How One Eugene Woman is Creating a Sanctuary for Mistreated People and Animals Alike

Stephanie Carnahan, founder of Fawn Hills Animal Sanctuary and Care Farm, tends to one of the four equine residents on the property. Photo credit: Molly Cruse.

By Molly Cruse

Apr. 17, 2022

On a sunny afternoon in October, Stephanie Carnahan, 55, stared wistfully through her tinted glasses at the wide-open pasture stretched before her. A slight breeze made the long grass and yellow dandelions quiver as if they were starting to dance, which made the slow, grazing horses that appeared statue-like in the field. The picturesque scene would belong more appropriately in an oil painting or picture book rather than a short twenty-minute drive from the hustle-and-bustle of downtown Eugene, Oregon.

“I love watching them. It’s therapeutic. I have so many pictures of just… this. The blue, the clouds, the horses. Every time I see it, I want to capture it,” Carnahan said, using her hands to frame the grazing horses.

Originally from Bixby, Oklahoma, Carnahan runs Fawn Hills Animal Sanctuary and Care Farm in Eugene, a small nonprofit home to 25 abused and abandoned farm animals.

This fairytale landscape hasn’t always been a part of Carnahan’s backyard. Before founding Fawn Hills in 2015, Carnahan worked in student affairs at higher education institutions for more than a decade. In 1995, she moved to Eugene to work for the University of Oregon after becoming interested in working with disenfranchised student groups. This interest stemmed from Carnahan’s own experience as an LGBTQ student going to school in Oklahoma in the ‘80s.

“There wasn’t any sort of acceptance of LGBTQ people in the country, much less in the Bible Belt,” said Carnahan. “I was not exposed to gay people. It wasn’t until I got to college that people actually used gay-affirming language. Not a lot, but a little. There wasn't a LGBTQ Alliance or any support on campus. It was terrible.”

A national survey conducted in 2021 by The Trevor Project, found that nearly half of LGBTQ youth have sought counseling from a mental health professional, but never received it.

Carnahan wants to change that. “Knowing what was lacking in my life in Oklahoma in the 80s, in terms of role models and support, I want to be able to provide that support to LGBTQ youth [today],” she said.

So, after working as the Director of LGBTQ Educational and Support Services at the University of Oregon for five years, Carnahan decided to turn her attention elsewhere. Although the University of Oregon was one of only a handful of universities in the country at the time that had a program dedicated to serving LGBTQ youth, Carnahan grew frustrated.

“I felt like I was window dressing for the university's diversity efforts,” said Carnahan. “It just felt tiring. And so, I decided, you know what, I don't want to be window dressing anymore.”

Carnahan started Fawns Hills Animal Sanctuary with her partner Heather to provide a sanctuary for both animals and people.

One of the three rescued pig residents at Fawn Hills Animal Sanctuary, Gunter, stands in the entry way of his stall waiting for his dinner. Photo credit: Molly Cruse.

Owning and operating a place like Fawn Hills once felt like a pipeline dream for Carnahan. As a child, she continually brought home orphaned or injured baby squirrels and birds. She found solace in caring for them.

“I didn't have a relationship with my mother,” said Carnahan. “She remarried when I was six, then divorced again when I was in college. She found out that I was gay at the end of my college career and she didn't go so far as disowning me, but we stopped having a relationship because she just couldn't handle it. She sort of said, ‘I don't want anything to do with you.’...But animals are not judgmental.”

For Carnahan, animals are healing. “They keep us honest,” Carnahan said. “I think a really big gift of animals is being present in the moment. Being with animals is just real, it's genuine, and they're very comforting. Without really asking for much in return, they're not demanding, they give you your space when you let them know you want space. I think they help us with communication.”

Anne Kraft, a licensed clinical social worker, has been working closely with Carnahan since 2016 and is also a big believer in the healing power of animals.

“My core philosophy is this idea that animals and humans can be in a reciprocal relationship,” said Kraft. “And that does not have to be human-centric. I think Fawn Hills embodies that by bringing humans and animals together for mutual healing.”

Kraft, who self-admittedly doesn’t often make hasty decisions, packed up her bags, rented out her Eugene home, and moved onto the Fawn Hills property to work as the sanctuary’s full-time farm hand after seeing a Craigslist ad Carnahan posted for the position. Although she initially became interested in working with animals as a therapist, Kraft’s passion for animal-assisted therapy grew after working at Fawn Hills Animal Sanctuary.

Research has shown that dogs increase oxytocin levels in their owners, which is the hormone involved in many positive human experiences, like the feelings of relaxation, trust, and decreasing stress. For anyone, but particularly disadvantaged youth, spending time with animals can be therapeutic.

Karin Spurgin, 73, has been a volunteer at Fawn Hills and a friend of Carnahan’s for the last four years.

“She's a lovely individual doing great things,” said Spurgin about Carnahan. “It’s just such a serene place. Being with the horses and Wilbur, Fawn Hill’s resident donkey, and the opportunity to be outside with the animals is just lovely. Being there is the highlight of my week. It’s peaceful.”

Creating more peace is at the center of Carnahan’s mission. “It's all about the connectedness of us and animals, compelling us to really recognize that connectedness to hopefully lead to a more just and peaceful world,” Carnahan states.

Each animal at Fawn Hills has a name and a story. From Wilbur the donkey who was rescued from neglect to Emma the filly who was found starving in a paddock littered with debris, to Maybelle the potbelly pig rescued from a hoarding situation. Similar to the students she worked with in the past, Carnahan doesn’t want their painful pasts to define them.

“They’re all so different, they each have their own personalities. Emma is a squirrely, goofy, curious, brave, confident, challenge, that’s just who she is. And Wilbur is just sort of a goofy, laid-back kind of dude.”

Visitors to Fawn Hills, whether volunteers, like Kraft or Spurgin, or youth groups are all able to find an animal that they connect with, and therefore experience some of the therapeutic benefits of spending time with animals.

One of Carnahan’s most memorable moments was when a program for students with disabilities visited the sanctuary. One of the students was blind. The horses were standing next to the fence, and the student went over to feed one of the horses a carrot. As the student reached over the fence, one of the horses went over to investigate and blew in the student’s face. “And he just lit up,” said Carnahan. “He just sort of had this giddy moment of joy.”

Whether it’s creating small moments of joy or providing a safe space for people and animals to connect, Carnahan hopes that the sanctuary’s impact creates a ripple effect felt by the greater community.

“I don't think we're going to create world peace because we have horses grazing in a pasture, but I think helping people be more connected with each other and be more peaceful is powerful. Just recognizing that we're in a community with each other and animals are part of that community.”