A couple from Cannes followed their dream to rescue farm animals from industrial exploitation, and created a harbour of peace for anyone on two and four legs
In these troubled times, more and more people are looking for a way out of the rat race. But while most are quite happy to just get away for a break or simply keep dreaming, Stéphanie Noël and her husband George Homs turned the corner for good in December 2018, leaving behind their busy urban lives in Cannes to heed a call to the remote countryside at the foot of the Pyrénées mountains, 650 km (400 miles) from home. And they never looked back. Animal lovers that they are, they turned their vision of creating a sanctuary for farm animals rescued from commercial exploitation, abuse, or neglect, into reality. But this is not “just another sanctuary”, this is a unique and well-thought-out holistic project that reconciles animals, nature, and humans.
Le Sanctuaire La Garie is as far from city life as you can imagine. An hour’s drive south of the nearest large city of Toulouse, nestled smack in the middle of nowhere, and surrounded by snowcapped mountains, majestic forests, and rolling pastures, the 55 ha (136 ac.) property is picture perfect. It is here, in this quiet, bucolic corner of the French Southwest, that Stéphanie and George found their happy place – and they gladly share it with several dozen rescued farm animals, nine family cats, and any visitors who want to trek to this gorgeous but remote corner of the country.
Militant Neo-Eco-Muesli-Hippies? Think again
If you picture Stéphanie as an overalls- and rubber boots wearing country girl… you’re quite right, that’s her standard outfit these days.
But the Parisian native comes from a background that is diametrically opposite of her new life as a farmer and sanctuary manager: Stéphanie’s youth is marked by her parents’ artistic careers. Her mother was famous actress and singer Magali Noël (†2015), one of the most recognizable French stars of her time and dubbed “the French Sophia Loren”, and her father the no less renowned actor Jean-Pierre Bernard (†2017). She grows up regularly rubbing shoulders with the likes of Federico Fellini, Francis Huster or Michel Galabru before launching herself into a career as an actress. She participates in major award-nominated theatrical productions, and later turns to stage-directing plays. It does not take long until she makes a name for herself beyond “the daughter of…”.
But all that glitters is not gold for her… Ever since her childhood, she has dreamt of offering farm animals a life that allowed them to live in tranquility and have the space they need to fully develop. But while she is deeply committed to the cause of animal welfare, she is not a romantic idealist. She has a sharp business sense and knows she needs to be patient until all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
In 2017 she finally gets to the point to make things happen. It takes a while – and a lot of tours through the French countryside – to find the perfect spot. But as soon as she comes across La Garie, the property whose name recalls Niçois writer Romain Gary, a favorite of her late father’s, she knows, “this is it!”
And by the time Stéphanie actually purchases the property in 2018, she envisions a new type of sanctuary: Apart from offering a safe haven for animals in need, she would also embark on a mission to educate the general population on the poor conditions in which working farm animals and those destined for the meat industry live. And she wants this to be a place in harmony with the surrounding nature where not only animals but humans, too, can nurture their souls and recharge their batteries. Turning a portion of her vast new mansion into guest lodgings would be perfect, she thinks…
Stéphanie’s Dutch-born husband and co-creator of La Garie, George Homs, shares her passion and her workload. He is a tall, dark and handsome bundle of brains and brawn whose raw energy races at a speed of 3,000 thoughts a minute. He effortlessly goes from cleaning the stables, constructing barns, or digging in dirt to taking magazine-worthy photos to document life at La Garie for social media, by way of any other tasks that need to be taken care of.
This is not the first time that George has reinvented his life. The former political scientist turned international IT business executive previously also managed cultural events and museum exhibits in Cannes and The Netherlands, tapping into his passion for cultural asset digitization. And he is heavily involved in political life on a communal level. In the 2019 European Parliament elections he ran for office for Parti Animaliste, the French animal welfare party.
An Animal Paradise
Christmas 2018: The couple says goodbye to Cannes and – their worldly belongings and family cats in tow – set off for a new life. Once arrived, they roll up their sleeves right away. A mountain of work awaits them but they are not afraid to climb it.
