Here they are. The soft eyes open. / If they have lived in a wood / It is a wood. / If they have lived on plains / It is grass rolling / Under their feet forever. James Dickey, “The Heaven of Animals”
IT IS EARLY OCTOBER, a fairly typical day in the life of Chris Byrne, the resident manager of the Fund for Animals’ Black Beauty Ranch in the East Texas town of Murchison. But it’s not going to be a typical month: In less than two weeks the ranch’s founder and presiding spirit, 81-year-old Cleveland Amory, will die the kind of death he would have wished for any of its six-hundred-plus resident animals—in his sleep, and at home.
On this particular morning, however, Byrne has just returned from Denver, where he has picked up a pair of white-handed gibbons from the Denver Zoo. Before that he had been to Indianapolis, where he had consulted with a group of veterinarians and elephant managers on what to do about the lame hind leg of a thirteen-year-old African elephant named Babe. Now Byrne has to be briefed by the ranch’s handful of employees about what has taken place during his absence, and he has to begin constructing a more permanent, more humane shelter for the gibbons, which, at this moment, are ensconced in a small cage next to the elephant barn.
Not exactly your typical Texas ranch, this is a place where, as you drive through the front gate just a mile or so off FM 1803, you’re greeted by a sign reading “Drive Carefully: Animals at Play.” This 1,460-acre spread is a haven for animals that have been injured or abused or, in some cases, are merely unwanted—and the incarnation of the dream of one man: writer, social historian, television critic, and animal rights advocate extraordinaire Cleveland Amory. This is a Ranch of Dreams.
As a child, Amory—who had a lifelong obsession with Anna Sewell’s classic novel, Black Beauty—had a very specific dream. “It was not long after reading Black Beauty for the first of many times,” he wrote in his 1997 book about the ranch, Ranch of Dreams, “that I had a dream that one day I would have a place which would embody everything Black Beauty loved about his final home. I dreamed that I would go even a step further—at my place none of the horses would ever wear a bit or blinkers or check reins, or in fact have any reins at all, because they would never pull a cart, a carriage, a cab, or anything else. Indeed, they would never even be ridden—they would just run free.”
From the moment my eight-year-old son, Noah, and I arrive at the ranch, its inhabitants—who range from ringed doves to greater elands—do their best to let us know that we’re here, if not exactly by the grace of God, by their consent. Just minutes after we get out of the car and head toward Byrne’s state-of-the-art elephant barn, for instance, a 10,000-pound African elephant named Conga—who came to the ranch from a roadside zoo in Florida, where she had suffered second- and third-degree sunburn when she was forced to sit on a park bench and twirl an umbrella—welcomes me by sending a slightly viscous spray my way.
As I follow Byrne and volunteer veterinarian Leigh Wilson on their daily tour of inspections, greetings, and feedings, it occurs to me that if Amory had been an animal, Black Beauty Ranch is the kind of place where he would have wanted to end up. The words on the ranch’s gate (“I have nothing to fear, / And here my story ends. / My troubles are all over, / And I am at home”) are taken from the final lines of Black Beauty, but the lines inscribed on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) would be just as apt—although the ranch can’t take in every homeless or abused waif. Decisions are made by Byrne on a case-by-case basis and depend on the availability of space and the suitability of the ranch’s environment for each prospective tenant.
Amory established the Fund for Animals, the ranch’s parent organization, in 1967. He was a self-proclaimed curmudgeon (his book The Cat and the Curmudgeon, the second of three about his cat Polar Bear, was published in 1990) whose 1974 classic, Man Kind? Our Incredible War on Wildlife, is widely credited with launching the anti-hunting movement in this country—and a man you wouldn’t want to be in charge of making a Sophie’s choice between you and your pet burro. “It would be a horrible world if everything were on two legs,” he once told an interviewer, staring his fellow two-legged creature in the eye.
In Ranch of Dreams Amory admitted that East Texas was “about as curious a place for a Bostonian to choose as could be imagined. I did not know anything about Texas when I picked it,” he wrote. “Indeed, before I knew much about Texas, I firmly believed that all Texans thought that animals were good for just three things—to make money off of, to eat, and to shoot.” Amory soon discovered that, in addition to being home to large areas of Bermuda grass, the ideal grazing pasture for most hoofed animals, East Texas was “something very different” from what he had first imagined. “The first time I saw Murchison, Texas,” he confessed, “I had to rub my eyes to believe I was not in New England.”
Like Amory, Chris Byrne—who was born in Wimbledon, England, 48 years ago—is a person obsessed with the animal victims of the world. The web of scars on his right hand—the combined artwork of a puma, a bobcat, and a rhesus monkey—testifies to the fact that his line of work isn’t for the faint of heart or the purely sentimental. Byrne and Ringo, a rhesus monkey who won’t let another human being come within three feet