KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Matthew Greenacre drove nine hours on the busiest travel day of the year to The Gentle Barn in West Knox County to visit the pig he rescued at a Missouri truck stop.
The 37-year-old Wood Dale, Ill., man was accompanied by his wife, Marnie, and the pit bull he also rescued during one of his trips as a truck driver.
The Greenacre's found the pig, Lillie, healthy and much heavier than the 20-pound piglet that for a day darted through their home. Lillie now weighs about 250 pounds.
Lillie is one of 17 animals at The Gentle Barn Tennessee, where 109 people from across the nation gathered Thursday for A Gentle Thanksgiving with a vegan dinner, a silent auction and a Native American drum circle. Andrea Burritt, manager of the The Gentle Barn, said guests came from Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, Alabama, Illinois and California.
Visitors were greeted by the distinctive, staccato gobble of turkeys and the mellifluous sounds of classical music from the violin of Shealee Cousino, a musician, singer and song writer, from Charlotte, N.C.
Children and their parents walked through fenced fields to rub the bellies of grateful pigs who rolled on to their sides for enthusiastic massages. Others ran their hands over the welcoming faces of cows that had a tendency to show affection with a harsh headbutt at waist level.
Toddlers with wide-eyed glee tossed food to the vocal turkeys and chickens that seemed to move in pairs through a fenced area.
Lillie seemed at peace with all the attention as she continued to rut through a field.
Matthew Greenacre said the piglet caught his eye among the dozens of young pigs closed up in a trailer on a July day. Lillie was lethargic and didn't have the energy to join the other pigs seeking comfort from the heat when the owner sprayed water on the animals.
On impulse, Matthew Greenacre asked the owners to buy Lillie. He paid $80. After providing bowls of water to the animal, the piglet rode two days in the crew cab section of his pickup truck, lying on a blanket.
He called his wife and asked her what they should name the piglet. Marnie blurted out Lillie, for no particular reason.
Matthew and Marnie Greenacre expected Lillie to be the newest addition to their family, but quickly discovered how much they didn't know about pigs. At six weeks old, Lillie had not been properly weened. Veterinarians told them such pigs can lose the will to live, Marnie said.
There also was a concern Lillie would rut under their fence and reach a nearby highway.
And, Lillie was a handful.
"She was very fast and you wouldn't believe how strong they are," Marnie said.
The couple knew about The Gentle Barn in California and the new location opened in June 2015 in Knox County. After speaking with the operators of the Tennessee facility, they decided to drive Lillie to her new home.
"We followed her progress online," Marnie said. The Gentle Barn operators posted pictures and videos of Lillie as she grew. The Greenacres have made several trips to Tennessee to see Lillie and support the facility that covers 12 acres.
The Gentle Barn was founded in 1999 in California, where more than 170 rescued animals have been provided homes. Its founder, Ellie Laks, created an environment where rescued animals are used to help abused and at-risk children. The mutual healing concept has brought hundreds of animals and over 400,000 people together.
"We've shown them nothing but love and kindness, and that's all they know here," Burritt said while explaining how the animals showed no fear of people reaching to pet them.
The Gentle Barn is open 11 a.m.-1 p.m. each Saturday. Tax deductible donations of $20 for adults and $10 for children are requested. Those wishing to visit the facility can get tickets online at gentlebarn.org.