Major construction and renovation gets underway almost immediately. The hard physical labour is punishing for city-conditioned bodies. The weather does not cooperate in the spring, heavy rains delay progress. The learning curve is steep, from how to build an enclosure to understanding the rhythm of nature here. But there is no time to waste because less than three months after their arrival, their first protégés are ante portas – two geese saved from the cruel fate of forced liver-fattening, swiftly followed by a couple of pigs named Victoire and Félicité that had never known a life outside the confines of their mass breeding establishment. And within just days a brood of hens joins the menagerie as well.
A little over one year into their adventure, 55 farm animals now call La Garie “home”, including a buffalo, a cow, numerous semi-free-roaming horses, donkeys, pigs, muttons, a goat, a rooster, and any number of chicken and ducks – and over the next two years, about 150 more will join them. What they share, apart from their sumptuous new surroundings, is the fact that all of them escaped a sinister fate. Many were literally saved en route to the slaughterhouse. The ducks were force-fed to turn their livers into foie gras. The male buffalo, useless from a commercial point of view, was destined to end up as a hamburger or as meatballs. Other animals were just living a squalid life of abuse, neglect, or exploitation. The hens were egg-laying machines, the sows piglet-production factories…
Thanks to Stéphanie and George’s intervention, all of them are now enjoying their new lease on life, on the pastures, in the mud, or around the barnyard. And on our recent visit we even spotted an uninvited but not unwelcome visitor – a boar from the nearby woods, placidly grazing amidst the horses on the freshly greening pastures.
“You used to only ever hear of shelters for cats and dogs but sanctuaries for farm animals were extremely rare. And yet, there is more and more need for this type, given the increasing abuse and maltreatment in agricultural meat-production facilities,” Stéphanie informs us. Also, the current fad is miniature farm animals that people keep in apartments. These, too, often need to be rescued when the owner gets tired of them or overwhelmed with the work, she adds.
Although La Garie is not a refuge for domestic animals, nine lucky family cats also share a blissful home here. Tony, Miou-Miou, Phédor, Nikita, Zébulon, Olympe, Noé, Pierrot, and Sissou all have a sad past, too – abandoned, injured, abused, stray, handicapped, sick… They don’t have to earn their keep as barn cats or mousers, they can just chill to their heart’s desire, but they are of course welcome to “help” if they are so inclined. And some of them have discovered the beauty of interspecies relations and are forming friendships with the cows, horses, donkeys or pigs. This rescue cat, named Pierrot, had lived in the streets of Cannes for over 12 years before he was fortunate enough to join the Noël-Homs menagerie in a lamentable state. It took him exactly two days to turn in his feral card.
Creating and running a sanctuary is not for lazy bums. Stéphanie and George work from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. Animals need to be fed. Stables need to be cleaned out. Barns and shelters need to be built. Fences need to be mended. Supplies need to be hauled. Grass needs to be cut. Thicket needs to be cleared. A household needs to be maintained… They may be exhausted but that unmistakable radiant glow of content and happiness on these two former city slickers speaks volumes – they have never been happier in their lives.
The first year was hard but there were also a lot of highlights. After years of abuse, neglect, or exploitation, the animals first need to process what is going on. “In the beginning, a whole new world evolves by observing each other. And we constantly ask ourselves: ‘Do they feel good? Can they understand that we are there for them? Are they missing things that we don’t know about?’”, George explains the getting-to-know-each-other phase. Some animals express their joy and affection very quickly, but most of them are fearful and hesitant at first. “You can see that they also ask themselves, in their own way, ‘what will happen to us next? Are we going to be beaten? Is this yet another place that we will soon have to leave for an unknown elsewhere?’”
