The Monkey on my Back

From the moment I arrived at Black Beauty Ranch, I felt Uncle Cleveland’s spirit — his pragmatism, his joy, his expansiveness, but mostly his love. 


As soon as I got out of my car, I was greeted by Geneva Brooks, who heads up the Education and Community Outreach for the Ranch, and by Midge, a 40-year-old chimpanzee, who ran up to the edge of his enclosure to greet me with a huge grin. 

Despite his advanced age, the vets say Midge behaves like a kid — running, climbing, grinning, playing. Is it because he is making up for lost time? Midge spent his early years in research labs that conducted hepatitis and possibly HIV testing on primates. Despite his horrific beginnings and a heroic rescue that has allowed him to live out the rest of his days in safety, Midge exudes pure joy. He is the ideal ambassador for Black Beauty Ranch, because despite his heartbreaking past, Midge’s joy is living proof for us all that we do not need to be limited by our life histories.

One of first things I noticed upon my arrival was how many cars there were — reminding me what an undertaking it is to care for a ranch of animals, most of whom have significant health or behavioral issues relating to their abuse or abandonment.

All the caretakers were polite when I was introduced to them, but it was clear that they were there for the animals and not for guests. Which is exactly as it should be — and why the ranch usually only invites the public on Open House days.

From the beginning of the Fund, Uncle Cleveland emphasized that his work was for and about the animals, not us humans. Black Beauty Ranch was created as their sanctuary and safe haven. I felt honored to be welcomed by them. But I wasn’t there to ogle them — no matter how beautiful or cute or fascinating I might find them. 

The Monkey on my Back

As Geneva and Ben Callison, the Ranch director, showed me around, I began to sense each of the resident’s individual responses to having me near their enclosures. I tried to emanate my love and respect for them with every fiber of my being.  

The gibbons, who watched me shyly at first, seemed to get more used to me each time I walked past their enclosure. Eventually they just continued on with their grooming, and soon even took to swaying gracefully down to greet me.  

A Gibbon named Princessa. (photo courtesy Black Beauty Ranch)

A Gibbon named Princessa. (photo courtesy Black Beauty Ranch)

One of the bobcats, whose enclosure lay just outside the window of my room, had been deemed too friendly to be released into the wild. Although she came over to greet me every time I walked by, and usually ran alongside me, I had to remind myself that having been trained to be a pet had made her incapable of living her natural life in the wild. Her much shyer companion remained hidden away until the evening, when he emerged to play. Although I watched him from inside my room with the lights out from behind a curtain, I knew he knew I was there. I could have watched for hours, but chose to honor his space by not being a peeping human.

During my first afternoon with Ben and Geneva, I began to feel overwhelmed by the animals’ stories — not just with sadness for their histories, but with despair for us as humans, who have found myriad justications for “bettering” our own lives at their expense.

Many of the monkeys and horses had been used for animal testing. The ridiculously adorable mini horses had been removed from an animal hoarder. Other residents included once petite pot-bellied pigs who had grown too big to keep; three tigers, lucrative only in their infancy for tiger cub petting operations and then sold off cheap to unsuitable owners; former “displays” at roadside zoos mercifully shut down but leaving their animals with no place to go; and exotic animals raised for trophy hunting. All have found permanent homes at Black Beauty Ranch.

Watching the three tigers run in their immense enclosures was an unforgettable experience: Separated only by a fence, the youngest, a five-year-old named Alex ran along side us with such astonishing grace and lithe power that it took my breath away. And yet, despite the gift of being able to watch this extraordinary creature run as he might have in the wild, I was all too aware that — despite being in an massively large natural space where he would be forever protected — he was not wild. . .and never could be.

My initial joy at being in a place of such beauty where so many animals had found a safe haven started to become tinged with despair. Ben articulated my confusion beautifully when he reminded me that, although people often romanticize Black Beauty Ranch, a sanctuary is not a solution. It is merely a Bandaid for a much larger problem. The real goal is a world where animal sanctuaries are no longer needed.


That night over dinner with Geneva, I tried to make sense of everything I had seen and heard. How do we help these animals that our whole system is, in many ways, set up to harm? What can individuals do? How to we prevent ourselves from the despair and disillusionment that eventually just makes it easier to “not think about it”? Can we choose not to eat or buy certain things without feeling deprived of the quality of life we have come to expect?

As someone who has long worked on behalf of animal welfare, Geneva has had to find ways to make sense of this dilemma for herself. She shared with me that her approach in her own life has been “replacement not restriction” — because the moment we think that we are taking something away from ourselves, we wil resist. 

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately — that the moment we regard the changes we wish to make in our own lives as giving something up, we are operating from a place of perceived lack. . .instead of from increased joy. If I choose not to eat something I love but that disagrees with me, or not to buy something I want but really can’t afford right now — I can look at it from either the giving up or the getting. How I choose to see anything directly affects my daily experience of joy.

That evening, after walking out to watch the sun set over a ridiculously picturesque field of bison calmly grazing near a pond, I lay in bed listening to a blissful silence filled only with the sounds of animals — grateful and griefstricken, hopeful and heartbroken. . .My joy at having been invited to Black Beauty Ranch was coming at a price — one I was all too willing to pay for the animals who surrounded me in peace at last in their lives.

