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May 13, 2009

Animals Find Quiet Refuge on Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch

The Humane Society of the United States

by Angela Moxley

  • This cow and steer mingle peacefully on the ranch. Michelle Riley/HSUS

  • The magnificent bison are grazing in the early morning. Michelle Riley/HSUS

  • Burros were the first residents of the ranch. Michelle Riley/HSUS

  • This communal eating area is a busy place. Michelle Riley/HSUS

As day breaks at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch one morning just before the arrival of spring, the rustlings of breakfast time permeate the crisp silence—horses and burros, bison and cattle by the hundreds serenely munching hay and grass in misty fields.

On the bank of a tree-shaded half-moon pond, deer stand at attention or bound through the grass while llamas and emus wander across the hill and ostriches streak by on tiptoe, feathers fanned to the side.

In this haven operated by The HSUS in partnership with The Fund for Animals, the rest of the world fades beyond the fog, leaving no trace of the abuse and exploitation that landed many of these animals on the ranch's 1,250 pristine acres. Here, there's nothing but unbridled freedom and the wide Texas sky.

Greeting the Day

Far away across the open fields, the ranch's earliest riser has been awake in her barn for hours. Babe, an African elephant discarded by a circus when she could no longer perform due to foot and leg injuries, reaches up to a hay-filled net attached to a pulley lovingly constructed by doting keeper Arturo Padron. The contraption enables Babe to stretch her neck and trunk in ways that she would in the wild.

She pulls down a bundle and arranges it in the crook of her trunk, twirling the hose-like appendix with the grace of a ballerina. Soon Padron will give her the first of three daily washes to cleanse and soothe her long-suffering feet.

Babe's chimpanzee neighbors bear scars from their time in research facilities that no solution can ever wash away. But at Black Beauty, healing is on the animals' own terms, and they have only hours in which to wile away the day. Midge, the perpetual teenager, plops on the grass of the outdoor chimp habitat—arms and legs splayed—reading the activity around him like the morning paper.

Lulu lolls on the sky-walk leading from the chimps' indoor "bedroom." She's sprawled on a bedsheet and sucking on an orange. Kitty, the protector, sits on the grass below, arms wrapped around her and head down but eyes looking out, assuming what ranch workers refer to as the "compacted Kitty" mode. Later, she'll climb up to Lulu, leaning into her as they share a snack.

Not For Display

The sounds and sights of this ranch, the daily lives of its nearly 1,300 residents, and the breathtaking beauty of the broad, lush landscape—all are enough to mesmerize any animal lover. But except for invitation-only open houses held twice a year, Black Beauty Ranch is closed to the public. The only humans the animals usually see are the 13 ranch workers and administrative staff.

The seclusion is intentional: an homage to the animals' sacred privacy. The chimpanzees aren't prompted to make faces to amuse visitors; if they're given toys, it's simply so they can amuse themselves. The horses aren't ridden, and the burros carry no burdens on their backs. If Babe doesn't want to saunter outdoors until high noon, no one is standing by to goad her into the light of day.

This ethic of protection has imbued the ranch since its founding three decades ago, when The Fund for Animals needed a place to house 577 burros airlifted from the Grand Canyon, where they were slated to be shot by the National Park Service.

Since then, thousands of creatures have passed through its gates, seeking permanent haven from the agriculture industry, research facilities, zoos and other entertainment enterprises, captive shooting operations, government culling programs, and individual acts of abuse.

Though their species and backgrounds vary, they bask in the common security of a place where, as envisioned by the late Fund president and founder Cleveland Amory—author, journalist, and animal protection crusader—the animals are not to be looked at, but looked after.

Black Beauty is their home, and they own this place in all but the legal sense.

"The concept of sanctuary is that it is the animals' place first, rather than a place for people," says Richard Farinato, senior director of animal care centers for The HSUS, which joined forces with The Fund in 2005.

"So, you try to do as much as you can to make it comfortable and appropriate for the animals. And in many cases, people visiting on a regular basis ... like in a zoo situation ... even though the animals get used to it, it is still stressful for them. Everything that is done here, from cage design to diet to cleaning routines to interaction with animals, is based on what the animal needs, not what the people need.

"The staff is there to essentially wait on the animals hand and foot."

Custom Care

Of all the staff who tend to the denizens of Black Beauty, Sheila Ivey may be the most popular waitress. Every morning just after 7, she fills buckets with pellets and tosses them in the back of a pickup truck outfitted with a humming feed hopper and dispenser.

At the ranch kitchen, where Ivey picks up a bucket of syringes, a three-page printout details the food and medicine to be given at each stop, but she leaves it behind. Practice has burned the routine into her mind: Friendly—a ranch icon and possibly the only remaining burro from the original Grand Canyon airlift—and her constant companion Scar get arthritis medicine mixed into their senior equine food.

