Secretariat’s grandson—a sleek, muscular, chestnut brown thoroughbred—gracefully walks toward Sali Gear as she approaches the fence. Sali, who grew up riding horses in St. Croix, now cares for three sons, a Navy SEAL husband, and 18 thoroughbred horses on Calypso Run Farm. Nestled on a bumpy, dirt road off London Bridge Road in Virginia Beach, this land has become a place for healing and hope—thanks to Sali’s dedication to animals.
She is just one of many local women who is passionate about animals here in Tidewater. Whether it’s saving horses from slaughter, providing veterinary services to wild elephants, or rehabilitating dogs with behavioral issues, each of these women describes a journey that has taken on a life of its own, resulting in lessons and rewards beyond what they ever imagined.
A veteran of the U.S Navy, Sali humbly calls herself a mere facilitator—rescuing thoroughbred horses from slaughter and matching them with special human caretakers. “The women who adopt them are the real rescuers,” she said. “Horses want their own human. I simply match them up with women who fit.” In fact, Sali has blended a special combination of military leadership, racetrack knowledge, industry contacts, local relationships, and a lifelong love for horses to build a compassionate haven for horses and women alike.
With years of experience working on a racetrack, Sali acknowledges that most people think of thoroughbred horseracing as an elite sport. The reality is that people watch the Belmont Race on TV, for example, and get a false impression of this industry.
And industry it is. Sali’s face takes on a serious expression as she describes in detail the low, dark side of thoroughbred horseracing.
“For many trainers, it’s merely a business,” she said. “If horses don’t run, they go to slaughter. It’s as simple as that.” It’s especially heartbreaking because the horses are so young and are routinely jam-packed into trailers bound for Canada or Mexico (because of the U.S. anti-slaughter legislation). Many die en route. Sali rescues those that she can.
The thoroughbreds first arrive at Calypso Run Farm very thin and badly in need of medication. Some are close to death from infection. All need basic dental, hoof, and joint care. Once the horses are nursed back to health, Sali begins the training period for trail riding, student lessons, and future adoption. Thoroughbreds are her passion because they are extremely competitive in eventing, Sally says, and have so much heart and personality. These graceful, muscular steeds are, in fact, perfect matches for the women who adopt them.
The women who end up purchasing or leasing the rescued thoroughbreds come with their own stories of trauma. These women are widows, divorcees, cancer survivors, and victims of violent crimes. Connie Dorn, a retired Navy chaplain, has owned Magnum for five years. Battling a severe case of skin cancer, Connie recalls that her first venture out with Magnum occurred when she was hairless. “Every part of my body ached after chemo,” Connie recalled. “But when I arrived at the stable, I swear the pain left, and my energy returned.” Connie occasionally slept in Magnum’s stall when the pain was greatest. “Being around horses is very healing, yet empowering,” Sali said. “You can’t be wimpy around them.” Connie acknowledges that Magnum has seen her through trying times and is now allowing her to pursue a lifelong dream of dressage—just for the love of it.
It’s clear that Calypso Run Farm has far surpassed Sali Gear’s original vision. “I do it because it feeds me, too,” she said.
INTO THE WILD
Self-assured with a compelling, scientific intellect and a strong sense of authority, Amanda Guthrie cannot recall a day without animals.
Amanda’s childhood was spent on a farm in Oxford, North Carolina. Her father’s work in beef cattle research and wildlife conservation inspired her to study animal husbandry. As an undergraduate at North Carolina State University, Amanda fell in love with the zoo, the outdoors, and all animals exotic. Various internships with free-ranging tortoises in Texas and ground squirrel fieldwork in Idaho led this young woman to a veterinarian degree from the University of Illinois.
Today, Amanda Guthrie, a rising star dedicated to wild animal conservation, is the Virginia Zoo’s first full-time veterinarian. With the official title of Head of Animal Services, Amanda’s main priority at the zoo—together with a 22-person staff of zookeepers, curators, a registrar, and veterinarian technicians—is to preserve the safety, physical health, and psychological well being of the zoo’s inhabitants. Amanda and her team have developed individualized, holistic health plans for each of the 500 exotic animals. Every health plan is finely tuned to reflect each animal’s personality, whether it’s grouchy, sweet, tough, or sensitive.
Amanda and her team study various factors—temperature and humidity levels, day lengths, ecosystems, natural history, behavior, reproductive habits, psychological temperament, dietary selections in the wild, as well as social preferences (groups or solitary)—to ascertain and plan for the best possible care. The red pandas, for example, must have air conditioning since they hail from the Himalayas. The 500-pound Asiatic black bear needs to lose weight and is on a strict diet and exercise regime.
Newly arrived to the Zoo are two Malaysian Tapirs, imported from Singapore. Amanda is currently conducting research on their reproductive cycles since they have not been breeding in captivity. “The end goal of all this, of course, is helping to conserve animals in the wild,” she said. “We do this through meticulous care of the animals that live here, intense research, breeding endangered species, and by educating humans about threats in the wild.”
