A Heart of Compassion
Theologian and philosopher, Albert Schweitzer, said "for animals that are overworked, underfed and cruelly treated ... and for those who deal with them, we ask a heart of compassion and gentle hands and kindly words." For Ashley Stahl this is not simply an inspiring sentiment, but rather her worldview. Her "gentle hands, kindly words" and compassion are shown daily as she cares for and nurtures the horses that roam freely on her family's 500-acre ranch just outside San Angelo. And it is there where Ashley Stahl is living her dream - and it is safe to say the animals in her care are living theirs as well. Growing up around cattle, sheep and chickens helped instill a love of animals at an early age, and planted the seed that would someday become Ashley's Zoo, a rescue organization that is home to 33 horses - including five miniatures - two donkeys named Nester and Benny, 11 ducks and one very talkative goose. Ashley also fosters dogs and has four of her own who live full-time on the ranch.
And because of Ashley, the horses - many of which were unwanted and some even on the brink of death - are now living their best life surrounded by love and plenty of companionship.
A graduate of Texas State University in San Marcos, Ashley began her rescue while at the same time enjoying a career with Child Protective Services. "I was a conservatorship worker, which means I helped families get their children back," she said, adding that while fulfilling, the job came with its share of stress. "At CPS they always would tell us to take time for ourselves and since animals have always been a stress reliever for me, I decided to start my rescue."
Now in its fourth year, Ashley recalls the beginning with Teesha, a horse she acquired through a family member. "I've always loved horses, and after Teesha I began to see more and more horses needing homes," she said. "I realized there were people put in my path who would then get me in touch with those who wanted to help." Ashley cites as an example, cruelty and neglect situations. "One of my horses, Star, had been taken by the sheriff, who also filed cruelty charges against the man keeping him," she said, adding that two other horses were seized at the same time, all in dire need of help. "The vet didn't think Star was going to make it - he was so emaciated and malnourished - it took an entire year to get him back to health."
Ashley said what are known as Trader Pens are another place she has become aware of horses in need. "These are legally run establishments where horses are sold and sent to Mexico or Canada," she said. "Chantelle, one of my rescues who is 21-years old, came from one of these places along with another horse. I fostered them and ended up letting them stay." Another rescue, one-year-old Coal, also came to Ashley from a Trader Pen and "literally looked like a skeleton, but is doing great now," she said.
Each horse brings with it a unique personality and it is Ashley's job to provide the love and nurturing environment that will allow the animal to flourish. Something Ashley particularly enjoys is seeing the different personalities emerge from the horses in her care. "You can tell so much by just watching the horses and I like to split them into groups based on their personalities," she said, adding that she even recognizes each animal's voice. Teesha, who recognizes the sound of her car, is very outgoing and probably thinks "here comes the snack lady," while other horses require more patience to come out of their shells. "For the animals who've suffered neglect and abuse, it often takes quite a bit of time for them to thrive and for their personalities to emerge," she said. For instance, a new mother and her twins who "took a solid four months" to start adapting to life at the ranch. "Any 'new' animal needs time to decompress. Some have been through unimaginable situations and need time to just be." Ashley recalls that some of her horses have gone to wonderful families, but those for which she cares are allowed to live out their days as they choose. "Half of my horses don't ride, and they're here to just enjoy being."
"In a perfect world, every animal would have a perfect home," Ashley envisions, and believes an important way to achieve that objective is through education. "A lot of people underestimate how much of a commitment a horse is," she said. "They take a lot of work and with an average lifespan of 30 years, some people look up and realize they can't afford the commitment - that's not fair to the animal that depends on humans for their basic necessities."
While Ashley's Zoo was born out of a childhood dream, she is also on a mission to raise awareness of the importance of not regarding animals as something that can be tossed aside when they become too much work or when expenses mount. "I want kids and adults to come out and spend time with the horses and learn about them, because they don't learn if they don't know," she said. Ashley added that as her rescue has grown, she has had more and more people wanting to help. "It's definitely expensive, but the support I've had has been amazing and that's how it's been possible to do what I do on such a large scale," she said.
The horses that roam among the trees and brush of their forever home have certainly found their happy ending and it seems Ashley has as well. "When I quit CPS, I thought I'd just take a few months off, but that was almost four years ago. I love being out here and can't imagine doing anything else."
For more information or to donate, contact Ashley at 325-716-9121 or through Ashley's Zoo on Facebook. †