The next morning, Kim Sella, who heads up the equine team, took time away from her extensive duties of caring for over 500 horses, mules and donkeys, to drive me around the ranch. It had been an exhausting week for Kim and her team, who had been tending a new group of donkeys that were quarantined until they were deemed healthy enough to incorporate into the general population.

Kim took me out into many of the pastures where her kids — as she calls them — live. She knows all of their names, which ones are too scared to have any human contact, which ones are best friends with whom, what treats and interactions they enjoy.

Being with Kim reminded me that there really is no such thing as a one-sided rescue. Having had many different kinds of jobs in the horse world, Kim told me that this is the best job she has ever had. All she can see is the beauty in these horses, be they toothless, one-eyed, scarred, limping from broken bones, emaciated.  All she can feel is pure love. And do the horses ever feel it from her! They adore her, and even trusted me because I was with her. . . and possibly, I like to hope, because they must have known how much I have loved horses my whole life. To be accepted and embraced, as Kim’s horses did me — just showering me with love and affection — made my heart sing!

Surrounded by love!

Surrounded by love!

Spending the morning with Kim and her kids, my mood soon shifted to mirror the weather, which had cleared from grey into a blue-skied Texas morning. In those fields of yellow flowers, surrounded pure four-legged love, all I could feel was the joy of a happy ending.


But if animals bring me so much joy, what can I do to live in a way that is in more accordance with their needs? Our love for animals comes with a responsibility to them — one that neither romanticizes nor abuses. I have loved animals my whole life, but figuring out how to live in a way that prioritizes their well being has long been the monkey on my back.

With a friend in Brazil, 1991.

With a friend in Brazil, 1991.

While at Black Beauty Ranch, I resolved to try to start taking baby steps to make the world a better place for all the creatures with whom I am so grateful to share this planet.

Recently, I have been doing something Ram Dass calls “polishing the mirror": I have been trying to witness myself as a neutral observer, with simple awareness rather than judgment. This is the only way, he reminds us, to release ourselves from the desires and attachments that ensnare us.

If I have to be honest, my footprint on this planet has pretty much matched my size 10 feet. I am a shopaholic who swears by the two-day gratification provided by Amazon Prime, and I have friends who would swear that my love of long hot showers has singlehandedly caused the drought in the Western United States. I recycle, but overconsume. I am mindful about the foods I buy and eat, but because I live alone, I rarely use everything I purchase.

The object of witnessing oneself, however, is not self-condemnation — a skill at which I excel — but rather an opportunity to see the errors in our thinking with the goal of releasing them.

An idea came to me — a kind of joy equation. What if I asked myself before every purchase — will the joy that I perceive I will get from this outweigh its cost . . .to me in the work it takes me to earn the money to pay for it, to the people or animals involved in its creating, to the carbon footprint of the planet? Is the pleasure I derive from using certain products more important than choosing not to support corporations or industries that engage in animal abuse? Could I shift my thinking enough to prioritize the well beings of animals more than my own perceived pleasure in eating something, wearing something, doing something that might result in the harm to an animal?

And that’s when it clicked. What if — as so often happened to me in actual math classes — I had gotten the whole equation wrong? What if we all have? What if it all comes down to one symbol — no +, no -, no >, no <. Just =.

When we hurt another, we hurt ourselves.

Whatever blesses one, blesses all.

The giver and the receiver are the same.

We’ve all heard these truisms so many times that they’re easy to forget. But animals live them. They show us that forgiveness is not a charitable act, but rather an embrace that unifies the world. 

My visit to Black Beauty Ranch rewrote my own joy equation. 

Now if I am tempted think it doesn’t matter whether I — one isolated person — do or don't buy a shampoo from a company that does or doesn’t engage in animal testing, all I have to do is picture Midge and his primate friends. When I think about how or what I want to eat, I remember the joy I experienced at Black Beauty in seeing the countless animals saved from slaughterhouses. 

In her book, The Joy in Loving: A Guide to Daily Living, Mother Teresa averred: “Joy is a sign of generosity. When you are full of joy, you move faster and you want to go about doing good to everyone.” The joy I felt at Black Beauty has taken that old monkey of off my back, and replaced it with the faces and lives of thousands of animals who daily remind me to choose a life in which honoring them is an intrinsic part of my daily practice of joy!

In today’s usage, the word sanctuary means a safe haven. But originally, it denoted a sacred space. 

Two Hearts

Two Hearts

There is only one way that Ben’s vision of a world that no longer needs animal sanctuaries can ever come to fruition —  when a sanctuary exists in the minds and hearts of every human being on the planet: A sacred space in which we value and safeguard the welfare of animals as equal or actually greater than our own.

Mother Teresa also wrote, "What we do is less than a drop in the ocean, but if it were missing, the ocean would lack something."

We may not all be able to give on the scale of Cleveland Amory, or even of the people who care for the animals at Black Beauty. But we do each have the capacity to rewrite our own joy equations to include the animals with whom we share our planet by creating sanctuaries for them in our hearts.

Or as Cleveland Amory said in his inimitable way, "You can give of your talent, you can give of your possessions, or you can give of yourself. For God's sake, give something."

Photo courtesy Black Beauty Ranch

Photo courtesy Black Beauty Ranch


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