Burnout led 42-year-old Emanuel Wenk to completely change his life: he went from working in restaurants to working with animals. He now runs an animal sanctuary in Austria, which is popular among children.
The sanctuary, called Edelweiss, is located in Wildon, in Styria in the southeast of the country. Wenk says it’s a challenge to run the operation – money can be tight – but it is worth the fight.
swissinfo.ch: Why did you leave Switzerland?
Emanuel Wenk: I left Switzerland in 2001 because I was going to have a baby with an Austrian woman who was a seasonal worker in Switzerland. I wanted to take advantage of my visiting rights and carry out my paternal duties.
swissinfo.ch: Was it a one-way journey, or do you intend to return to Switzerland one day?
E.W.: I didn’t envisage my move to be temporary; my only goal was to be as close as possible to my son. Now a return home is very unlikely. My son is going his own way now, but I have a lot of responsibility towards the animals.
swissinfo.ch: What is your work today? And how did that come about?
E.W.: I worked in tourism and restaurants for years, until I suffered burnout and my life took a different direction, seven years ago. My partner at that time was very fond of animals and we were leasing a farm in Gross St. Florian in western Styria, so that her horse could live with us. After our separation, I didn’t want to give up the farm lease, and I took on two ponies from the animal protection agency to keep the grass tidy. These two ponies also served as my therapy and helped me to get over my breakdown.
My burnout led to the foundation of a horse sanctuary. With time, it became a proper animal sanctuary - not just horses but also cows, oxen, pigs and so on. So a real farmyard, but one that exists to protect animals. Unfortunately, I had to leave the farm after three years because of disputes with the lease-holder and differences of opinion. For two years, we - myself and the animals - were homeless. During this time I leased four fields and lived in a caravan, until I could get a lease on a farm in Wildon.
But the purpose of the new farm, the Edelweiss Horse Sanctuaryexternal link, was not just to save animals, but also to show weekend visitors the effects livestock farming has on us all.
swissinfo.ch: How is the sanctuary going?
E.W.: I am no longer on my own on the farm and there are now a handful of people who are helping out. We have a guest room where people can stay at no cost and food and drink is provided on condition they help out for three to five hours a day. We give school groups lessons in animal protection at the farm. These are very popular because it is something new and the children can have direct contact with the animals. On the whole, it is going well, but unfortunately it is a real headache every month to get the money for the lease together. The number of passive members who give us financial support has climbed (we run the farm as an association). But it’s still not enough as there are too few donations.
swissinfo.ch: What fascinates you about all these animals?
E.W.: I have always been fascinated by animals. Partly, of course, because of my childhood, as I grew up on a farm in Toggenburg in Canton St Gallen. But now my view of animals is completely different: I see them as living creatures like people, who should not be exploited, abused or killed. And that is what I am putting into practice with this horse sanctuary.
swissinfo.ch: Where do you live now, and what is the life and food like?
E.W.: I live with the animals in Styria, 15 minutes south of Graz, in Wildon. The cuisine is not very different from the cuisine of eastern Switzerland. The climate here is very Mediterranean – it is not unusual for the temperature to climb above 30 degrees Celsius in the summer. There are vineyards, so southern Styria has something of a Tuscan flair.
swissinfo.ch: What is the biggest difference to Switzerland?
E.W.: Certainly the social welfare system. The education system is also rather one-dimensional, unfortunately.
swissinfo.ch: What are your thoughts about Switzerland, as someone living outside it?
E.W.: It is nice to think that the people are really living with direct democracy.
swissinfo.ch: What is the political situation like in Austria after the elections last autumn? Are you interested in the politics of your country of residence?
E.W.: The politicians and parties here have their fingers in every pie and it is difficult to get something running and make it a success without having any contacts in the big parties. In Austria, success isn’t based on merit, but on your affiliations.
With issues that transcend party politics, people who do not have much of a clue and/or who are just looking out for themselves often get involved. They don’t concern themselves with the issue itself or its value for society at large.
swissinfo.ch: Do you take part in Swiss elections and referendums? By letter, or by e-voting?
E.W.: By letter. I think it is in the nature of the Swiss to register your opinion.
swissinfo.ch: What do you most miss about Switzerland?
E.W.: You have no say in where you are born. But I was lucky enough to grow up in a country that is as colourful and diverse as an Alpine meadow with grasses and flowers. I don’t miss anything material about Switzerland. On a human level, I miss a few things: the quality of the handshakes, the practicality, and the openness to new ideas.
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swissinfo.ch (the interview was conducted in writing)