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Firestorm in Sonoma forces move of Glen Ellen's Little Farm

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The night of October 8, as the wind howled outside, Nancy Tallent was jolted awake by the telephone. A friend was calling to warn her about the fires, and as she rubbed sleep from her eyes, Tallent had a dark thought. The coordinator of Sonoma Developmental Center’s equestrian program for 35 years, she realized that the animals at SDC’s Little Farm could be in harm’s way. She got up, got dressed, hitched a trailer to her truck, and headed into the eerie orange glow of the night.

Most of the horses had long since been moved, following the 2015 announcement of SDC’s closure. But a few were still boarded at the facility, and so Tallent loaded them up and took them all to her home in Penngrove.

The horses were spooked, so the operation took the better part of the night.

By daybreak, the magnitude of the situation was coming into focus, and SDC staffers — including Tallent and her husband, Jim — began moving the SDC residents. First, they resettled their charges in buildings at the southern edge of the campus; later, they moved all of them to the emergency shelter at Adele Harrison Middle School.

Tallent worried for the menagerie of creatures left behind at Little Farm, but her human commitments came first.

The Little Farm had been situated on the SDC campus for decades, its animals used therapeutically with residents. The bunnies and birds and llamas and goats were gentle enough to be trusted with the medically fragile residents of SDC, and contact with them was a reliable source of comfort and calm.

Non-residents, too, made use of the farm, with families bringing children out to see the animals there. There was an aviary, a big barn, a tack house and a pasture. It was a pleasant place to kill a few hours, oinking at the big pig or chattering with the parrots.

Tallent’s personal history with Little Farm dates all the way back to 1974, when she brought her own horse there to board. “I was 19 or 20, and my parents were kind of done with keeping my horse, Rusty, so I lent him to SDC’s equestrian program,” Tallent said.

When she spotted a “cute guy” leading Rusty around the corral with an SDC patient in the saddle some years later, Little Farm would even serve as a kind of matchmaker for Tallent’s marriage. That cute guy was, of course, Jim.

But when the fires were raging she wasn’t thinking about that. She’d rescued the horses and secured the safety of patients, and now she needed to hatch a plan to get past the police barricade at Arnold and Madrone, where no one was being allowed through, no-how.

By Tuesday, as the fires gained strength, Tallent was feeling increasingly anxious. On Sunday, when she’d rescued the horses, she felt sure that the fires wouldn’t breach the SDC campus. In fact, she had left a whole barn of valuable tack behind on that night, convinced that moving the horses had been done in an abundance of caution driven by her horse-loving heart.

She pulled up to the barricade in her truck and attached trailer and sweet-talked the CHP officer into letting her through. Slowly, she made her way across campus, noting the strange lifelessness of the place. Cresting the hill above Little Farm, Tallent pitched forward in her seat. The equestrian barn was rubble, the hay barn was gone, and the aviary was a smoldering ruin.

Her heart sank. Were the farm’s animals lost?

Little Farm was pin-drop quiet, a moonscape of scarred, scorched earth. But someone had thought to open the pens, and—better still—turn on the misting system inside the main barn. Kevin Dillon, a SDC employee, had the presence of mind sometime in those first hours to do what he could to help save the animals.

The main barn was standing, though it looked deserted. The pasture was blackened, its fencing gone. Tallent and SDC public information officer Jorge “JJ” Fernandez began calling out for the animals, hoping that some of them had made it through.

“Micheal (a llama) just stood up and was making loud sounds, and I ran up into the pasture,” Fernandez said. “The pig, Dallas, started grunting.”

Suddenly, a barnyard choir was in full voice, a menagerie of scared, hungry animals telling fire stories.

They were all there. Every last one. Big Hunk and Lloki, Bonnie and Tenille, Jack, Mocha, Hazelnut, Snowball, Peaches, Ace, Duce and Savannah. The large animals were huddled together on a small patch of grass, surrounded in all directions by charred ground. The rabbits and cats and chickens were all in their pens, patiently awaiting their humans.

“It was quite an emotional experience,” Tallent said. “I get tears to remember.”

Hernandez and Tallent fed and watered the animals, then turned to each other with an unspoken “now what?”

They looked at the big trailer behind Tallent’s truck and did the only thing it was possible to do. One by one they led the animals in, a soot-stained ark of a different sort.

Tallent thought she would take all the farm’s animals home for a while, until permanent adoptions could be arranged. But then her soft heart grew a bit larger, and she pulled out her cell phone instead.

“It was such a loss to me personally,” Tallent said of the burned farm. “We just kind of mobilized, and they turned it over to me. I called my husband, and we decided to take them all. We couldn’t separate them. They are part of my history, my husband’s history, my whole family.”

The Tallents live on three acres and were already horse people, so making room for the Little Farm refugees wasn’t out of the question. Her siblings live on adjoining properties, which they offered up as grazing pasture right away.

“We had to make pens to put the llamas in. My whole family was there to help settle the animals. A lot of people came to help, and we got everything dialed in,” Tallent said.

Broccos Old Barn delivered the first load of feed for free, and has continued to do what it can to lighten the Tallents’ load.

“Brian, at Broccos, has been incredible. If people want to help, he’ll collect funds on account. I’ve got 24 animals at my house! But I’m so lucky to do this. And my husband has really taken it on, too,” Tallent said.

They’ve already welcomed several SDC patients to visit the animals at the new Little Farm, or the “Junior Farm,” as they call it, as it was originally known. The critters will live out their natural lives there, perhaps understanding just how lucky they are.

“I tried to convince myself not to keep them,” Tallent said. “But I fell in love fast.”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com