After parking my car at the bottom of the Catskill Animal Sanctuary’s long, winding driveway, I make my way across the icy parking area toward the main barn to find founder Kathy Stevens. An old ram with majestic horns that curl from the top of his head down around his face stands guard at the entrance. His frosty breath hangs in the cold, sunny air. I half expect him to greet me — this is, after all, a place of transformation, described so poignantly in Stevens’ new book “Animal Camp: Lessons in Love and Hope from Rescued Farm Animals,” a place where abused and abandoned horses, sheep, pigs and cows are often miraculously healed both physically and emotionally. But as I move closer, the ram hobbles away. Clearly, I lack that magical connection to animals that seems so effortless for Stevens.
She appears right then in a hooded jacket and muck boots. Not to worry, she assures me, laughing heartily as she shoves a wisp of blond hair back under her hood. “Rambo is usually the security guard, but he’ll change his tune.”
So this is the famous Rambo. Stevens features him prominently in “Animal Camp” and her first book, “Where the Blind Horse Sings,” calling him “the most exceptional animal I’ve ever known.” Sure enough, minutes later inside the “special needs” barn (for animals who don’t quite fit in or aren’t comfortable elsewhere) the old sheep presses his giant horns against my thigh, seeking a neck massage, I’m told.
Not to give too much away, but Rambo arrived at CAS full of rage after being locked for years in a crowded, filthy stall with little food. For months he tried to attack anyone who came near him. Finally, after lots of patient TLC he just let go of all that anger. Since then he’s been the sanctuary’s wise guardian, says Stevens, involved in the care and healing of many other animals — and not all of them sheep.
“The inter-species stuff has been my greatest teacher — other than that one,” she says nodding at Rambo, who moves over for a neck rub from her. “I hope people will take away from my books that we all have that capacity to love, that desire to give and receive love.”
She leans down and presses her face against Rambo’s. He presses back, seemingly as devoted to her as she is to him. I see this devotion again and again as Stevens leads me on a whirlwind tour of her picturesque 80-acre farm in Saugerties, N.Y. There’s Ethel, the rotund, ever-social turkey who ambles toward Stevens as they gobble back and forth a mile-a-minute. Stevens explains quietly that Ethel is an “industry bird,” bred to fatten up fast for human consumption and not expected to live long. “They grow so quickly, they usually die of heart attacks after a year or two,” she says.
There’s Echo, a beautiful brown mare whose owner left her and several other horses to starve. “There’s my pretty girl,” Stevens coos. The once gaunt, distrustful horse nuzzles Stevens’ cheek, then greets me. There’s Buddy, the blind horse who can’t keep his playful mouth off Stevens. Then there’s one of my favorites: Franklin, the former outcast pig (a runt from a pork production facility that other pigs initially rejected) who comes over immediately for a smooch from Stevens. Read “Animal Camp” to learn how Stevens transformed Franklin and two other outcasts (Hope, a thoroughbred mare, and a steer named Tucker) into social butterflies.
Stevens, an exuberant former English teacher, started CAS in 2001 after turning down a principal’s job at a Boston charter high school. At a career crossroads, Stevens says, “I started looking for ways to combine my love of teaching with my love for animals.” Today, CAS is not only a safe haven for about 250 farm animals, but it’s also a learning center. Stevens speaks at schools and gives tours, plus the sanctuary recently launched a vegan teaching program called Compassionate Cuisine, with Chef Kevin Archer, and Camp Kindness, a summer kids’ program that aims to instill compassion for animals.
“My passion is to help people see cows, chickens and pigs the way they see their dogs and cats,” Stevens says. “Sure, there’s a relentlessness about this life, but it satisfies all the important pieces of me. I get to teach, learn, love, feel grateful, nurture and create.”
All of which translates into an infectious joy that seems to inspire staff, visitors, volunteers and animals alike — not to mention Stevens’ burgeoning circle of readers.