Your rare chance to mingle with outrageous characters who sashay across acres, not runways: rescued animals with tales to tell
by HOLLY HABER/photographs by NAN COULTER
I have nothing to fear; and here my story ends. My troubles are all over, and I am at home.” The words, inscribed at the entrance to 1,250 sprawling acres in Murchison, Texas, about 95 miles east of Dallas, are some of the last in the novel Black Beauty, written by English author Anna Sewell in 1877. One hundred and thirty-six years later, those words apply to some rather remarkable characters:
Midge the chimpanzee, who is terrified of syringes and squeeze cages — one side can slide in to immobilize its captive — because he was used for medical experimentation for 22 years. But he carefully threads a blue rope through the fence of his playground for a gentle tug-of-war with his human caretakers.
RooRoo the kangaroo, who lost an arm boxing in a circus, yet stands patiently while visitors pet his soft, tawny fur on a warm afternoon. His eyes are half-closed; he’d obviously rather be sleeping.
Buckaroo, a strikingly beautiful leopard appaloosa in a herd of mostly friendly equines, who will trot away if you come within 20 feet. Evidently, he remembers the bucking strap that gave him his rodeo name, and he doesn’t want to get roped into that again.
Like humans, animals have varying capacities to forgive and forget, and most of the 1,000-plus residents at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Murchison have been put to the test. Many were rescued from neglect, cruelty or medical experimentation. Some were spared death sentences, like the critically endangered addax — known also as a screwhorn antelope — headed for a captive hunt and the retired racehorses condemned to the slaughterhouse. Others are castoffs of the exotic-pet trade, like Willy, a cellphone-stealing, pig-tailed macaque whose owner couldn’t manage the powerful creature that was once such a cute baby. There are hundreds of burros that were to be shot on public lands and herds of axis, fallow and sika deer jettisoned by the Dallas Zoo.
At Black Beauty they are serene, their only lifelong obligations being annual checkups and vaccinations.
Author Cleveland Amory established the ranch as a stress-free animal retirement home, so it is closed to the public for all but two days each spring and fall. On Saturday, April 13, the nation’s biggest and most diverse animal sanctuary opens for a public tour, allowing a glimpse into the private lives of 42 species of wild and domestic animals. “We do the open houses so people can come out here and learn about what we’re doing,” says Ben Callison, ranch director. “These animals are ambassadors for the situations that they came from, like the elands that were saved from captive hunting. Every animal’s story is tied into the work we do.”
The ranch, which opened as an 80-acre refuge for Grand Canyon burros in 1979 and merged with the Humane Society of the United States in 2005, continues to expand. “We have a 10-year master plan to revamp it to be the physical embodiment of the HSUS,” Callison says. Last year, Black Beauty unveiled the Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center, a barn and training arena to rehabilitate riding horses that have survived neglect and cruelty. It’s the only adoption facility at the ranch: All other animals are here for life. “We’re trying to change the perception of a rescue horse being damaged or unwanted,” Callison says. “These horses have the capacity to re-create trust and become phenomenal lifelong companions.”Once a Dallas architect, Callison began volunteering at Black Beauty in 2003 and in 2011 agreed to combine his passion for animals with his design skills to become ranch director. He drafted the visitor’s center that opened in 2011, housing informational displays, a small shop and the sanctuary’s first two guest rooms for donors. Currently, he is working on fundraising and the design of a $300,000 tiger habitat. “Right now, there are more tigers in captivity in Texas than there are in the wild,” Callison says, noting the state is home to about 3,000. “The same is true of bison.” In addition, Callison is preparing to convert the former elephant building into a hospital, and he is designing a handling facility to provide medical care to the ranch’s many wild horses.
When Amory, the late writer and social commentator best known for The Cat Who Came for Christmas, started the sanctuary with 80 acres in 1979, he was already the nation’s chief animal-rights activist as founder of the Fund for Animals in 1967. Amory’s immediate goal for Black Beauty was to provide safe haven for the 577 burros that he arranged to be airlifted one-by-one from the Grand Canyon, to prevent their being hunted and shot as nuisances. Its first resident, however, was a cat that limped up the drive dragging one leg in a trap. Black Beauty quickly became a refuge for all sorts of unwanted and abused animals. Its current tenants? Bobcats, a baboon, iguanas, bison, ponies, ostriches, deer, gibbons, goats, a dromedary camel, wild hogs and pot-bellied pigs, Bengal tigers, wolf hybrids, aoudad sheep, an Asian water buffalo, massive African spurred tortoises, 220 horses and 310 burros.
Penned the aforementioned Anna Sewell in the last few sentences of Black Beauty, her landmark novel written from the point of view of a horse with many travails: “I feel my strength and spirits all coming back again.”
KNOW AND GO
Spring Open House at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch: Saturday, April 13, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (fall open houses are scheduled for Oct. 12 and 19), at 12526 County Road 3806, about 95 miles east of Dallas in Murchison; 903-469-3811; blackbeautyranch.org