Island Haven gives animals new lease on life

The origin story for Island Haven Animal Sanctuary begins with a horse.

The descendant of the great Secretariat, Della was a thoroughbred racehorse born in the Chigaco area March 1, 1994. As a young horse, Della remained in that area, and was being trained to follow Secretariat’s path as a racehorse. One day she suffered a tragic career-ending injury. For many racehorses an injury is not only the end of their career, it’s the end of their life.

Not Della. Della’s owner Chuck Thomas had other plans.

Nestled in the Pacific Northwest on a small island named San Juan, Della’s family owned an estate with hundreds of acres of farmland. Della could recover from her injury and live out her life there in a quiet pastoral environment. In 1997 Della became an official islander, and grow to adulthood surrounded by water whether she knew it or not.

Eventually, Della was joined by two horses rescued by Thomas’ daughters from an unfortunate situation on San Juan. These equines became companions on the farm.

For years the trio were cared for and lived their lives relatively uninterrupted surrounded by over 300 acres of property nestled just three miles west of Friday Harbor. The farm was surrounded by 52-acre Zylstra Lake and more than 200 acres of open pastures and productive farmland with sweeping views of San Juan Valley.

As time passed, so too did the owner of the land. An estate sale was initiated to sell the property. The horses would have to find new pastures. An ad was placed on Facebook offering the animals free to a good home.

At that time, Julie Duke was director of the Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Duke saw the trio’s Facebook ad and was immediately interested, thinking to herself “Yeah, there’s gotta be a way we could do this.”

Duke responded to the ad and began formulating a plan for how she could help these horses, along with two resident alpacas, allowing them the opportunity to live a good life somewhere on the island.

One major challenge was that horses had been living free on the farm for many, many years with little or no formal training or work with humans. Moving them was proving to be quite an obstacle right out the gate.

The animals would require training just to get them inside a trailer, and at the time there was no formal organization to take and care for the animals. Duke decided to form a non-profit naming it Island Haven Animal Sanctuary and set out to find these animals a forever home.

Meanwhile, Zylstra Lake and the surrounding 300-plus acres of land was about to be sold to the Preservation Trust in three 100-acre installments at nearly a million dollars each. The 30-acre parcel that housed Della and the horses, stalls, barns, and assorted farm buildings was slated to be sold separately to help fund the larger land acquisition.

Duke worked tirelessly trying to find somebody who might buy the 30 acres, hoping this would allow her the time necessary to find homes for the animals.

As luck would have it, mere days before the sale of the larger property was to occur, an Island Haven volunteer happened to ask her sister if she knew anybody that might buy the land and farm. The sister replied that while she didn’t know somebody interested, she and her husband would be.

Working closely with the Preservation Trust, the 30-acre parcel was purchased with the full support and understanding that the horses could stay and Island Haven would be permitted to operate on the property.

“I’m completely grateful to October Farms,” says Duke. “Because of them Island Haven Animal Sanctuary has a place to operate, and our animals have a forever home.”

The sanctuary employs barn manager Braunti Cobb, who grew up working with horses before moving to the San Juan Islands a few years ago. After briefly involved with the whale watch community, Cobb found her calling working with Duke and the animals at Island Haven in 2019.

Engaging daily with the sanctuary’s horses for the past several years, Cobb is now certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International International. This certification allows her to provide therapeutic services to all the equines housed at Island Haven.

For Cobb, there is no greater joy than spending time with the horses, a trait shared by Duke and the other volunteers who donate their time to the sanctuary.

“Volunteers are the backbone of this organization,” adds Duke. “Some of our volunteers are high school students, all the way to an 85-year-old. All are welcome. We only ask that people can lift 40 pounds and aren’t afraid to get dirty.” Duke says Island Haven is always looking for volunteers, “especially weekday commitments, that’s what we need most.”

The largest obstacle Island Haven faces are the rising costs of veterinary care and supplies, especially since COVID. “Hay has been a real challenge,” says Duke. “Everything from diesel, bailing twine, to fertilizer has gone up nearly 33%.” Other expenses include professional vet and hoof care.”

Recently Island Haven received a donation of a working John Deere tractor from a private donor with a matching gift from Microsoft, and the San Juan Island Rotary Club provided a partial grant to buy the sanctuary a four-wheel drive Gator, which will make working on the farm so much more efficient.

Operating since 2015, Island Haven Animal Sanctuary currently has 40 animals: 20 horses, 15 goats, two cows, three turkeys, and three barn cats.

“What we offer these animals is a greater quality of life,” says Duke. “We’re here to foster compassion for animals. And as a bonus I get to see horses every day” she says with an infectious smile.

Della passed away in March 2022, at 30 years old. She lived a full life on the exact farm that took her in as a young horse nearly a quarter century ago. “It really all started with Della,” adds Duke, “and I thank her every day for this opportunity. This really is Della’s farm.”

For more information about Island Haven, a sanctuary for equines and farm animals, visit

Kelley Balcomb-Bartok  Staff photo
October Farm, home of the Island have Animal Sanctuary.
Kelley Balcomb-Bartok  Staff photo
Braunti Cobb puts a bridle on Rohann "Hans" Valentino prior to exercising him.
Kelley Balcomb-Bartok  Staff photo
Founder Julie Duke enjoys the company of horses, spending some quality time with Hans.