Saving the Forgotten

More than 900 animals get a new start at this Texas animal sanctuary.

The day begins early here at a retreat down a little-known road deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas, near the town of Murchison, about a two-hour drive east of Dallas. Animals amble from their shelters around dawn, the seasoned residents knowing that a white truck will soon be cruising toward them, ready to deliver their day’s meals, weighing hundreds of pounds.

After the morning’s feeding, a caring staff — paid employees, interns and volunteers numbering up to 25 workers on any particular day — cleans the diverse habitats. It doesn’t take long for newly arrived animals to realize they have found a haven at Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch (The Ranch), their “forever” home with fresh air and open fields, far away from the beings who caused their misery — in most cases, humans.

Cleveland Amory rescuing one of his beloved burros in 1979. Photo courtesy of The Fund for Animals.

The Ranch is a world-renowned, 1,400-acre animal sanctuary that was founded in 1979 by Cleveland Amory, an animal advocate, author and humanitarian. The Ranch is operated by The Fund for Animals (The Fund), the largest and most diverse network of animal sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers in the country, and is an affiliate of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The Ranch is currently home to over 900 animals — ranging from antelopes, to bears, to big cats, to bison, to farm animals, to primates. Most have been rescued from varying inhumane and many times deplorable circumstances — including exotic pet traders, medical research laboratories, racetracks, roadside zoos, rodeos, slaughterhouses and trophy club ranches.

Amory, who has been described as the founding father of the animal protection movement, began The Fund for Animals in 1967 and served without pay as its president until his death in October 1998 at the age of 81. He began his literary career as president of The Harvard Crimson. He later became the editor of The Saturday Evening Post and was also a social commentator on the “Today Show.” In 1974 he wrote Man Kind? Our Incredible War on Wildlife, which was recognized for launching an anti-hunting movement in the United States. Through this publication, he gained a following among grass-roots advocates who wanted to help, including celebrities like Doris Day and Mary Tyler Moore. “I used to write about both Mrs. Astor [a New York aristocrat early in the last century] and her horse,” Amory once spoke of his association with high society, “but now I just write about her horse.”

One of his more interesting rescues took place in 1979 when he undertook a two-year effort to airlift over 500 burros out of the Grand Canyon. All were to be slaughtered, but with the help of helicopters and cowboys, the animals were brought to The Ranch. Upon Amory’s death, he was cremated, and his ashes were put in a canister around Friendly, his favorite donkey from the rescue. Friendly then wandered the property and distributed his ashes around the sanctuary. The year 2017 celebrated The Fund’s 50th anniversary and also what would have been Amory’s 100th birthday.

There are too many uplifting stories to chronicle here, but a few emerge to the top. Lulu Belle, a female chimpanzee, whose nightly regimen is turning the pages of colorful magazines (and, who knows, perhaps reading them as well), is just one example of The Ranch’s success stories. “She was 34 years old when she came to live with us on June 20, 1997,” says Noelle Almrud, director of The Ranch. “Lulu has overcome more challenges than most of us will ever face in a lifetime. She was used in hepatitis B vaccine trials and on live virus studies. Between the years of 1985 - 1996, she endured 114 blood draws, 35 liver biopsies, and 52 tests for tuberculosis.”

Chimpanzees Lulu and Midge celebrate Lulu’s 53rd birthday. Photo by Rebcca Cisneros/The HSUS.

For her first 15 years at The Ranch, Lulu lived a peaceful retirement with her chimpanzee companions. But in April 2012, she suffered the first of several strokes, losing 100 percent mobility on the right side of her body. A blood test also diagnosed diabetes. Her diet was dramatically altered to reduce the amount of sugar and carbohydrates. Medical staff began an insulin regimen to control her blood glucose levels and a physical therapy program to help her regain her lost mobility.  

“Through all of this, Lulu never seemed to be affected by her hardship,” Almrud says.

“The fact that she had difficulty climbing, walking or even sitting never seemed to bother her. We never, not once, saw any signs of frustration from this amazing animal. She did all that was asked of her, participated in every physical therapy session, and took injectable insulin from us not knowing that we were trying to save her life. She did it because we asked her to and because we gave her a special treat when treatment was completed.” After several months, she regained approximately 80 percent of her mobility. Lulu has become one of the first chimpanzees in a sanctuary environment to be trained for a voluntary blood draw. She is also the first chimpanzee ever to give a voluntary blood pressure reading from her finger, a behavior she learned in only two training sessions.

Alex, the tiger. Photo by George Buxbaum/The HSUS.