And then comes the moment when, for inexplicable reasons, the animal turns a corner and shows Stéphanie and George that it has understood – in its own way. Eyes, posture, and small gestures all signal that these two humans have been accepted. “They finally feel at home and they know that we only want what’s best for them. These are extremely powerful moments that bring tears to our eyes. Because these animals’ trust is the most beautiful gift we can hope for – and the best confirmation that the sanctuary has its raison d’être.”
And Stéphanie adds, “It really is an immense emotion when they start to trust us. Here at the sanctuary, the animals are completely free to roam around. They have all the space they need to flourish, they are free to enjoy the meadows and enter the stables whenever they want. We never lock them up.” And once they feel comfortable, it is not unusual for them to visit their human family in its quarters…
At this time, in spring of 2020, the sanctuary is hosting 55 animals, all equally loved, respected, and nurtured. They all have a name, and George lovingly tells their stories on the La Garie website under the tab Animaux (currently only in French but planned to be translated soon). And what’s not to like about a refreshing shower, a good massage, or a little TLC?
An EcoLodge-ical Vacation for the Human Species
Speaking of visitors: Remember it was also Stéphanie and George’s intention to share their sanctuary not only with animals but also humans? To do so, they converted a portion of the property in an ecologically friendly lodge – or EcoLodge for short. Adjacent to their own home is a guest tract which offers eight individual and well-appointed units from a self-contained studio to a family suite.
The couple goes with the flow, and with what their guests want. The space can be adapted for individual travelers or groups, gatherings of friends and families, or for executive or spiritual retreats in synch with nature and a vegan lifestyle. Yoga classes, exploring the neighborhood in the company of Tom and Jerry – the two sheep who love nothing better than tag along for a walk – a day by the pool… or seminars, trainings, or team building… self-catering or not… There are ample facilities ranging from a huge and perfectly equipped kitchen to a comfortable sitting room with a cozy open fireplace, a terrace with a million-dollar view, a large outdoor swimming pool, a state-of-the-art conference room… and of course daily meets & greets with the animals.
This region is also perfect to be explored and re-explored during the four very marked seasons – each one bearing a different mood and theme. Anything goes, really, except for one thing: animals are here to live, not to be eaten. Those who prefer to be catered are fortunate enough to enjoy George’s considerable culinary skills – meals here are strictly vegetarian and truly delicious!
But this is anything but a conventional “hotel” – rather, 100% of all guest revenues are reinvested in the sanctuary’s infrastructure and the care of its animals. This concept of “Ethical Vacation on the Farm” is the first and to date the only one of its kind in France.
A Gentle Education in Animal Welfare
One of the pillars of Stéphanie’s vision is to raise awareness among the wider population to what is going on in the animal kingdom, and specifically in the stables and slaughterhouses around the country. No, she is not an eco-militant, far from it. True to her gentle and conciliatory nature though, she prefers to teach by example and raise awareness rather than persuade.
One way of doing so is by collaborating with the media who are welcome to explore for themselves, to film, document, and ask pertinent questions. Another way is to use public forums and social media to highlight the actual happenings in the French meat-producing industry on social media… the way chickens never get to see the light of day, the plight of pigs spending a lifetime squeezed into cages barely larger than themselves, the brutal methods of force-feeding geese only to harvest their fatty liver at the end of a tortured months-long life, or the brutal dairy industry that condemns “useless” male calves to death from the get-go.
For this reason La Garie has become a preferred location for those who are awakening to the reality of animal abuse and an alternative lifestyle, including influencers of the caliber of, say, Charlotte Arnal. The creator of the Humanisma Project, which seeks to change French law in favour of animal welfare, paid the sanctuary a four day visit last November on her yearlong march to Paris.
It goes without saying that whenever Stéphanie and George hear of an animal in dire need, they are on their way to help. Even if they cannot always take an animal in, at least they try whatever is in their power to alleviate a bad situation. But they are also conscious of their limits, and hope that the ability of humans to adapt their behavior and change their habits eventually prevails. “We hope this sanctuary can contribute to this change of mentality.”
See you there soon?
All photos © George Homs and courtesy La Garie