Black Beauty Ranch’s most famous unofficial resident lurks out of sight in the mud at the bottom of a horse pasture pond. He weighs perhaps 150 pounds, with a spiked shell like a plated dinosaur’s and a massive jaw. To catch food, he lies in wait, opening his mouth wide to reveal a worm-like protuberance on the tip of his tongue. When a fish swims in to get the “worm,” his jaw snaps shut.

Staff who have glimpsed this creature briefly surfacing call him “the kraken,” after the legendary sea monster off the coasts of Norway and Iceland. The sanctuary’s kraken is not as big as his mythical counterpart, but he belongs to one of the world’s largest species of turtle—the alligator snapping turtle, listed as threatened in Texas. Elsewhere, such turtles are killed for their meat and shells, which can be more than 2 feet long. Black Beauty Ranch’s kraken lives undisturbed.

“I love that we didn’t make him move out of the pasture when we discovered he was living in the pond,” says caregiver Emily Knight Hunter. “We allowed him to stay where he has made a good home for himself.”

blue heron stands in water near brush
A great blue heron stands in the shallows at the sanctuary, alert for prey: fish, amphibians, reptiles and insects.

Along with animals rescued from neglect and abuse, saved from slaughter, given up by owners, or retired from labs, Black Beauty Ranch provides habitat for scores of unofficial residents who arrive on their own, without transport, paperwork or staff initially even knowing they are there. These animals include the alligator snapping turtle, black rat snakes, egrets, great blue herons, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, white-tailed deer, rabbits, coyotes, foxes, a visiting pair of bald eagles, and, on the margins of the property, a group of wild hogs. Unlike feral hogs elsewhere, they are tolerated, not shot as “pests.” Sanctuary staff are careful not to bother these locals or to harm them, says Christi Gilbreth, senior coordinator of outreach and development.

When caregiver Will Eschberger drives through the sanctuary, he’s always looking for the animals not fenced in or cared for, like the red slider (turtle) he spotted one afternoon in a creek by the road. “That’s been one of my favorite parts about working here—seeing the native wildlife,” he says. “Because this is a pristine piece of East Texas.”

The sanctuary’s unofficial wild hogs—not to be confused with its official feral pigs, seven neutered males who reside in an internal fenced area—roam near the outer perimeter fence, able to come and go. They root around for their own food, leaving holes in the ground that the facilities team fills in.

A farmer might worry about pigs like these destroying crops, but they don’t do much damage to Black Beauty Ranch’s pasture and woods, says Greg Garcia, director of animal care. He notes their presence without alarm: “The last time I saw them, they were running down the riverbank with piglets.”

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