Animal Planet comes to the Barn Sanctuary

By Seth Kinker,

The Barn Sanctuary in Chelsea is a 70-acre hands-on animal sanctuary dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and caring for farm animal refugees. 

Owners of the sanctuary recently announced the stories of rescues, medical cases, and day-to-day life of the animals and staff will be airing on Animal Planet near the end of 2019. 

Originally from Chelsea, Daniel McKernan, founder and president of the Barn Sanctuary, left the area at a young age but returned every year to visit family. 

“My grandparents had the family farm for 140 years,” said McKernan. “My grandma was born in the house. My dad was raised there.”

McKernan returned leaving behind a life in Austin, Texas where he worked in technology and with little farming experience, he started the Barn Sanctuary. 

“I guess I was really bored being a developer and working in that space, working long hours,” said McKernan on what caused the abrupt life change. “I worked remotely, had my own office, but I always loved animals. I always loved the farm here in Chelsea. As a kid, I just always enjoyed being out there and jumping on hay bales with my twin brother.”

While in Texas, he met Kelly Holt, now the Executive Director for the Barn Sanctuary. Holt adopted the vegan diet, a plant-based lifestyle, and a couple months later, McKernan decided to give it a try. This led to him finding a book on a farm sanctuary life, he also read up on Jon Stewart, the former host of the Daily Show, who started a sanctuary with his wife. 

One day, McKernan’s father called him and asked him what they should do with the family farm. 

“The last thing I wanted my dad to do was to sell the property that’s been in the family for so long,” said McKernan. “I thought it was a good opportunity to shake things up in my life and do something different and exciting. “

Ironically, said McKernan the family had received inquiries about putting a meat processing facility on the site.  

In May of 2016, the Barn Sanctuary was founded, and they had their first rescue by that August. Since then, they’ve been growing quickly as a non-profit and business, now employing nine full time employees with two part time as well. 

When asked about the quick growth of the Barn Sanctuary, McKernan credits the way they were able to tell their rescue stories online as a big reason for it, connecting with the viewer. They document everything, from the moment of rescuing the animal, through any surgery needed, to bringing them to their new home. 

Holt had a background in entrepreneurship, marketing, and communication and McKernan had his technology experience, so they had a solid foundation to start. McKernan helped build the website, Holt knew the administrative side of things, and his father knew farm facilities. 

Every year, Farm Sanctuary, a non-profit American animal protection organization that advocates for farmed animals holds a farm animal care conference. McKernan went initially, then Holt, then McKernan and his father to help learn more about animal care.

“We’re learning from other experts,” said McKernan. “We’re working really closely with Michigan State and Cornell University.”

The growth has continued with a brand-new pig barn that will be complete by early July and a new community center planned for early 2020 that will work with local schools to bring kids and university students out so they can learn and tour the farm.

In late 2017 McKernan went viral on The Dodo, a website that shares animal-related stories and videos to help make caring about animals a viral cause.

“It got 30 million hits,” said McKernan of the story which had him caring for an infant pig. “I got a lot of contact requests from production companies saying, ‘hey, we want to pitch this as a television show.’ I decided to go with the High Noon because they did the show Fixer Upper, and I thought that was a pretty funny show.”

High Noon took footage from the Barn Sanctuary and pitched it to Animal Planet. Animal Planet responded that they wanted a proof of concept, a more in-depth video about the potential show.

A crew shot for two days and Animal Planet got in touch with McKernan around Christmas of 2018 to let him know they would be doing 12 one hour long episodes. 

“It’ll be exciting for people to meet the animals of Barn Sanctuary individually, like Henry the cow or Little Dude the pig, on a global scale,” said McKernan.

Currently, a crew of 12 is on site, and will for the next six months film daily life at the Barn Sanctuary. From around 8 or 9 in the morning until 4 or 5 at night, McKernan and his staff will be able to give viewers an in depth look at their day to day lives and the lives of the farm animals that live there. 

“It’s really cool to see the crew interact with our animals because they are shocked,” said McKernan. “They’re like ‘I had no idea cows would just come up to you or a goat would be so creepy and just want me to pet it all the time.’ Just seeing their reactions gives me a lot of hope for what people are going to see on global television.” 

“They really want to work with us to make sure that they’re working within our mission,” added Holt. “They want to feature the different animals as individuals, and so we’re really excited to be working with them. They have such a great vision for the show. That’s exciting for us.”

‘It’s exciting because we haven’t done much local marketing at all,” said McKernan of bringing the spotlight to the Barn Sanctuary and to Chelsea. “It’s always been word of mouth like this, and all the fans we get online are from different countries and all over the United States. It’s exciting to share it with the locals.” 

For behind the scenes looks and updates on the show, you can visit

Seth Kinker

Reporter/Digital Media for The Sun Times News

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