Former Animal Planet star teaches kids compassion with new book

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Buttercup, the bovine character in the new children’s picture book, “This Farm is a Family,”  is based on a real cow, a rescued Holstein-Angus mix.

 Buttercup lived on a farm in Pinckney, grazing in pastures, and occasionally marching in local parades, until she became too aggressive and her owner sought to get rid of her.

Thanks to Dan McKernan, Buttercup found not only a new home — his Barn Sanctuary outside Chelsea — but also became something of a YouTube sensation and now is the main character in McKernan’s first children’s book.

Dan McKernan with a goat.

“This Farm is a Family” aims to entertain and educate children about the plight of farm animals through the story of Buttercup. The rescued cow has trouble adjusting to her new home — the Barn Sanctuary — but the other rescued animals rally together to show Buttercup love and help her discover she’s part of their family.

“This picture book shares a powerful message about family and it’s another way we can educate children on the ways we can show compassion to all creatures,” says McKernan, a former tech guy who began rescuing farm animals in 2016.

McKernan, star of the former Animal Planet series “Saved by the Barn,” will read from his book and sign copies on Saturday at Serendipity Books in Chelsea. Copies of the book will be available for purchase; proceeds benefit the Barn Sanctuary. The event is a collaboration between Barn Sanctuary, Chelsea District Library and the bookstore. Saturday marks McKernan’s first public reading.

“We’re very excited about this event,” says Michelle Tuplin, owner of the 900-square-foot bookstore with an inventory of 15,000 new and used books. “We feel like there is a lot of buzz around this. There is a lot of interest in the community about the sanctuary and people are searching for something to do with their children in the community.”

"This Farm is a Family," by Dan McKernan and illustrated by Denise Hughes

Tuplin, who has owned and operated the bookstore for five years, describes “This Farm is a Family” as very cute and says the illustrations capture the individual personalities of each character, each based on rescued animals living at the Barn Sanctuary.

“I think the story will really resonate with children,” she says. “Anything to do with animals and barns always works.”

“This Farm is a Family'' was inspired by the number of children who have visited the sanctuary and their interest in animals. McKernan came up with the concept and worked with his publishing company to bring the story to fruition. He found an illustrator, Denise Hughes, whose work reminds him of the animated TV series “Doug.”

The 33-year-old sees the book as a natural extension of his rescue, rehabilitation and education efforts at Barn Sanctuary and another avenue in which to reach children (he also has a popular TikTok account — 780,000 followers). The sanctuary offers a multitude of animal stories, ones he hopes to share in positive, encouraging manners, foregoing any horrific photos or videos.

Barn Sanctuary is strictly for farm animals, not companion animals. Every rescue is done legally, with McKernan and his staff often working with law enforcement authorities. They rescue animals that have been treated cruelly or neglected, lost after natural disasters or because farmers no longer want them and can’t face euthanizing them.

Farm animals, he says, are the most abused and neglected animals in the world. McKernan believes every animal has the right to graze, the right to breathe fresh air and should be treated humanely. While there has been some progress in the treatment of farm animals, many remain part of large corporate farms, where thousands are processed each day.

“I’m not against farmers. Farmers are good stewards of the land and I want to be friends with them. I learn a lot from farmers,” he says. “I’m trying to find common ground with people.”

McKernan established the sanctuary at his family’s 70-acre farm near Interstate 94 in Chelsea in 2016. In his family for more than 140 years, the property served as a “hobby farm.” The family grew some crops, hay and raised chickens, dairy cows and sheep for themselves and friends. The family stopped farming three or four decades ago.

“Growing up, I didn’t spend a lot of time on the farm,” McKernan recalls.

He had aspirations of becoming a veterinarian but “my life didn’t go that route” and pursued a career in the tech industry, he says. Tired of that lifestyle and longing to be outside, McKernan pitched the idea of a farm animal sanctuary to his family as they were considering the future of the farm. One family member suggested selling the property to Wal-Mart.

“If you can pay for the feed,” his dad told him, offering support.

To gear up for his new vocation, McKernan delved into the subject, much like he had with previous jobs. He started talking to industry experts, attended a farm animal care conference three years straight and became well-acquainted with a book, “Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day,” by Gene Baur, who started the first farm animal rescue in the United States. McKernan set up a nonprofit and began a grass-roots campaign to raise funds.

“I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he says, noting he also continued his tech job in Austin, Texas, as the family worked to get the sanctuary off the ground.

His father, Tom McKern, is co-founder of Barn Sanctuary and works along with his son. The family has long roots in the community — his grandfather was once the town postman.  

Barn Sanctuary has rescued and rehabilitated farm animals from across the country. The menagerie includes cows, donkeys, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys and goats. To date, the nonprofit group has saved about 400 animals. The operation has a staff of 12, four paid interns and an active volunteer group.

“To think, I had never touched a cow until I rescued a cow,” McKernan laughs.

'This Farm is a Family'

 by Dan McKernan

Book launch, reading, question-and-answer, craft activity

1:10 p.m. and 2:10 p.m. Saturday

Serendipity Books

108 E. Middle St., Chelsea

Visit here