Alex, a seven-year-old tiger, came to The Ranch in May 2013 from a private owner in Atchison, Kansas, where he was a victim of exotic pet trade. Alex lived in a backyard cage that allowed him to walk only several steps before he had to turn around and retrace the same steps. His owner was later prosecuted for animal cruelty charges. Alex was a dull orange color when he arrived, and his legs and belly were matted with feces and mud. But today, he is thriving at The Ranch and enjoys spending his days in his 3-acre, naturally wooded habitat with a pond. One of his favorite activities is to play with boxes filled with treats. “We are often asked how is someone even able to own an exotic pet such as Alex. Laws vary by state, and Texas has very few regulations,” Almrud says. It is estimated there are more tigers in captivity today than exist in the wild. Because there is little oversight on breeding, many are hybrids and couldn’t exist in the wild even if they were released. In Alex’s new home, he does what he wants — sometimes going among the trees to escape interaction and other times sunning on top of a platform built specially for him.

Goats enjoying a frolic. Photo by Katie Birk/The HSUS.

In mid-2017, 18 goats, three sheep and three pigs arrived at The Ranch. They were among more than 350 animals rescued from wretched conditions on a Georgia property. The HSUS and several Georgia-based animal care organizations were called in to rescue and transport the animals. “No animal should have to live in the horrific, unsafe and unsanitary conditions these animals had to endure. We did not know what to expect when they arrived, but the moment they stepped off the trailer into their new pasture and a healthy environment, we saw the happiness radiating from every one of them. Seeing 18 goats jumping and frolicking in the green grasses of what may be the first pasture they had ever seen was breathtaking,” Almrud says. “They are gaining weight at a normal rate, and the 10 babies among them are healthy with their protective mothers always close by.”

Julie, a rhesus macaque monkey, turned 22 this past December and arrived at The Ranch a little over a year ago. For half her life, she, like Lulu, lived in a medical research laboratory and then a zoo. When Julie’s longtime mate died, zoo officials knew she would be happier living with another rhesus macaque. That’s when she came to The Ranch and met Sunshine. The girls became friends and, within two days, began grooming each other, a characteristic that shows bonding.

Tibor, a black bear, plays in his new home. Photo by Katie Birk/The HSUS.

In January of this year, The Ranch welcomed its newest residents — two senior black bears retired from the entertainment industry. After their owner used them in a traveling bear show for their entire lives, he chose to retire them at The Ranch. Like all new arrivals, the two bears, ages 18 and 25, went through a two-week quarantine process before being released to roam free in their newly constructed 1-acre wooded habitat built exclusively for them. In the wild, black bears forage, fish, hunt, swim, climb trees, dig, build nests, seek out mates, and raise families. “We are grateful the owner chose to give them the life they deserve. They are in a natural environment, protected from the public and surrounded by trained veterinary and animal care staff to ensure they enjoy their retirement to the fullest. The care of senior bears involves additional responsibilities, including treatment for geriatric conditions like arthritis, obesity and mobility issues,” Almrud says.

The Ranch recently completed phase one of a three-phase primate habitat that, once finished, will house up to 100 monkeys rescued from biomedical research and pet trade. The design will give the current macaques, capuchins, and future monkey residents a richer life in new expansive habitats. This facility will also serve as a model for other sanctuaries.

A bison at The Ranch. Photo by George Buxbaum/The HSUS.

“While every animal there reminds us of some tale of woe and heartache, there are an equal number of stories of people acting with conscience to help suffering animals find their way to permanent safety. There’s no sanctuary in the world like Black Beauty Ranch,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS. “It’s a place for all animals, and in learning of their plight, visitors can get a practical understanding of the major threats that exist for animals and join us to do something about it on a big scale.”

Noelle Almrud emphasizes that The Ranch is not a zoo, nor is it meant for entertainment. The purpose is to educate. “The animals serve as ambassadors for the atrocities man has thrown at them and as a ray of hope that we can help shape the future for others so they do not endure the same suffering,” Almrud says. The goal is to let the animals live out their lives in tranquility, safety and give them proper food and health care. No longer a commodity, breeding is not allowed. As living creatures, many experience emotions — love, grief and sadness — and many also have a social structure that mirrors that of a human. Amory once said he founded the sanctuary because he wanted the animals to be “looked after, not looked at.” His goal was to shield them from human beings as much as possible. 

Horses mingle. Photo by George Buxbaum/The HSUS.

“While it’s true we do provide a better life for these animals, it’s a two-way street. They teach us life’s lessons on a daily basis when we see their grace and spirit shine through,” Almrud continues. “It’s amazing to see them blossom, sometimes after just a short time here. Lulu is a great example. We cannot take credit for her accomplishments. She demonstrates that no matter what life throws at you, overcoming obstacles is just another bump in the road.”  

The Ranch is open to the public, typically one to two times monthly, on a limited basis for small, prescheduled, guided tours. The next Ranch of Dreams Tour is scheduled for April 28. The cost to operate The Ranch is approximately $2 million yearly, and it survives solely on donations. 

As night falls and the animals settle, stars shine down on a sign at the grounds’ entrance, to a quote from author Anna Sewell’s novel, Black Beauty: “I have nothing to fear. And here my story ends. My troubles are all over and I am at home.”

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by Linda Blackwell Simmons