"Dogs are wise. They crawl away into
a quiet corner and lick their wounds and do not rejoin
the world until they are whole once more."
-Agatha Christie

Rescue Remedy
According to The Humane Society of the United States, on average 8200 shelter animals are euthanized daily in America. That's upwards of 3 million per year. Of those killed, an estimated 2.4 million are either: healthy; sick, but treatable; or old, but otherwise adoptable. In response, no-kill shelters have exploded in popularity among people seeking an alternative to this throw-away mentality. For them, old age and lack of adoption isn't reason enough for discarding our animal neighbors like so much detritus. For these full-time, part-time and weekend warriors, there's got to be a better way.

My Gentle Barn: Creating a Sanctuary Where Animals Heal and Children Learn to Hope
by Ellie Laks
Random House, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-385-34766-2
$25.00, 269 pp

Ellie Laks grew up in Missouri. The only daughter of Jewish Orthodox parents, she noticed at a very young age that females were not extended the same opportunities as males. It didn't seem fair to her, but a lot of things didn't seem fair about her childhood. For instance, it didn't seem fair that her brothers didn't have to do chores, but she did. It didn't seem fair that her silence was held in higher regard than her ideas. It definitely didn't seem fair that male babysitters could, without reproach, do things with her no little girl should have to endure. And It wasn't fair when she reported a man for molestation, that her father wouldn't believe her, or that her mother demanded further silence. Ellie had a hell of a childhood, in all the wrong ways.

Animal House
At a very young age, Ellie learned to hate herself. She wished for death, but it didn't come. Her familiar retreat, and single source of solace, were animals. Animals didn't batter her. Animals didn't hold unrealistic expectations of her. Whether they be Simon the family dog, or wild bunnies in the field or hummingbirds on the wing, animals always gave freely of their love, expecting nothing in return.

Renowned animal communicator Joan Ranquet, author of groundbreaking books Communication With All Life: Revelations of an Animal Communicator (Hay House, $16.99) and Energy Healing for Animals: A Hands-On Guide for Enhancing the Health, Longevity & Happiness of Your Pets (Sounds True, $17.99), writes of herself, "Three things hold true for me with animals: I can't not look at them, I can't avoid truly seeing them, and I can't avoid acknowledging them." She and Ellie, it would seem, are cut from the same cloth.

Ellie writes with disarming honesty about growing up. She recalls each pet, every bunny her parents forced from her arms into the freezing cold, and the feelings around them, with vivid detail. Even then she fantasized of a safe harbor for all the scared and lonely animals in the world, a place where they felt love and belonging. Eventually, that safe harbor would manifest itself in the form of a farm called The Gentle Barn.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ellie's farm and her mission, is how it all got started. Although she dreamt wistfully about such a place as a child, when it began coming together, it was without a plan. She had property, with a barn, so location was covered, but beyond that her "plan" was non-existent. So, she set off "to the local animal shelter and chose the saddest, sickest, most scared dogs and cats and brought them home to heal . . . with the goal of placing them in a loving home." She called her venture Rover Rescue, and it thrived, plan or no. She relied on the universe to guide her in her adoptions, counting on the same spirit that led her to commune with animals as a child, to lead her in her rescues.

Then life happened. Ellie was pregnant, so she made the decision to give up Rover Rescue. She wanted to devote all her energy on her new baby, so she closed shop, keeping the last eight un-adopted dogs and twenty cats as family members. It all seemed ideal - the new baby that she doted on 24/7, her relationship with her husband, the loving home she was providing for her dogs and cats - but the universe often has other plans, and when she does, an all-out shit storm sometimes erupts. In Ellie's case, her marriage took the brunt of it.

Animal Farm
There stood a hodgepodge group of run-down shacks and sheds not far from Ellie's Home. She'd never seen them before, but one particularly hot winter day she got a whiff of the foul-smelling place and it drew her in. "I told myself to just keep driving," she writes. "I was a rescuer in recovery and this was just the sort of thing that could knock me off my track." She was right. The mismatched cluster of shacks was a petting zoo, and what she discovered inside would set the next chapter of her life in motion. Her name was Mary:

    She had a big belly - like she was about to give birth - and hooves so overgrown she could barely walk. Her legs were bowed because of those wild, curling hooves, and her coat was a filthy, matted gray. On her back leg was a tumor that was oozing pus and blood. Like all the other animals, her despondency was palpable, but this goat was different somehow. She looked me right in the eye as though some hope still remained in her wracked little body. And with those soulful eyes she reached inside me and put a stranglehold on my heart. I could just hear her craggy, Eeyore-like voice in my head. Oh . . . thanks for noticing me.

    At that moment I knew I was done for. I was going to be taking home a goat.

It took thirteen days for the owner of the zoo to finally release Mary into Ellie's custody. That, after twelve days standing vigil with her toddler outside Mary's pen. It seemed Ellie had gotten her groove back. Ellie returned to the petting zoo and left with two more goats. The following trip she came home with a total of seven animals, all in poor health, none of them adoptable. Her menagerie was rapidly growing, and with each addition, so was the strain on her marriage. And this work, this service Ellie provided, was unlike Rover Rescue. With the rescue, there was always an intent to adopt the animals out. It was simply a stop-gap to ease the strain on her local shelter, and a means to forever homes for young and old alike. For the animals from the petting zoo, however, this was their forever home; there'd be no adopting them out. (Exit first husband, stage left.)

