Healing Properties

Across from Point Lobos off Highway 1, a dusty road winds past horse pastures, trailers, and barns. A small sign tacked on a tree points the way to Redwings Horse Sanctuary, a 50-acre refuge overlooking the ocean where wild mustangs from Montana, newborn horses from Canada destined for the slaughterhouse, and starved horses from negligent owners have found shelter. For the past three years, thanks to an affiliated program called Little Wings, abused children and farm animals have found safe haven there, too.

Most days, February through November, a school van comes to a halt in a cloud of dust and releases eager adolescents from day treatment programs or group homes to take part in Little Wings' program of therapy through husbandry. In the fenced-off area set aside for Little Wings, kids wander through vegetable and flower gardens and greet their favorite animals, including Doris the duck, a couple of pot-bellied pigs, a pair of goats, a few bunnies and some guinea pigs, many of whom have suffered appalling mistreatment. Each animal has a wooden structure filled with hay to call home, which the kids helped build and are trained to clean and care for. Kids new to farm life often complain when they have to scoop poop and shovel hay, but once they develop a relationship with the animals, they fight over who gets to clean the pig pen—actually one of the cleaner jobs, as Becca Ledbetter, the program's 28-year-old coordinator, points out.

On a sunny morning in late autumn, a group of kids from a day treatment program has arrived with their counselor and three volunteers. Rocky the pot-bellied pig squeals in sharp staccato bursts as a visitor's dog comes too close for comfort. Jogging beside a multi-colored fence painted by the kids, he only slows down when he reaches the comfort of the strawberry patch. Resuming his munching, he relaxes as he realizes no one is going to hurt him. A teenage girl with fingernails painted in blue glitter polish kneels next to him and explains how Rocky was kept in someone's garage in the dark for two years.

"He used to be really scared of us," she says as she gently begins to brush his hair, which has finally grown back after falling out from previous neglect. "We had to get him to trust us."

Nearby, two girls cuddle guinea pigs under their oversized jackets while other kids clean the animals' hutch and place fresh straw inside. When the hour ends, one of them, a quiet teenager, approaches Ledbetter. "Can I take him home today?" she asks, pointing to the guinea pig still nestled inside her clothes. "No," Ledbetter answers with a smile. "But it was sweet of you to ask!" The girl smiles back with a look that seems to suggest she knew the answer already.

Don't Stomp the Snails

The philosophy behind Little Wings and Redwings is one of fostering hope and regaining trust. Ledbetter stresses that it is not enough to offer shelter to a rescued animal—the sanctuary must educate the perpetrators of abuse.

"Kids and animals have no voice and are treated the same in our society," she explains. "If you can't help the people who hurt the animals, you're not breaking the cycle. You can't just hate the people who abuse animals."

At her mother's suggestion, Ledbetter started the Little Wings program three years ago for her senior project at CSU Monterey Bay, modeling it after a farm for abused kids in Sonoma. Ledbetter's mother, Deborah Ellsworth, is the only remaining member of the original staff of the 10-year-old Redwings program and coordinates the wild horse and burro rescue division.

Ledbetter is realistic about the impact the program can have, and understands that sometimes this type of intervention produces only a subtle shift in a child's behavior. "You do all this work and then they go back to the abused home," she says. "I get frustrated sometimes when we don't see a lot of change. But maybe down the road they might think about what they experienced here and not continue the cycle of abuse."

Rose Smith, a therapist with a local mental health agency, works with abused kids in the classroom and attempts to normalize their lives with experiences like Little Wings. She insists that programs like Little Wings can change the context of healing, and sees real results with her students who visit the sanctuary.

"This is something I really believe in. It teaches kids about nonviolence and empathy. They tell their parents, 'Just because you see a snail you don't have to stomp on it.' Kids attach a lot more easily with animals than with people. When you hear stories about an abused horse we can discuss it much easier than their own situation."

Through the caring of animals, Ledbetter has seen an increase in the kids' ability to verbalize their pain. In one case, she recalls, "A girl who had never talked about her abusive home before was showing a new kid around and said, 'This horse was hit, just like I was.'"

The feeling of peace and safety that permeates the farm extends to the four-legged creatures as well. "When a new horse arrives," says Ledbetter, "all the horses come over to the fence and whinny and talk to greet them. It's like they're saying, 'You're safe now.'"

Back at the farm, after the last animal house has been cleaned and fresh food and water have been put out, the group has a closing circle, where the kids recount their favorite part of their hour at the farm. A teenager raises her hand to speak. "My favorite part is meeting all the wonderful animals who have been abused and are now saved. I love all the people here. My favorite animal is the guinea pig, Patches. Thank you."

The kids clamor for hugs from Ledbetter, then reluctantly head off for the van to take them back to school. One girl remains seated in the circle, yelling out, "I'm not leaving!" until finally, shuffling her feet, she walks to the van, after extracting a promise from Ledbetter that she'll take care of the animals until she gets back next week.

Little Wings seeks volunteers and donations of equipment such as wheelbarrows, gardening tools, seeds, and building materials. For more information, call 624-8464.

Articles reprinted courtesy of Monterey County Weekly
© 2004 Milestone Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

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