Omar, a camel who was cast off as a sick baby from the Christmas pageant circuit and was then bottle-raised at the ranch, sometimes eats dirt, so he gets medicine to prevent colic. He also gets companionship from Ivey.

"He'll come up and eat out of my bucket," she says. "He'll even stick his head in the truck. He wants you to pet on him." At almost every one of the 18 stops on her route, she delivers a little extra care for animals with special needs.

Caring for this many creatures comes with a hefty price tag. Every two weeks, the ranch receives 14,000 pounds of grain and more than 4,000 pounds of feed. The primates, elephant, and reptiles consume 650 pounds of produce a week; the hoof stock, 587 tons of hay per year. Last year, Black Beauty spent $295,000 on animal care, including twice-yearly hoof checks, tooth care, vaccinations, and dewormings for the horses.

Another $50,000 or so goes to groundskeeping, including regular fertilization and upkeep of the more than 600 acres of pastures; 150 acres of annual ryes are planted as a cover crop to give animals a winter graze when the perennial grasses fade away.

Free-Range Therapy

More than any other species, Black Beauty belongs to the burros; 329 of them plod the well-worn trails, forming an almost unnoticeable backdrop. They may lack the exotic looks of the horned Barbary sheep and the charisma of the primates, but they still have much to teach their two-legged admirers: stand in any one spot for five minutes, and you're likely to attract an audience of burros who seem to bask in the simple joy of being.

From 1979 to 1984, The Fund rescued more than 2,000 of these gentle donkeys from inhumane deaths at the hands of airborne shooters in the Grand Canyon and in Death Valley National Park in Nevada. Cleveland Amory poured his heart and soul into the effort despite the ridicule of many, says his longtime assistant Marian Probst, who recalls him looking out with pride over the ever-expanding sanctuary.

"They could roam wherever they wanted to, and that's what he wanted to happen—just for them to eat and be free, and roll over, and go drink in the lake," says Probst, now chair of The Fund for Animals and an HSUS board member.

Their Stories

Of the 1,270 animals on the roster, more than 600 rove the open range at Black Beauty, and Edward Palmer knows a little something about almost all of them. In his nine years here, the ranch foreman has personally picked up many of the animals and driven them to the safety of the sanctuary.

One recent morning as he sets out to make his daily rounds, he recalls their stories: two horses came from a now-closed slaughter plant in nearby Kaufman, he says; an activist had seen the pair at an auction and sent money for their rescue. One herd of 65 horses came off the Nevada range.

"You look at the pictures then, it'd be hard for you to imagine it was the same horses," he says. "It was pretty desolate, and they didn't have much to eat."

A group of mares was rescued from a facility where they were kept pregnant and tied in stalls so their urine could be harvested for hormones used in estrogen replacement therapy.

A steer with a lame shoulder was abandoned as a crippled orphan, and a Scottish highland cow from a nearby farmer came with an udder infection so bad the staff had to bottle-raise her calf. "She's getting old, and sometimes in the winter, we have to bring her up to the stable for extra care and feed," Palmer says.

Once at the ranch, the animals stick together in their original bands, form new groups, break off into pairs, or keep to themselves. Often the companionship of others, coupled with a free-roaming lifestyle, is all the medicine needed to heal these broken souls.

Alfred was a bellowing mess when he arrived at Black Beauty Ranch in December 2006 as an 18-month-old steer. His human family had hand-raised him since he was three days old, indulging him often in his favorite snack of Twinkies. But when he kept getting out after Hurricane Rita destroyed the fence in his yard, the family decided they could no longer keep him.

When he arrived at the ranch, it was a chore to get him off the trailer, and he followed his human parents like a dog, seemingly unwilling to say goodbye. After a week of weaning from people, Alfred was turned out on the pasture to learn how to be with his own species. Now, he barely glances at the staff as they call his name and cajole him to come over for a visit; he's just one in a long line of cows and steers walking the land. Alfred has found his place among the herd. 

For more about the ranch, including histories of the animals, visit blackbeautyranch.org.

What You Can Do

Operating costs at Black Beauty Ranch—one of four animal care centers run by The Fund for Animals in partnership with The HSUS—totaled about $1.12 million last year, funded mostly by donations.

The charitable organization GreaterGood.org donated some $325,000 that was generated through visits to its animalrescuesite.com website; each time someone clicks on the site (for no cost), the foundation donates ad revenue to the care and feeding of animals at Black Beauty and other sanctuaries.

The ranch also offers an adoption program, where donors can sponsor any of five animals with a monthly donation.


Angela Moxley is the managing editor of All Animals, The HSUS's award-winning membership magazine.

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