When Alex Sargsyan and Shannon Phillips moved to east Tennessee for Alex’s job, they knew one thing for certain: They didn’t want to live in another condo.
“We used to live in a small condo with lots of restrictions,” says Alex. “Ours was a very classic board with lots of little rules and people telling you whether you have a right to have animals or not.”
Alex’s job with East Tennessee State University – just thirty minutes from where his husband Shannon grew up – meant the couple could finally have some space. And maybe an animal or two. When they found an 1842 farmhouse on a large plot of land with a natural spring and creek, they knew they were home.
“Our first purchase was actually some chickens,” Shannon remembers, “because that’s what the tractor supply happened to have.”
One day, Alex had another idea. “He decided it might be fun to have some ducks,” says Shannon. “And I thought, ‘Ducks? We’ve never had ducks before. Are you sure you want to do this?’ and he said, ‘Sure!’”
It wasn’t long after that Dashing Duckling Farm became a reality in 2018.
“We started with Muscovy ducks,” Alex recalls. “It was 12 ducks – five boys and seven girls. And now, we have about 200 birds.”
In addition to ducks – and their five dogs; “We don’t do well with moderation,” Shannon jokes – the farm raises chickens and geese. “We buy some as babies, but the geese we are trying to breed,” says Alex, adding that the effort has been a success. The couple sell eggs at the local farmer’s markets, as well as ducklings and goslings, which, he says, “people love.” The farm is an ethical, no-kill, free-range operation – they do not sell meat or use artificial means to encourage egg-laying.
“They virtually stop laying eggs in winter,” says Alex. “Some people would use extreme lighting…that induces the birds to lay eggs, but I don’t want to stress them. We do it just the way it was intended.”
If Dashing Duckling Farm sounds familiar to this blog’s readers, that’s because it is. Alex is the author of children’s book Dashing Duckling, a project that came about from the early home-bound days of the COVID pandemic.
“There was the time and place to do creative activities,” says Alex. And there was no shortage of inspiration.
“We actually had the ‘real’ Janice,” says Alex of the crested duck that inspired the book’s heroine. The flamboyant “crest” of a crested duck actually grows from a fatty tumor on the top of the brain, Alex explains. Sadly, what made Janice unique also proved fatal. After a season of her happy, inspiring life on the farm, Janice passed away.
“The end was sad,” says Alex, “but she had a good life… The book follows loosely the same timeline of her life.”
While the book immortalizes Janice, it adds a bit of spice to farm life. Where did Alex get the idea for the political intrigue that sees Janice the duck foil an assassination attempt?
“The plot came from here and there,” he says. “It’s changed many times… Presidential sit-coms and dramas were involved, so [it’s] kind of satire on those types of things, like House of Cards or Veep.”
The process of writing a children’s book proved challenging but fun overall, especially working with illustrator Jen Fuller.
“It was definitely a great experience. [The illustrator is from] the Philippines, and in spite of the physical distance, working with Jen was lots of fun because of her ability to ‘read my mind’ and capture all the details about book characters in the drawings.”
Ducks as Therapy
When Alex, who has a Doctorate in Nursing Practice, decided to take on another challenge and pursue a research PhD in nursing, the inspiration for his dissertation came yet again from the farm.
“One day, we were at the market, we took our duck Bede [who has mobility issues and travels in a basket]. This lady came up to us – she was pregnant and she started crying, and we said, ‘Why are you crying?’ and she said ‘You don’t understand how nice it is to see her!’” Alex chuckles at the memory, recalling that he said, “‘Yes, I enjoy her too!’” But that encounter was the beginning of a bigger idea.
“Those market experiences show how people react to an animal,” Alex explains. “And there is lots of research that working with farm animals is beneficial. So, when I started the [PhD] program, I said I didn’t really want to do research on cancer or diabetes. Instead, I had this idea.”
Alex’s research project involves using ducks as therapy animals at Crumley House, a residential facility for people with brain injuries. “I was very lucky to establish contact with them and establish this little farm. It’s literally a very tiny farm – a little house for the ducks in a covered enclosure with a free-range part. We have 12 ducks there [and] the residents take care of them, feed them. The staff help, and I do too, but it’s definitely [made] a big change in their mood.”
Alex and his team have published two papers so far on their research, with more to come. “There’s still lots of work left to write it up and calculate, and just see how actually, statistically significant it is, but the visible results are there.
“It’s been a great experience for the residents, but it’s also been a very humbling experience because you realize how much we have when we have our health and our mental health, how fragile it is,” says Alex. “And then, on the other end, how little things – like just holding a duckling in your hand – can make your day and help you cope.”
Is That a Duck on Your Arm?
You may have seen Alex before without even knowing it.
When Alex discovered an abandoned duckling on the farm, he nursed him to health and named him Maverick. The duckling turned out to be quite a fighter, and Alex and Shannon captured that spirit in a picture of him perched on Alex’s flexed bicep. The image they posted of little Maverick quacking with furry captured the attention of some internet gamers and eventually went viral in a flurry of memes.
While he might be internet famous, Maverick lives more anonymously on the farm: “Maverick is here,” says Alex, “but we don’t know which one he is because they all look the same!”
Maverick is one of seven large, magpie plumage Muscovy ducks now living their best lives at Dashing Duckling Farm.
“Obviously you cannot put him on your arm anymore,” Alex jokes.