designed to protect them from the elements and natural predators with a net or cage overhead and small structures for them to escape and relax. They come to live with Bart for the rest of their natural lives.
When Bart’s contract was up in 2001 at Sweet Briar, rather than move onto another college, she lingered, having fallen in love with Virginia. She started caring for other’s animals and specializing in caring for animals with special and medical needs.
“This grew so large that when I bought the Sanctuary in 2004 and began to build my dream, the first years I paid for everything completely by caring for other folks’ animals,” she said.
About seven years ago, Bart joined social media and began posting daily about the sanctuary. Others joined her effort and helped raise funds to support specific projects as they came up. Bart has had many volunteers working with her and has hired many people during the last 17 years, among them construction and clerical workers as well as caregivers for the animals. But the day-to-day care and emotional labor of bringing traumatized animal minds back into balance, that is all left to Bart.
“I’ve so far not found anyone with that type of gift,” she said. “The philosophy here is complex, regarding animal psychology and requires a special kind of soul,” she said.
The legions of rescued include pigeons, goats, peacocks, pigs, guinea fowl, ducks, geese, hens, cats, horses, and Bart’s specialty: roosters.
Roosters, she said, tend to have a loud and naturally aggressive personality which makes people turn them out at high rates. After learning about each of the rooster’s personalities, Bart pairs them with other roosters she believes they can get along with, having about four roosters or less per coop.
The enclosures filled with rescue animals surround the spot where Bart’s 1,100-square-foot home once stood.
As of Friday, Amherst County Public Safety Director Sam Bryant said the fire remains under investigation, the cause undetermined.
Bart suspects three possible causes: the power line coming to the house failed, wiring within the house failed, or the only source of ignition in the house — a very small, low-profile space heater on tile — caught fire.
Bryant said the blaze was reported shortly before 6:30 a.m. Jan. 23.
The home on the 200 block of Gateland Road near the Virginia 151 corridor in northern Amherst County was completely destroyed by the time Bryant arrived shortly after the fire was reported, he said.
The small wooden structure didn’t take too long to burn down. It is considered a total loss, he said.
Some exotic birds, cats and a dog that were inside the home at the time of the fire were killed, while the animals outside the home survived, he said.
Bart has a name for each animal, knows their individual personalities, and the situation they were rescued from. Among them is her personal rescue, Sagan.
Sagan the potbelly pig, who lived inside the house with Bart, was the only animal rescued from the fire. He now lives in his own little shed full of hay, blankets and plush beds.
Bart arrived on the scene just as the firefighters did and it was clear to her the house was completely engulfed.
“I knew the 20 animals, cats, tropical birds, four elderly pigeons and a little dog were already gone,” she said. My [neighbors] and I ran around back to save Sagan, a potbelly and my personal pet. Got him down to a lower field, then went to save the four [mini pigs], four other pot bellies who lived next to the house and all seven goats.”
A few of her close friends came to help and went into each barn and coop to get roosters, peacocks and geese into carriers and moved them all into a 1,100 square-foot pigeon aviary at the top of a hill on the property.
“Once every single individual was safe, I sat shivering in the cold watching my home of 17 years, the center of life at the Sanctuary, burn to the ground,” she said.
Freeman Miller, a neighbor and close friend to Bart, took charge at the scene of the fire and was helping to direct firefighters on the property during the fire. His sons and son-in-law also came over to help move animals to safety.
“The loss is complete and devastating and the need to rebuild is urgent,” he said.
With 20 of Bart’s personal pets lost in the fire, all she can do now is move forward and continue caring for the 100 animals left.
“When I found this place, I purposely chose it because it was very isolated, very safe, no roads or people or anything, so it was a good place for animals,” Bart said of the farm.
The Saturday after the fire occurred, Bart did all she could to provide them with some sense of normalcy. As she walked around the charred remnants of her home to get to the pig pen Bart purposely avoided looking at the remains and focused her energy on caring for the animals.
Shortly after the fire, a friend of Bart’s started a GoFundMe page, which had raised $9,000 as of Friday.
The greatest loss to Bart were her animals, but she also lost medicines, medical supplies, her winter stockpile of feed and grains, animal pens, bowls and tools. Insurance doesn’t cover many of those things, she said.
“Every dime of [money raised from GoFundMe] is going to be to put the sanctuary back together,” Bart said. “Because this means so much to me and every bit of support that comes my way is going straight into the animals as it always has.”
Bart said she is thankful to the first responders and neighbors who came to put the fire out and has been overwhelmed by the support given from all over.
“The love and support that’s been flowing my way has been overwhelming,” she said. “I had no idea that in 17 years, so many people’s lives have been touched by these animals. The only thing that has meant anything to me is the animals. My entire life is devoted to them.”
Miller said Bart has sacrificed her life tremendously to provide safety and care for animals that were either abused or neglected.
“She takes care of them whether they may be seniors or whether they’re young babies that need to be fed,” he said. “I’ve never seen anybody to put such personal care to individual animals, just like someone does with their kids.”
Reporter Justin Faulconer and photojournalist Kendall Warner contributed to this report