JAMES CITY COUNTY, Va. — As Ryan Phillips called his farm animals by name on a warm afternoon in James City County, they immediately hovered around him for dinner and belly rubs.
It’s a typical evening for Phillips on his farm, where he cares for farm animals that have been neglected and abused.
Phillips runs the Life with Pigs Farm Animal Sanctuary, a non-profit aimed to improve the lives of animals.
“It’s kind of like a retirement home for animals that typically come from really bad situations,” said Phillips.
Phillips said back in April, someone picked up a calf in Maryland. She was malnourished, wounded, and had lice.
They brought her to Phillips and his family.
“We agreed that getting attached to her would not be good, because we were thinking she might not make it,” said Phillips.
But within a week, Phillips got rid of the calf’s lice, bottle fed her, and nursed her back to health.
His family named her Sophie, and her life quickly turned around.
On the last morning Phillips had Sophie by his side, he said he fed her a bottle and she kissed him on the cheek.
“I just remember thinking, ‘I’m so glad she’s here, I love this cow so much,’” said Phillips.
Two hours later, Baltimore County Police showed up at his home with a search warrant, accompanied by James City County police.
The police searched his home for Sophie, then took her away. Phillips said Sophie was returned to Braglio farms in Maryland, where she suffered from malnourishment.
Desperate to get Sophie back, Phillips called Braglio farms and spoke with Wayne Braglio, a member of the family who owns the farm.
“I tried to explain to him that we really wanted to get Sophie back, we're offering to meet him on his terms, we agreed not to share where she came from, then offered to pay to get her back,” said Phillips.
Phillips said that's when things took a scary turn.
“He [Wayne Braglio] launched into this cuss word homophobic and racial slur-filled rant about how he had a 308 rifle he was gonna shoot me with if I was within a mile of him with a bullet that he'd etched my name in, threatening to pour blood of the animals he killed on our porch,” said Phillips.
Phillips recorded the entire phone conversation. 13News Now listened to the recording and confirmed the threats made against Phillips.
Up until then, Phillips had not publicly released the name of the farm where Sophie came from. After he was threatened, he decided to share what happened in a Facebook post. Phillips said he felt the community needed to know about the threats in case something happened to him.
On Sunday evening, Phillips was building a wooden fence around his home for protection.
He said all along, his only goal was to bring Sophie back.
“We want her back because we know that there, she was left basically to die and here, she was a family member,” said Phillips.
We reached out to Braglio Farms by phone and email but did not hear back. The family-owned farm's Facebook page was deleted, but the website remains active.
In the meantime, a petition to have Sophie returned to the animal sanctuary is making its rounds online.
On Sunday night, it had more than 1,000 signatures from all across the country.