May 22, 2024


Art Is Experience

‘Saved by the Barn’ star left six-figure job to rescue farm animals

The Tiger King, he is not.

Dan McKernan was making  $100,000 at a tech job in Austin, Texas — until he gave it all up to move over 1,000 miles away and set up a sanctuary for farm animals in Michigan.

McKernan, his father and his twin brother, Chris, are the stars of Animal Planet’s new series “Saved by the Barn,” debuting Saturday.

Born in Michigan, “my family moved around a lot,” he said. Dan studied biology at Quincy College in Illinois but dropped out before graduation to travel.

“I went to Bulgaria to help a friend develop a yoga series before moving to Venice Beach, and just taught myself computer coding and development,” he explained.

Recruited by a tech firm at 21, he then moved to Texas. And started to go a little stir crazy.

“I loved Austin,” Dan said. “It’s a beautiful city and a great place to live as a young adult, but I have a workaholic mentality so I was on my computer 24/7. I did that for five years. I was deprived of human and animal interaction. I was going a little crazy and starting to look for different opportunities.”

Around that time he started reading “Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer and Feeling Better Everyday” by Gene Bauer. It was the right book to be engrossed in when his dad, who was taking care of his own parents’ Illinois farm.

“He was getting offers on the farm. He didn’t want to sell — it’s right by a highway, and he was afraid they’d turn the farm into a Walmart or a gas station,” Dan recalled. “So I said, ‘What if we started a sanctuary for farm animals?’”

The farm, in Chelsea, Michigan, was on 70 acres and in disrepair. But it had been in the McKernan family for 140 years, and so Dan’s dad, a retired pharmacist, decided to take a risk and let Dan try to make a go of his idea.

Within a week, McKernan had built a website. A week later, he filed for nonprofit status. A month later, he had raised more than $3,000 via crowdfunding.

In 2017, after a year of flying between the farm and Austin, Dan moved back to Michigan full time.

His first rescues were two cows, Henry and Cora. Cora had been donated to a local elementary school to be used for meat.

“Cora was bought by a local woman who then [gave her to the sanctuary]. And Cora needed a friend, so we got her Henry,” Dan said. “I believe in the buddy system. I don’t like animals being alone.”

There are now more than 100 animals roaming the farm, including a set of roosters saved from a cock-fighting ring; Charlie, a blind goat; ducklings; dwarf goats; goats Steve, Chevy and Martin, also known as “The Three Amigos;” as well as a sheep named Ginger, who needed surgery on her front legs after a birth defect left her unable to walk.

"Saved by the Barn" star Dan McKernan with Adam the pig.
McKernan holds a goat on the farm.Brian Parisi/Animal Planet

Dan, who is vegan, lives 15 minutes away from the farm (“I didn’t want to be a 30-year-old guy living with his father”), but is most often found “in the barn with Jasper — a 750-pound rescued pig who thinks he’s a lapdog and prefers the company of humans than his own species.”

The young farmer admits, however, that hanging out with Jasper and the others hasn’t exactly been a boon to his love life.

“I tried dating, but I’m kind of married to the animals right now,” Dan said. “I hope to find a partner who can join me on this crazy adventure of rescuing farm animals.”

The McKernans are helped by a team of 13 staffers, paid through the Om Foundation in Georgia, but still rely on donations to feed the animals.

Now, Dan earns “half of what I made in Austin,” but he has only one regret.

“It’s cliché, I know, but not starting the sanctuary sooner is my biggest regret,” he said. “It took me a while to find my calling, which I’m beyond fortunate to have found, but I often wonder had I found it sooner, how many more animals we could have saved.”