Chris Vane lost focus as he sat in the crowd at a real estate seminar. It was 2015. He was more than a decade into a second career.
As the speaker offered up million-dollar ideas, Vane’s mind was a million miles away.
When he was a child growing up in New York, Vane wanted to be a veterinarian. Life got in the way, as it often does, and by 2003 he was in Miami embarking on a real estate career. In the meantime, he had become a vegan and in the process of doing so, his passion for animals began to re-emerge.
When the speaker began to opine about following one’s passion, lightning struck. In the middle of that seminar, Vane knew what he had to do.
The 30-acre Little Bear Sanctuary is the product of that epiphany. The rescue operation located 20 miles outside of Punta Gorda is home to more than 150 animals and Vane hopes to double that number in the years to come.
“I thought about what was on my plate, the whole transition to becoming vegan and seeing the plight of animals, especially farm animals. That was in my mind,” Vane said. “Growing up, I had wanted to be a veterinarian, so I feel like I’ve come full circle.”
Vane and his husband moved from Miami to Florida’s west coast to be closer to his mother, Ursula, who lived in Punta Gorda and had suffered a stroke. Since his first career had been in medicine, Vane’s initial foray into this third career dovetailed neatly into an apprenticeship with Dr. Phillip Shaw as a vet tech at Choice Veterinary Services in Punta Gorda. Ursula passed away in 2016.
In February 2017, Vane decided it was time to go all-in on his dream and launch his nonprofit rescue. The first piece of land he and his husband saw on Realtor.com was the property that would become Little Bear’s first 10 acres. Vane named the sanctuary after his mother, whose name was Latin for “little bear.”
Willie and Bits, a pair of pigs from Naples, became his first tenants. Shortly after moving in, the neighboring 20 acres became available.
“So we have a big mortgage,” Vane said with a laugh. “The property and house, we own, so we don’t use any sanctuary funds for any of it. All the funds people donate really literally goes to helping animals.”
Little Bear recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to fund the conversion of a building on the property into a surgical suite to go with a pharmacy and parisitology lab. Plans also call for the establishment of a one-acre community garden, a couple of tiny homes for sanctuary visitors and a space to host vegan weddings and other events.
“It will all bring in some income,” Vane said. “Every little bit helps.”
Little Bear currently is home to 74 pigs, 29 sheep, eight cows, eight goats, two donkeys, numerous chickens and a 15-year-old tortoise. Two of the most recent arrivals are James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who were piglets on the way to a factory farm when the truck transporting them overturned on a highway.
“They were tiny little guys and they had pneumonia,” Vane said. “Their tails were cut off, their ears were tattooed and they were castrated when they were born. I didn’t think they were going to live. They had so many parasites.”
The sanctuary was scheduled to receive another pig this week. Vane said he has stopped accepting pigs that were kept as pets to focus on rescuing abused factory and farm animals. He tries to educate would-be pet owners on the reality of raising pigs.
“A lot of people believe the mini-pig myth and there’s no such thing as a mini pig,” Vane said. “Mini is anything under 400 pounds. Also, I don’t think people realize veterinary care for them is so specialized.
“They’re the fourth-most intelligent animal on the planet, as intelligent as a four-year-old,” Vane continued. “So if you really think about that, they understand English completely, they know exactly what you’re saying about them. … They can recognize a good person from a bad person. They self-recognize in a mirror, which most animals don’t.”
As a pig named Minnie blew bubbles in a puddle nearby, Vane smiled. Here, in the heat of a Southwest Florida summer, he is finally living his dream. All thanks to a daydream during another lifetime.
“I’ll tell you one thing that seminar did,” he said with a chuckle. “It was really teaching you to follow your passion. I guess you can say I did just that.”