It's a cold Saturday afternoon in east Texas, and I'm walking through an icy, muddy pasture. Suddenly I feel something munching on my back pocket.
I turn around, and, sure enough, there's a burro nibbling my pants. It's the same burro that's been following me around all day. He stops, lifts his furry face, and looks at me with an expression that says, "Terribly sorry, I thought you had a carrot for me."
"Oh, you silly," says Jan Dean, my guide at the ranch, talking to the burro. She laughs. "You'd think you never got anything to eat!"
Hardly. This burro, which was rescued from the Grand Canyon, has a belly as big as a pickle barrel. There's a pile of hay bales in nearly every corner of this pasture, plenty for the dozens of horses, donkeys, mules, and cows who live on the ranch. It's got everything a burro could want.
It's called the Black Beauty Ranch, set in the rolling hills of Murchison, Texas. It's not like any zoo you've seen. If an animal had to live somewhere other than in the wild, this is surely where it would choose to live.
"It's a safe haven for animals who have been abused or neglected," says Mrs. Dean, who drives to the ranch 80 miles each way, three times a week to volunteer. She knows just about every animal by name. "They come here to spend the rest of their lives in safety," she says.
The ranch was set up in 1979 by a writer named Cleveland Amory. He wrote such books as "The Cat Who Came for Christmas" (1987). Mr. Amory began the ranch to take in any animal that needed to be rescued from people who weren't treating it well, or animals that needed a safe place to live.
Today, the ranch is home to hundreds of animals, including many you'd expect to see at a zoo: giraffes, elephants, lions, cougars, chimpanzees, bobcats, ostriches, wolves, and more. Feeding times, at dawn and dusk, are the most exciting times for the animals. Taking care of all of them keeps six full-time workers very busy.
Visitors are welcome on Saturdays, for no charge, but remember: The Black Beauty Ranch isn't really for you. It's for the animals that live there.
Take the cougar that Chris Byrne rescued from a family in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas just a few weeks ago.
"They had it outside, like a dog, tied to a tree," says Mr. Byrne, the ranch manager. He usually handles the major rescues. The big cat was in bad shape. It was thin and ill from being poorly nourished, he says.
Now it's living in an indoor cage and being fed a proper diet. Soon, Byrne and the ranch staff hope to introduce the cougar to a pair of cougars named Katya and Sergei who have lived at the ranch for years.
"Chris says we should call her Frisky, because she is so ... well, so frisky," says Mrs. Dean. "But I think she needs something more elegant than that." She turned to the big cat, which had flopped down on its side and was purring like a big tabby cat while rubbing its head against the the bars of its cage.
"Is she a good girl?" Dean asked the cat. "Does she want a tummy rub?"
I scratched the cougar's head. Her fur felt smooth and a little scratchy. (In my mind, I told myself, "I'm crazy to touch this animal, which in the wild could chomp me like a day-old Twinkie. But clearly, this cat is choosing to be nice.")
Some of the animals at the ranch are so happy and good-natured that it's hard to believe they ever had a hard life. A trio of wolf-dog mixes, one with a lop-ear, run around their pen and play like puppies. A pair of bobcats, named Bob and General, prance around their pen and climb on the tree branches and rocks as if they ruled the world.
Other animals come to Black Beauty in sorry shape. An elephant named Tara had lived at a roadside zoo in Rhode Island for 20 years in the same 20-foot by 20-foot room. She had a five-foot-long chain around one ankle. The zookeepers said Tara was the sweetest elephant that ever lived, until she reached the age of 10. Then she tried to run away. (Wouldn't you?) Nearby citizens finally forced the zoo to close, and Tara was sent here.
Now Tara lives in a large comfortable barn with three other elephants. In the warmer months, they loll around outdoors in a pasture, eating hay and fruit. They love to roll in the dust or spray each other with water in a pond.
Like most of the animals I met on this cold winter afternoon, Tara couldn't tell me how she felt about living at the Black Beauty Ranch. (I don't speak elephant - or burro or bobcat, for that matter.) But I think that if she could, she would have said that she thoroughly enjoys living in a home all her own. To find out more about Black Beauty Ranch, see: www.blackbeautyranch.org
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