“I gotta grab an apple for these guys, then I’ll be right with you.”

That’s Gil Ma talking, resident farmer at The Farm at Gardner Village in West Jordan.

“These guys” are his horses.

Gil’s love affair with horses — with all animals, for that matter — dates back to his childhood, when he needed support and couldn’t find any at home.

His parents, he’ll tell you, were serial closet abusers, the kind of people who smacked you around “physically, sexually, emotionally, verbally and mentally” — and went to church on Sunday.

“I didn’t want there to be a God if he was like my parents,” is how Gil puts it after he’s distributed his apples and sits down to talk. He’s wearing overalls over a snap-button shirt, with a well-worn straw cowboy hat and a Santa Claus beard — just the uniform you’d expect for a 58-year-old man who has dedicated his life to making sure animals have a good home.

In addition to horses, The Farm is filled with cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, alpacas, bunnies, turkeys, ducks, roosters, chickens and even a few emus. The one thing all these animals have in common is nobody else wanted them. All have been rescued.

Gil Ma, the director of the farm at Gardner Village in West Jordan, introduces Kalli Pendley and her daughter Ellie Pendley to Prudence the kissing alpaca on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Gil could tell you the rescue story about each and every one of the dozens of animals currently in residence at The Farm, but for context, he begins with the rescue story about the person who made all this possible: himself.

The abuse started before he can literally remember. “I blocked out the first seven years of my life,” he says matter-of-factly. It wasn’t until he finally got professional help when he was much older that bits and pieces of memory returned — enough to satisfy him why the first seven years had been repressed.

He joined the U.S. Army at 16 to get out of the house and away from his parents. At 17 he shipped out to a base in Alaska. The army was followed by a Latter-day Saint mission to Korea, and that was followed by college and a career as a pharmaceutical rep. He never really went home again.

Life for some reason was never easy. His marriage failed; his six children grew up and scattered their separate ways. He got laid off from his job when the drug he represented went generic. His parents never owned up to a single thing they’d done to him.

Every time the pressure would build up, Gil retreated to the sanctuary of animals.

“All my life animals have been my therapy,” he says. “Animals can heal you.”

Gil Ma, the director of the farm at Gardner Village in West Jordan. talks with three of the horses at the farm on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

He especially bonded with animals that had also known abuse. It started with a horse named Dolly that was blind in one eye. Gil rescued Dolly. He’s been rescuing animals ever since.

Eleven years ago, after he’d lost his job and discovered that new sales rep jobs were scarce for a man in his late 40s, he turned his animal-rescue therapy into a business when Gardner Village allowed him space to set up a petting zoo.

Gil established his Farm Animal Rescue nonprofit (therescuefarm.com) in the southwest corner of the property and started bringing in animals to rehabilitate and re-home. Since 2012, The Farm has been a revolving door of rescued animals. To date, 119 horses — almost one per month — have been adopted from the petting zoo, along with hundreds of other animals, including cows (“You’d be surprised how many people like cows as pets,” Gil says).

Along the way, thousands of visitors — from schoolkids to senior citizens and everything in between — have rubbed shoulders with the animals, holding bunnies, brushing horses, petting goats, stroking alpacas, feeding chickens, riding donkeys.

Gil Ma, the director of the farm at Gardner Village in West Jordan, talks with a school group that has come to tour the farm on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Gil has a front row seat to watch “the magic happen,” when people’s spirits are lifted simply by communing with the farm animals.

“We rescue the animals but they rescue people,” he likes to say.

This is especially true for people who are victims of abuse. “I can spot them when they come in; I can see it in their eyes,” says Gil. “I see them light up when they hold an animal.

“There are other places that can do what we do — rescue animals — but it’s important for this place to exist so people can come here and heal.

“This is my purpose, to share with other people that there is hope in healing.”

Gil, by the way, isn’t Gil’s real name. He was born Russ Murdock. Several years ago, when he started rescuing animals, he decided to go by something that didn’t remind him daily of his abusive past. He chose Gil because the initials stand for God Is Love (his assumed last name, Ma, dates back to his days as a missionary in Korea).

He’s content now in the belief that God isn’t like his parents: “I know he’s not an angry guy. All his rules, all his commandments, are nothing more than a loving father telling you, ‘Look, if you do these things it’s going to hurt you or somebody else, so don’t do them.’”

His hope is that he can keep rescuing animals until, as they say, the cows come home. They rescued him. He’s repaying the favor.

Gil Ma, the director of the farm at Gardner Village in West Jordan, talks with Kalli Pendley as she and her daughter Ellie Pendley and their friends Marisa Taylor and her daughter Frankie Taylor visit the farm on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News