This week I celebrated my birthday with the perfect present — an invitation to spend two days at Cleveland Amory’s Black Beauty Ranch. As the largest animal sanctuary in the United States, the ranch is the forever home to abused and abandoned horses, donkeys, cows, camels, goats, sheep, an unexpected newborn lamb, pigs, wild boar, elands, ostriches, tigers, bobcats, chimpanzees, capuchin and macaque monkeys, two kinds of gibbons, bison, a baboon and an Asian water buffalo. The twenty-four hours I spent with these animals and their caregivers proved a gift beyond measure.
This two-part blog (today and next weekend) is the story of how the joy one person found with animals changed the world — and how reconnecting with Cleveland’s legacy has reminded me that joy is a circle that unites us through the giving and receiving of it.
Family is where you find it — whether it comes with four legs or two, wings or fins. My parents lived this philosophy, and they passed it on to me. At the end of many of my father's movies, he brought home whole menageries of animals who were "no longer needed" -- three ponds of goldfish, an aviary of parakeets, a garden of turtles and, at one point, even two very loud peacocks! All this and our beloved dogs, too! As a little girl, my nighttime prayers began: “God loves. . .” followed by everyone we could think of beginning with the five immediate members of our family — my parents, my brother and his wife, and me. Next came our dogs, followed by “the birds and the fishes and the turtles and the animals”. Only then did we include more people. And most of them weren’t related by blood. I had countless “aunts” and “uncles” — dear friends that we considered family. Two of my favorites were my Auntie Martha and Uncle Cleveland.
They were also my self-appointed godparents, whose legacy to me (and, in Cleveland’s case to the world) was their love for animals.
In some ways, Cleveland Amory might have seemed an unlikely candidate to become the “founding father of the modern animal protection movement.” A Harvard-educated social historian, satirist, author and self-proclaimed curmudgeon, Cleveland’s impassioned advocacy on behalf of animals began when he was invited to a bullfight and became so disgusted that he threw a seat cushion at the matador’s head and then stormed out of the arena. He eventually joined the board of the Humane Society before starting the Fund for Animals in the late 1960s. He was never afraid to use his own celebrity or his friendships with many famous and powerful people to advocate for animals. It was hard to say no to Uncle Cleveland, who was smart, funny, charistmatic, and passionate about his cause.
I just knew Uncle Cleveland and Auntie Martha as the grownups who put animals ahead of people, and who thought it utterly normal that I spent long hours lying on the carpet of their New York apartment playing with their two Siberian Huskies. I was enthralled by their trips to Africa teaching people to shoot animals with cameras instead of guns on the first photo safaris. After Cleveland founded the Fund for Animals, I proudly pasted the Fund's clever Support the Right to Arm Bears bumper sticker on all my notebooks, and loved to wear my Real People Wear Fake Furs button.
My parents didn’t always know what to do with their activist daughter. When I was 10, I was invited to one of my parents’ many visits to the White House. My mom and dad, who had known many Presidents and First Ladies, thought it would be a great honor for me to meet President Nixon. Consequently, they were not at all pleased when I told them I refused to shake the President's hand because he was responsible for the Vietnam War. My mother almost swallowed her head when she saw that I’d put on my copper POW bracelet with my best dress. In the end, my parents won out: I shook President Nixon's hand and didn’t wear the bracelet. Although Mr. Nixon turned out to be a very nice man, I learned then and there that my parents would never wear their beliefs on their sleeve as Uncle Cleveland did, when he spoke out against animal abuse and was fired on the spot from his 11-year tenure on the Today show.
As a young person, I sometimes judged my father’s fear that had haunted him since the 1950s, when he became caught up in the McCarthy witch hunt after being named a Communist. When I worked for a left-wing political organization as a teenager, my dad warned me to be very careful not to get put on any “lists” myself. I scoffed at his worry and idolized Lillian Hellman, who famously stood up to McCarthy and his henchman by declaring that she would “never cut her conscience to suit this year’s fashion”. But after thirty years of adulthood, of gradually letting pragmatism and anxiety about what others think temper, or even tamp out, my youthful passion for justice and social change, I understand all too well how fear can seem a lot more prudent and necessary than love when you have bills to pay and people to please.
Earlier this year, I decided to take a course in Sacred Activism taught by Andrew Harvey and Diane Berke. I thought it might be the opportunity to find a way to tie my longtime spiritual practice back into my youthful passion for activism. I needed to feel more connected, to figure out a way to give back.
