Pigs, goats and an alpaca are ‘Zoom bombing’ meetings from Ramona ranch during coronavirus lockdown
King Wolf Animal Sanctuary is accepting donations in exchange for popping into business meetings, birthdays and online classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When it comes to attending Zoom videoconference meetings, Teddy hates being on camera but Hamlet likes to hog all of the attention.
That’s to be expected of the shy alpaca and sociable pig at the King Wolf Animal Sanctuary in Ramona, Calif. Over the past week, Teddy, Hamlet and many other animals at the 14-acre ranch have been hired to “Zoom bomb,” or crash, online business meetings, birthday parties and children’s distance-learning classes across the world.
The sanctuary’s married owners, Lauren Freiser and Lori DeProspo, have been arranging the surprise animal check-ins to spread the word about their San Diego County property, a 3-year-old nonprofit that provides a home for 50 domesticated animals that were abandoned, unwanted or destined for slaughter. They don’t charge for the guest appearances, but are accepting donations to help pay for the animals’ hay and veterinarian bills.
“We’re a smaller sanctuary and not a lot of people know about us yet. So it’s been good to get the word out about what we do,” said DeProspo, a special education teacher who is doing online learning with her students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With her extra time, she’s been booking and conducting all of the farm’s Zoom meetings. Since launching the service last week, she has conducted 25 meet-and-greets and has another 25 scheduled for this week.
Among the first clients was Dr. Kristen Brumleve, a pediatric urgent care doctor in Brooklyn. The former San Diegan asked DeProspo, an old friend, if she could pop an animal into a Zoom meeting Brumleve had planned with her family last week.
Because Brumleve is a doctor in New York, a city hard-hit by the pandemic, she has isolated herself from her extended family. She felt having a surprise visit from Penny — a goat who doesn’t mind wearing silly head attire — would lift everyone’s spirits. Sure enough, Penny, wearing a flower-festooned gold unicorn horn, was a big hit.
“I just needed some lightness,” Brumleve said. “Things in New York were feeling more morbid than I would have liked. My family are huge animal lovers and Penny is an all-time favorite, so I wanted to give them something to make them smile.”
After the sudden nationwide lockdown last month, American companies, schools and far-flung families have been using online videoconferencing software in huge numbers. In a recent blog post, Zoom founder Eric Yuan said the daily number of Zoom users worldwide averaged 200 million in March, compared with 10 million in December 2019.
Hackers discovered security gaps in the software and began “Zoom bombing” private meetings with pornography, racist comments and other disruptions. In other cases, celebrities including Conan O’Brien, Kim Kardashian and Peyton Manning made surprise visits to corporate and classroom meetings.
Sweet Farm, a nonprofit animal sanctuary in Half Moon Bay, dreamed up the idea last month to have animals appear in Zoom conferences. Like many other animal education centers, Sweet Farm needed a fast way to raise revenues this spring when all school field trips and community events were canceled.
Sweet Farm’s “Goat-2-Meet” service, which offers a llama or goat pop-in for $65, was so successful that it is now sending overflow requests to other sanctuaries nationwide, including King Wolf. A sanctuary, as opposed to a rescue, provides animals with a permanent home rather than adoption services.
Freiser got involved in the animal welfare cause in 2010 when she rescued a horse and a feral wolf-malamute dog she named Wolfie. With DeProspo, her parents and a close friend, she purchased the Ramona property in 2012 and named the sanctuary in honor of Wolfie. Today, they all live on the property with about 50 animals, including horses, donkeys, mini-horses and mini-donkeys, an alpaca, two pigs, goats, chickens, dogs and cats.
For many years, Freiser and DeProspo paid for all of the animals’ needs out of pocket but to provide for the ever-growing number of mouths to feed, they established the King Wolf Animal Sanctuary as a nonprofit in 2017.
For the Zoom appointments, DeProspo heads out to the stables with her cellphone and usually has her camera trained on an animal’s face when she logs into the meeting. Sometimes there is so much laughter from surprised meeting participants, she turns off the volume to avoid scaring the animals.
Typically she’ll spend 15 to 20 minutes online, walking her phone around the ranch to interact with several animals, including Penny, Teddy and Hamlet, who was the star of a birthday party in Paris on Sunday.
Last week, teacher Liz Aull arranged a virtual farm tour for about 18 pre-kindergartners at the Mount Vernon School in Atlanta. She said it’s hard to predict how engaged the 3- and 4-year-old students will be during online presentations, but the King Wolf tour and Q&A session afterward were a rousing success.
“They really thought it was fun and they liked the horses a lot,” Aull said. “I think they were engaged, they had a really good time and were fascinated with looking at the animals.”
Zoom visits can be booked by emailing DeProspo at email@example.com or via the website at kingwolfanimalsanctuary.com.
Kragen writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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