Forging ahead on her own, full of doubt, yet certain the universe wouldn't fail her, Ellie managed to retain faith in her mission while breaching every obstacle in her way. Hers is a real-life modern-day Cinderella story, complete with prince charming. (Enter second husband, stage right.) Along with triumphs, there are pitfalls along the way, which makes My Gentle Barn: Creating a Sanctuary Where Animals Heal and Children Learn to Hope, all the more accessible. Written with Nomi Isak, Ellie's story is brutally honest, beautifully crafted, and packed with so much heart that while it may have you choking back tears, you'll be cheering through them the whole way.

"Three things hold true for me with animals:

I can't not look at them, I can't avoid truly seeing them,

and I can't avoid acknowledging them."

Since 1999, three Gentle Barns have been established in the US. They operate as non-profits, providing forever homes for hard-to-place animals. Ellie has pursued a life's mission of giving sanctuary to the beasts of the field. In return, her beasts provide therapy for at-risk youth. The animals in Ellie's life have eased, if not erased, the pain of a nightmarish childhood. Today, she's living the dream, having one hell of a childhood, in all the right ways.

An Eagle Named Freedom: My True Story of a Remarkable Friendship
by Jeff Guidry
HarperCollins, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-182674-0
$21.99, 212 pp

Author Jeff Guidry was diagnosed with stage 3 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2000. He credits an eagle with saving his life. An Eagle Named Freedom: My True Story of a Remarkable Friendship is his personal account of that chapter in his life.

Into the Wild
On a cold, rain-swept day in December 1992, Guidry stood on the banks of the Skagit River with his partner Lynda. They were there as guests of a group called the Eagle Watchers, an organization bent on educating the public about these remarkable birds. It was Guidry's baptism into the world of the wild fliers. Having moved to the Pacific Northwest from California in 1989, his curiosity was piqued by the impressive soarers. He read everything he could get his hands on about eagles. "Pretty soon," he writes, "I was a walking eagle encyclopedia." Seeing them that day along the river solidified his obsession with the birds, and he and Lynda signed on as volunteers for the eagle watching group.

Four years later, Guidry and Lynda attended the Bald Eagle Festival. It was an annual event in Concrete, Washington, a small town on the banks of the Skagit, and the setting for Tobias Wolff's autobiographical novel, This Boy's Life. (The subsequent 1993 film pitted Leonardo DeCaprio's angsty characterization of youth against Robert De Niro's turn as an abusive, small-minded step-father.) There, he met Kaye Baxter, the plucky director of Sarvey Wildlife Care Center. Sarvey's unique among rescues in the area in that they cater exclusively to undomesticated animals, with the goal of rehabilitating them so they can be re-introduced to the wild. Guidry was so impressed by Baxter and her organization, he traded eagle watching for eagle caregiving.

Where the Wild Things Are
Fast-forward to 1998. On a day in mid-August, a young eagle was brought into the center. Upon examination, it was determined both her wings were broken, a certain death sentence for an eagle in the wild. Though Sarvey's mission is rehab and release, they sometimes receive the rare patient whose injuries are so severe release isn't practical. Sarvey residents like Sasha, a Patagonian cougar who came from an exotic game farm in Texas owned by a rancher with a god-complex. Declawed, and habituated to humans, she would never know the normal life of a big cat. There was also a barn owl named Mum; Mellow Yellow, a red-tailed hawk; and the unreturnable to the wild - simply because he wouldn't have it - squirrel affectionately called Mr. Timms, and a great source of comic relief. For these wild ones, the focus had been on rehabilitation, with a future in captivity. Such would be the case for Freedom.

Guidry describes a remarkable bond occurring that day between he and the young eagle that would come to be called Freedom. "The eagle looked up at me and my old life was over," writes Guidry, and "a new second life begun." It wouldn't be the last transitioning for him, from an old life to a new one. Two years later, he received the diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was stage 3, meaning the cancer was already in one organ, and everywhere else. Guidry writes that he began a new life that day: his third.

The next eight months revolved around chemo treatments . . . and Sarvey. Guidry maintained a regular schedule as best he could, volunteering when he had the strength, passing on it when he didn't, visualizing the cancer in remission regardless of how he felt. During that time the bond between he and Freedom strengthened. The relationship - with a bird, no less - was the closest thing to that of soul mates he'd ever experienced. When, in November, shortly after Thanksgiving he was green-lighted as cancer-free, the first place he visited was the wildlife center:

    [T]he first thing I did was get up to Sarvey and take the big girl out for a walk. It was misty and cold. I went to her flight and jessed her up, and we went out front to the top of the hill. I hadn't said a word to Freedom, but somehow she knew. She looked at me and wrapped both her wings around me to where I could feel them pressing in on my back (I was engulfed in eagle wings), and she touched my nose with her beak and stared into my eyes, and we just stood there like that for I don't know how long.
What Guidry's describing here is an avian hug. Literally, an embrace by a bird using its wings the way we use our arms, to hug. Freedom had never done that before, and by Guidry's description it was as spiritual as it was physical. In that moment, though he does not say it, Jeff Guidry began his fourth life.

We don't know how many transitions - new lives - Guidry has ahead of him. One might consider his pivot to writer a new life. An Eagle Named Freedom is his moving account of how, with the help of a bird, he dumped cancer on its head. It's a lesson in faith, self-reliance, the psychic bond that exists between all living things regardless of species, and stilling our minds long enough to spot it. At it's core, though, An Eagle Named Freedom remains a story of salvation, wrapped in all the wonders of the wild.

posted 05/19/20