While driving my beloved back roads home from Dallas to New Mexico I listened to the course as an audiobook. After Diane read a wonderful Mary Oliver poem about animals, the workshop attendees had been asked to share their own stories about their sacred encounters with animals. As a lifelong animal lover, I began to revisit many of the powerful connections I have had with animals — swimming with dolphins in the open sea, the stories of my rescued dogs, my lifelong love affair with horses. But the story I would have shared with the group was actually not about animals at all — rather because of them.
In 1974, not long after my parents’ divorce, Martha and Cleveland invited my mother and me to spend the holidays with them in New York. My previously formidable mother had been devastated when my father left her after 23 years of marriage for the glamorous actress who would come to call herself my wicked stepmother. No longer Mrs. Vincent Price, my mother found herself in her mid 50s starting over alone with a precocious and often wild pre-teen. She spent much of that first year very ill and struggling to regain her equilibrium. That trip to New York proved a turning point for both of us.
There were so many wonderful moments — not the least of which was going with Cleveland to run with rescued wolf cubs on a wintry Long Island beach. But even more memorable was our New Years Eve, which began at the Broadway production of Gigi. I sat next to Uncle Cleveland, who patted my head during the entire length of the song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” After the show, we went to the Algonquin Hotel, where Martha had lived during its Dorothy Parker heyday, for dinner, before watching the ball drop. But after midnight struck, when we tried to hail a cab to go home, we had no luck. So Uncle Cleveland decided to go get the Fund for Animals car, which was parked at a nearby garage.
A little while later, he pulled up at the Algonquin in the converted Checker Cab that had been painted with the Fund for Animals logo in their black-and-white color scheme. We hadn’t driven two blocks, when Cleveland realized that other people, thinking he was a cab, were hailing us for a ride home. So, he spontaneously decided to pick one of them up . . . in exchange, he told them up front, for a donation to the Fund for Animals.
I will never forget the next few hours — my uptight and fearful mother rendered first mute then gradually blossoming into joy in the presence of Cleveland’s confident enthusiasm. As we crisscrossed the park while Cleveland picked up and dropped off people, each time he shared a different story about the animals that the Fund was saving. As my mother, Martha and I watched every single person light up at the thought of helping animals, I remember thinking that, even in this big city seemingly full of strangers, animals connected everyone in joy.
At about two AM, Cleveland dropped us off, but the next morning he told us that he had kept driving until the wee hours of the morning talking to people about the Fund and getting their donations.
That memory made something click in me, and completely spontaneously, I decided to call Black Beauty Ranch.
It was a place I had always wanted to visit. Auntie Martha and Uncle Cleveland gave me my copy of Black Beauty, a book I had loved as a child. A line from the book served as Cleveland’s inspiration for the ranch’s name: “I have nothing to fear. And here my story ends. My troubles are all over, and I am home. . ."
When I was in high school, Cleveland heard that 577 burros in the Grand Canyon — abandoned descendants of the pack burros used by the National Park Service — were going to be killed by the US Government because they were overgrazing. Outraged, he organized a two-year operation to airlift every single one of those burros out of the canyon and save their lives. Many of those burros ended up at Black Beauty Ranch, but one of them found a special place in Cleveland’s heart. Most of the burros felt utter terror of being airlifed out of their home, but from the beginning one female burro seemed to realize that the man with the unruly mane of hair in charge of it all had come to help. She attached herself to Cleveland, and he named her Friendly. Throughout his life the two had a very special bond.
This video shares their story:
My desire to visit Black Beauty Ranch and its current residents — animals and humans — came about as I pictured the cerebral, successful man I knew as my Uncle Cleveland, sharing his passionate joy for animals with total strangers on that night. I knew how animals had changed Cleveland’s life, and I realized that, when my life had had less work in it, my free time had always been spent with animals. I hadn’t needed to create a Daily Practice of Joy, because riding horses, hiking with dogs, milking goats provided far far more than the recommended daily allowance of joy in my life.
From the moment I rounded a corner on the one-lane tree-lined country road that led to Black Beauty Ranch and saw fields of yellow flowers stretching as far as my eye could see filled with peacefully grazing horses, donkeys, and cows, my eyes welled with tears and my heart swelled with joy.
This, I thought to myself, is what I hope heaven looks like.
In next week’s blog, I will share all the joy I found in my two-day visit to Black Beauty Ranch.