MURCHISON, Texas -- It is billed as “America’s largest and most diverse animal sanctuary," but its current director would be happy if the services of Black Beauty Ranch were no longer needed and the sanctuary could close for good.
"The mission of any good sanctuary is to hopefully come to that day when it is no longer needed,” said Black Beauty Ranch director Ben Callison.
The Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, named for the animal rights activist and author who founded the sanctuary in 1979, is home to 43 different species on 1,300 acres in Murchison, TX near Athens and Tyler.
The animals, rescued from medical research, captive hunting farms, and neglect and abuse, range from 23 primates including gibbons and chimpanzees to acres of free-roaming horses, exotic antelope and deer, ostriches, bison, horses and donkeys.
The Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center, part of Black Beauty Ranch, rehabilitates abused and injured horses and adopts them out to suitable homes. Horses and donkeys that are not considered suitable for adoption are allowed to live out their lives, roaming free on hundreds of acres at Black Beauty Ranch.
Buckaroo, a retired rodeo horse, is easy to spot in the Black Beauty herd. He is a leopard palomino with distinctive black and white markings. The horse, although relatively young, was rescued on his way to the slaughterhouse, discarded after his rodeo career was over.
“Ninety percent of horses going to horse slaughter are young, healthy, well-bred horses and he's an example of that,” said Callison. "So if they weren't here that's where they would be."
Among the most recent arrivals to the sanctuary is a rare Scimitar Oryx, a species of Oryx now extinct in the wild. Raised as someone’s exotic pet the owner chose to refuse an offer from a captive hunting farm and send the animal instead to Black Beauty.
"This animal will never be adorning someone's wall in their house as a trophy. She's going to get to live out her life here,” said Callison.
The sanctuary is home to numerous species that were once in private pet collections. Saudi, a 5-year-old camel is a recent arrival. And several of the sanctuary’s primates, including gibbons, capuchins, and macaques, were rescued from either medical research or the exotic pet trade. The Humane Society is working to get better regulation for private ownership of primates.
"Although people believe they can take them as pets it almost always fails when they do,” said Callison of the exotic pet trade. “And it's sanctuaries that end up having to take the burden of these animals for the remainder of their life."
The front gate of Black Beauty Ranch includes a quote from Anna Sewell’s novel “Black Beauty” that summarizes the mission of the sanctuary. “I have nothing to fear; and here my story ends My troubles are all over, and I am at home….”
"Their stories and their histories are just so sad that it's wonderful to finally be able to bring them here and give them the life that they deserve,” said Callison.
The sanctuary is in the process of expanding its facilities to house large cats. Right now the sanctuary is home to four tigers including sisters Anastasia and Natalia who were rescued from a small road-side zoo in Mississippi where they had been kept in an enclosure as small as 10 by 10 feet.
“The situations that they have come from have just been absolutely absurd and unacceptable and it's disgusting. It really is,” said tiger caretaker and sanctuary employee Katie Birk.
One of the enrichment exercises they now use for the tigers to keep them healthy, alert, and mentally stimulated is to allow them to “paint.” Birk slides a small easel with dabs of non-toxic paint into the tiger enclosure. The sisters paw and rub on the easel creating their own “artwork” that is sometimes offered to donors and friends of the sanctuary.
"My hope for these girls and like any other tiger that we rescue is that they actually get to find the true word of sanctuary,” added Birk.
Callison says the big cat pet issue remains a difficult one. There are more tigers in captivity in the state of Texas, says Callison, than there are in the wild.
“If those issues can get resolved then we are no longer necessary,” said Callison of the variety of animal abuse issues the Humane Society and Black Beauty Ranch are involved in.
"I long for the day when I have an opening and there is not a request to fill it."
But for now Black Beauty Ranch plans to expand some of its habitats: make more room, more sanctuary for primates and big cats to offer this final home until they can close their gates for good.
Click here to find out how you can support the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch and its programs.