Volunteering at Kindness Ranch

Former National Geographic Books editorial assistant Hunter Braithwaite spent his vacation helping former laboratory research animals in a Wyoming sanctuary.

We wake at dawn to black coffee. A murderous sun will soon beat down. Vultures, wafting in the carrion breeze, cast the only shadows. In the distance is a persistant howling. But all is well on the Kindness Ranch: it’s pool day for the pigs.

My girlfriend and I spent July volunteering on this 1,000-acre Wyoming sanctuary for research animals. At the moment, this unique institution is home to 55 animals. These dogs, cats, sheep, pigs, and horses have spent much of their lives in laboratories. Almost all of them are up for adoption. The ranch is obviously pro-animal, but the animal testing debate is tiptoed around. Since the primary goal is to better the life of an animal, criticizing laboratories doesn’t lead to cooperation.

The Kindness Ranch is located off State Highway 270, about eight miles from the nearest town, Hartville (pop. 76).  All in all, it’s a pretty straight shot from the East Coast. Just stay on Route 80 for the entirety of the Brothers Karamazov on tape.  

On the property are an arena, a barn, two yurts for the cats and dogs, six guest yurts, and a yurt castle belonging to the founder. My girlfriend and I came with the understanding that we’d be staying in the cat yurt, but somehow we were blessed with a vacant guest yurt. They normally go for $100 per night, a steal, but the price drops precipitously for those willing to clean up after the horses.

Mornings began in the cat yurt. So many litter boxes. One of the cats is diabetic, so we give her a shot of insulin before the dogs get to go on their walk. It’s fascinating to watch power-dynamics emerge between the animals. I’ve been around cats my whole life, but usually one, and sometimes two. Never fourteen. There is a lot of cat-bullying. It reminds me of junior high.

The dogs aren’t any better. In order for the dog yurt to enjoy a relatively peaceful day, all of the animals need to be exhausted. This planned exhaustion takes the form of a three-mile walk up a particularly steep hill. Sisyphus comes to mind, but in a good way. The energy these dogs possess is amazing. One of the beagles, Wiley, escaped on the day he was supposed to be adopted. The adoption fell through, and Wiley turned up three days later and thirteen miles away.

After walking the dogs we’d head down to the barn and help out there. I can’t really sum up our duties. Some days it’d be pretty standard. Feed these pigs. Clean those sheep stalls. “A bunch of horses have been making a mess in the barnyard. Get a shovel.” Stuff like that. But other days were just surreal. There was a heat wave a couple weeks ago, so we threw the pigs a pool party. They had fun, but ended up with pretty gnarly sunburns. Now they needed sunscreen. I was given two options: lotion or aerosol sunscreen. The pigs don’t mind the lotion, which has to be massaged into their skin, but they dislike the spray variety of sunscreen, which can easily be applied from a distance. I opted for the latter.

Realizing that the pigs were going to protest, Mia was in charge of distracting them with popcorn. As the pigs inhaled the bait, I tiptoed up with the sunscreen. It didn’t go as planned. The pigs started running around, banging into each other, indignantly trampling the popcorn. I was forced to give chase. I’ve found myself in some spectacular situations, but all pale in comparison to chasing pigs around a barn in an effort to save their lily-white skin from the afternoon sun. I read somewhere that pigs are as smart as toddlers.

They’re surely better at running.  

Our volunteer responsibilities often petered out around noon, so we’d spend the afternoons exploring the area.  Swimming is available in the nearby Guernsey reservoir. There are historic wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail in Guernsey. Slightly more interesting is Register Cliff, where passing settlers would carve their names into the soft rock. The Lunch Box in Guernsey has great milkshakes for two dollars.  

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Closer to the ranch is the Miners & Stockman Bar, the oldest bar in the state. It’s open Thursday through Sunday.  When we went, I ate a disappointing basket of Rocky Mountain Oysters. And it’s not that I was repulsed by the concept of slowly chewing testicles, they just didn’t taste very good. The ersatz oysters, sad in their dipping sauce, spoke all too clearly about my life. Once again, I did something in hopes of being controversial and provocative, but it turned out bland and fattening.  

Luckily, my depression was dispelled by three more weeks of painted sunsets, cool nights, and the strange feeling (satisfaction?

happiness?) that comes from working with animals. I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. For volunteer or guest information, contact Dr. Karen Straight at info@kindnessranch.org.

Photos: Hunter Braithwaite

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