Because captive animals have a significantly longer life than their counterparts in the wild, Amanda’s work focuses to a large degree on geriatric care of the collection. In fact, these animals acquire many of the same diseases as humans. Primates, for example, can be diabetic so they must be trained to take insulin twice a day. Other animals might have heart disease or arthritis, requiring various types of medication and strict nutritional plans. Further, the animals must be trained to accept the medication, as well as basic procedures such as dental and nail care, eye drops, and injections—all without undue anxiety or stress on the animal. This can get especially tricky with the tigers, Amanda says.
From orangutans to elephants to red pandas to the tiniest of reptiles, Amanda and her team have carefully designed each animal’s environment to foster daily stimulation and exercise. She notes that the animals are quite intelligent, many are extremely sensitive, and their educational capacities are large. The team ensures that the animals’ environments are dynamic and challenging. Enrichment tools and activities, such as toys, trees, and scents, stimulate their natural behavior. “One of the most important components of their health is their psychological well-being, so we offer them constant stimulation. Training can be an enjoyable challenge for them,” Amanda explained.
Excitement at the zoo is building for the July 1st groundbreaking of a state-of-the-art, $3 million veterinary clinic. The new facility boasts ample square footage, cutting-edge equipment, and technologies so that Amanda can expand her work with quarantined animals (new arrivals stay quarantined for 30 to 90 days), various health testing, necropsies, and lab work. The new facility is needed to accommodate the zoo’s growing animal population and the progression to more exotic species.
With all of the excitement and challenge that 500 wild animals offer, Amanda’s ultimate dream is to visit Africa and study these incredible creatures in the wild.
IN THE MOMENT
“It happened overnight,” says Toni Enright about the origin of Forever Home Rehabilitation Center. For five years now, Toni and her partner Jamie Cochran, both in their late twenties, have been training and rehabilitating dogs on their Knotts Island spread.
When Toni and Jamie first met, they had seven dogs between them. Ranging from pit bulls to chihuahuas, the dogs did not get along well at first. The two women began a standard training and behavior modification program, but the situation did not improve. Next they began to study the mentality of dogs, focusing on the pack behavior of wolves and the intricacies of various breeds. They discovered improvements in the dog’s behavior with new training techniques and a clear understanding of how to help dogs move on to an enjoyable quality of life.
Their own pack of dogs eventually grew to 13 in number, as word of their success spread to the Animal Rescue, Norfolk SPCA, and veterinarian network.
“It was a path we were meant to take,” said Toni. “The seed was planted, and it just started to bloom.” Today their primary mission is to rehabilitate dogs that suffer from a range of behavioral issues, including aggression, phobias, and poor socialization.
Their success stems from their use of “the pack” as a tool to help understand other troubled dogs. Based on Toni and Jamie’s diagnosis of a dog’s core issue (as confirmed by the pack), training and rehabilitation can begin. The process can take from a few sessions to over three months, with the more treatable issues being addressed in the owner’s home. In other circumstances, the two women will bring the dog to the Rehabilitation Center to live. The rehabilitation approach is customized to each animal.
For some dogs, Forever Home can be their last chance at change. Previously labeled as too aggressive, most dogs slated for euthanasia that end up at Forever Home are eventually rehabilitated and later adopted without another sign of aggression. To date, almost 90 dogs have passed through their gates.
Aggression is only a symptom of a dog’s underlying issue of insecurity, dominance, or anxiety, Toni says. Dogs are not born with aggression, she continues; aggressive behavior is what they learn to do in order to address a problem. A case in point is Jasmine, a pit bull, who Toni says was simply born insecure. “People think they can give a dog treats, walk them often, and show them love, and that will do the trick,” she explained. “But dogs don’t rationalize. They need help moving past core issues. We help the dogs do just that by encouraging them to develop confidence.” Because Jasmine was such a nervous animal, Toni had to be extremely calm when working with her.
The two women’s approach is based on the philosophy that dogs live in the moment—and that they communicate through energy-body language. Many times the issue is with the human since a dog will mirror his owner’s energy. Humans inadvertently end up keeping dogs stuck in their phobias or fears, instead of helping the dogs move forward. Toni and Jamie will frequently work with dogs silently. For the women and the dogs, it’s all about the energy.
“We took the time to understand the dogs, and it ended up changing us,” Toni said. “They teach you to be calm and confident in the moment.”
Sali Gear, Amanda Guthrie, Toni Enright, and Jamie Cochran each experience a special fulfillment in working with the animal world, a relationship of hope and healing. They have learned to believe in the possibilities.
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Debi Wacker is a freelance writer, and owner of LightSource Marketing, a marketing and advertising firm dedicated to helping organizations grow. She lives with her husband, three children and rescued dachshund, Max, in Virginia Beach. For information, call 757.647.6603 or visit www.lightsourcemarketing.com.