Every morning, the teams at Black Beauty Ranch spread out across 1,400 acres to care for the nearly 650 animals who call the sanctuary home. It’s not an easy task. The sanctuary is home to around 40 species, meaning caregivers need a high level of knowledge about all sorts of animals. Insights into individual personalities and the animals’ previous lives also help caregivers craft personalized animal care plans.

It takes a lot of work and meticulous planning to fill in for Mother Nature, says Crispin Owen, who leads the facilities and maintenance team responsible for the sanctuary’s vital infrastructure systems. (Mother Nature doesn’t need an ATV to deliver daily necessities, but the sanctuary teams sure do!) Owen’s team also builds and maintains the unique habitats necessary to meet the animals’ needs.

Send the Animals a Gift

When Black Beauty Ranch agreed to take in 10 lemurs from a now-defunct zoo in Puerto Rico, staff made sure they had done their homework. The sanctuary hadn’t had lemurs for a long time, so caregivers reached out to sanctuaries with the species to learn more about their care. Lemurs have stricter dietary limitations than other primates and don’t usually enjoy toys like other primates do, so caregivers crafted a specialized menu and worked with the facilities team to build an enclosure with large trees to climb—all in time for their arrival. Owen’s crew bought out the county’s supply of chicken wire to “baby proof” the enclosure, making sure that the tiniest lemurs would remain safely inside.

A white turkey at Black Beauty Ranch Sanctuary
Staff got creative to find the right friends for Helen.
Maura Flaherty

Once new residents arrive, caregivers pay close attention to their likes, dislikes and quirks to help plan enrichment activities, decide who should live together and occasionally even detect medical issues. “You can’t put into words what makes that animal ‘off,’ ” Ashley Orr, farm animal care manager, says. “You have to be tuned into what’s normal to know when something’s off.”

During their daily rounds, caregivers often act as matchmakers, assessing which personalities will meld together and which will clash. Bold personalities such as Helen the turkey can pose a challenge. Orr found that Helen preferred the company of ducks, who happily let her boss them around, over other turkeys. Sadly, at nearly 12 years of age, Helen died in late 2023, but Orr is comforted to know that Helen spent the end of her life with her chosen flock.

Insight into the cruel systems that animals came from also helps caregivers understand their needs. “I believe the greatest challenge we face on the farm team is caring for animals who have been genetically manipulated for generations to grow fast, gain weight rapidly or produce as much milk or as many eggs as possible, then die young,” says Orr.

Although Helen was a heritage breed similar to wild turkeys, most turkeys at the sanctuary are broad-breasted whites. This breed—the most commonly used turkey in meat production—has been bred to gain weight incredibly fast, which can lead to foot and joint problems, heart disease and liver failure. While Helen had high energy levels, the broad-breasted whites have difficulty walking. And the genes that make pigs grow quickly when they are young also make them prone to cancers, Orr says. Although pigs naturally live around 20 years, she sees a lot of pigs developing skin and other cancers around age 6 or 7.

Workers create a ramp in an enclosure at Black Beauty Ranch Sanctuary
Staff members designed an enclosure that's easy to navigate and explore for Gizmo, who is mostly blind from his time in a research facility.
Rebecca Cisneros
Gizmo, a blind macaque at Black Beauty Ranch Sanctuary
Libby Smidl
Black Beauty Ranch

Other caregivers see similar physical and psychological trauma stemming from the animals’ past lives. Some of the primates who were pets had their canine teeth removed. Gizmo the rhesus macaque is mostly blind, likely from a brain implant he received while being used for biomedical research. Many horses who arrive from cruelty situations are very skittish and need space.

The sanctuary teams know they cannot undo all the systematic harms the animals have suffered, but they do everything they can to improve their quality of life. Gizmo has ramps throughout his enclosure to help him move around, and caregivers create trails of food to encourage him to check out new enrichment items.

It’s a tough job, says Christi Gilbreth, senior coordinator of outreach and development. “But it’s one we all love.”

On a hot June day, Orr collects clay from a hillside and mixes it with water to act as a natural sunscreen for the pigs. She rubs the mixture on the animals and laughs while they roll around under a sunshade. They’re going to be more comfortable now, she says, admiring her work. The pigs look like pigs should, their mud-strewn bodies close together as they laze in the grass and mud wallow. 

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