Wild Kingdom

Before his death, Cleveland Amory was the guiding spirit behind Black Beauty Ranch, an East Texas refuge for abused animals. He still is.

January 1999By Comments


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 of him without baring his teeth and lashing out with his claws, stand grooming each other. “I suppose you might say I get along better with animals than with humans,” says Byrne. When asked why Ringo seems to exempt him from his rage, Byrne says, “I guess we have something in common.”

At age six Byrne became so enamored of a Welsh pony a local Gypsy woman used to deliver firewood that he persuaded her to let him look after it in exchange for delivering the wood. He came to Black Beauty eight years ago after working as a stuntman and an animal trainer in the U.S. and Australia, including a period when he took care of the DuPont family’s horses. “My early childhood was almost entirely animal deprived,” he tells me, “and I suppose that’s partly why I became so obsessed with animals.”

Among the lifestyle changes of the various ranch staffers and volunteers, however, it’s probably Leigh Wilson’s that is the most clearly symbolic. Trained as a psychologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Wilson spent nearly twenty years living and working in Alaska before “burning out” on her two-legged subjects and, at the age of forty, deciding to attend veterinary school.

As Byrne and Wilson introduce me to some of the ranch’s residents, the animals’ stories begin to sound like the life histories of war veterans. Babe, who now shares the elephant enclosure with Conga and a Sri Lankan refugee from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus named Tara, was standing beside her mother in Africa when she was killed by hunters during a culling. Babe was then shipped to an American circus in an undersized crate, where she badly banged up two of her legs and her head, which is still misshapen. While performing with the circus, She further damaged her right hind leg—which is curled backward in what can only be described as a kind of clubfoot—when she was hit by a larger elephant while chained. After Babe arrived at the ranch, Byrne decided to have her leg evaluated at Texas A&M, a decision that entailed borrowing a trailer big enough to transport the 3,400-pound elephant, installing lights and an observation camera in it, and persuading the Texas Department of Public Safety to provide scales normally used for weighing semi-trailers. At A&M veterinarians decided that a fiberglass boot should be fabricated for Babe’s leg, but so far the university’s engineers have been unable to design one that Babe can tolerate. So Byrne has begun consulting with Larry Gallupo of the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine about alternative treatments.

Black Beauty’s most famous resident, however, is a 25-year-old chimp named Nim Chimpsky, whose early life is chronicled in two books bearing his name and who seems, during our visit, to take inordinate pleasure in untying Noah’s sneakers. Nim was born at the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Primate Studies on November 21, 1973. When he was just three days old, he was sent to the New York lab of Herbert Terrace, a Columbia University psychologist who was doing research in behavioral psychology and who named him after—who else?—MIT linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky. During the course of the next four years—until Terrace’s funding tapered off—Nim lived with private families and researchers in New York and learned to communicate in American Sign Language, using more than two hundred signs. After he was returned to the Institute for Primate Studies, Cleveland Amory prevailed upon the University of Oklahoma to let Nim live out his days at Black Beauty Ranch, where he has been for the past fifteen years, at present in the company of three other chimps: Midge, Kitty, and Lulu Belle.

But it’s not the chimps or the elephants or the bobcats that are the ranch’s real raison d’être. In 1979 the National Park Service decided to shoot the burros in the Grand Canyon because their numbers were getting out of hand and, the Park Service said, they weren’t indigenous to the canyon. That decision, which Amory called “a declaration of war on the burros,” so energized and mobilized the Fund for Animals that it hired the New York advertising firm Young and Rubicam to place a fundraising ad in Parade magazine showing a picture of a young burro under the headline “If You Turn This Page, This Burro Will Be Shot.” Months of negotiation, fundraising, and litigation led to the fund’s purchase of an 85-acre plot near Murchison and to an agreement with the Park Service to let it rescue the burros. Over a two-year period, using a helicopter and a sling—and with the help of world champion roper Dave Ericsson of Arizona—the new Black Beauty Ranch managed to airlift 577 burros out of the canyon and relocate them in East Texas.

More recently, the relationship between the ranch and the Park Service has taken a happier turn. When a part of the Mojave Desert was designated a national preserve in 1994, the Park Service decided that the burros there were damaging the area’s native plant life. This time, it contacted the Fund for Animals to see if they could work together to relocate the animals. An agreement was reached under which the ranch will accept some three hundred feral burros a year for adoption. On September 12 a shipment of fifty jacks arrived, followed by a shipment of forty more jacks and ten jennies on the twenty-third. If you’ve ever dreamed of adopting a couple of burros—like Noah in the Bible, you’re expected to take a pair—here’s your chance. For more information, you can e-mail the ranch at [email protected] (or visit its Web site at www.blackbeautyranch.org).

“My ranch,” Amory wrote of his boyhood dream, “would most definitely not be a place for circus acts. No animal would stand on two legs or sit on a stool or jump through hoops or do tricks or acts or any other kind of stunt.” And, as we pull away from the ranch—past Shiloh, Atlantic City’s last diving horse, and One-eyed Jack, the buffalo found wandering around a Pennsylvania feedlot, and Peg, a three-legged cat who crawled up the driveway eighteen years ago with her leg caught in an animal trap, and Conga, who no longer has to sit on a bench twirling an umbrella—it is clear that here was a man who made good on his dream. “They’re able to give such love and respect to us,” Amory once said of the occupants of his East Texas ark. “Why can’t we do it for them? Why can’t we just be kind?”

Unlike Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I had wanted to write this piece to praise Cleveland Amory, not to bury him. But fate intervened, and during the last week of October, Amory’s ashes were placed in a large saltshaker tied around the neck of Friendly, one of the first burros rescued from the Grand Canyon back in 1979, and scattered about the ranch he so loved. “We’re going to keep going just as we have been,” Byrne says on the phone. “Just the way Cleveland would have wanted it.” He is working on a stone monument to Amory that will stand beside the monument to his beloved cat, Polar Bear, whom he rescued from starvation and cold on a long-ago Christmas Eve. The cat’s marker is inscribed with the words “Beneath these stones lie the mortal remains of The Cat Who Came for Christmas, Beloved ‘Polar Bear’ 1977—1992. ’Til we meet again.”

Now, true to Amory’s wish, he and his beloved Polar Bear, the Curmudgeon and the Cat, have met again. “I have nothing to fear, / And here my story ends. / My troubles are all over, / And I am at home.”

Michael Blumenthal is an Austin-based poet, novelist, and essayist.

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