Rescued animals live in the lap of luxury while awaiting adoption
By Rebekah Wolf
My dad always says, “You’ve got to be going there to get there,” when describing places like Timbuktu. Medina, Texas, is no different.
The trail leading to Medina is long and windy, past hills dotted with dusty tree shrubs, longhorns lazily chewing cud behind barbed wire, looking-glass streams, and views that make your heart skip a beat. People know when you’re not from around there, and you’ve got to wonder if life has made them as hard as their stares. Medina is a shotgun town nestled in the crevasse behind Kerrville, a place where the sound of dogs barking lets your mile-away neighbor know he’s not alone in the world.
Follow the signs that lead down a narrow dirt road broken by knobby tree roots. Just past the cattle guard is the sprawl of Kinky Friedman’s ranch and, more importantly, the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch. The residents aren’t shy; they greet you at the gate with tongues and tails wagging.
The ranch, a nonprofit animal sanctuary run by Friedman, Nancy Parker-Simons, and Tony Simons, is home to around 60 dogs, a couple of horses, donkeys, pigs, chickens, and a rooster named Alfred Hitchcock. A pristine creek separates Friedman’s home from the dogs’ quarters, and a steep cliff shrouds the oasis from the rest of the world.
With a cowboy hat ruling his curly frizz and a cigar in hand, Friedman, a writer, animal activist, and musician, starts at the beginning.
“It’s been a dream of mine to do something like this, and it had also been one of Nancy’s. We met about 10 years ago and only knew each other casually, I guess, and this kind of came into being. I would adopt different animals and drop them off with Nancy. She lived in Utopia, a little town 40 miles from here. Eventually the neighbors drove us out with pitchforks.”
After a string of bad luck while trying to find a new spot to set up shop, Friedman’s father offered a chunk of land on his property.
“If Tony and I had started the rescue ranch in Utopia, we would have lasted maybe 30 days, probably would have had 400 dogs, broke, out of control. We’re so lucky, because it was Kinky’s idea,” gushes Nancy. Her words get a grunt from Friedman, who appreciates Nancy and Tony just as much.
“Nancy is the director of the place, runs the place. Tony is the manager, the foreman, and I’m the Gandhi-like figure, the Ronald Reagan pitch man, who does the entertainment to try to raise money for the place,” he explains.
Together the crew has worked diligently to give the dogs a good life, and they’ve managed to take away a lot of success stories.
Their first rescue was on Labor Day weekend in 1998. The group rescued Fly and her eight puppies, and while they had no problem finding good homes for the puppies, Fly kept getting passed over. The rescue moved to the Medina ranch in 2002, and after four years of waiting for adoption, Friedman decided to foster her.
Fly stayed with him while he was home from touring, and after a couple of months of getting the star treatment, Friedman adopted her. She spent the last six years of her life on the ranch. “Fly was a real ranch dog,” Friedman wistfully reminisces. “Fly was all about the moon and the donkeys and the dust.”
While some people might want to take in every stray they find, the group at Utopia knows that’s not realistic. They started out small, only taking in animals they had resources for, and estimate they’ve found families for more than 2,000 dogs.
“This is one of the hardest businesses. The very people [who] love animals the most are not necessarily the ones [who] can do this,” says Friedman. “We like for people to do whatever they can and take some responsibility. I like to say we’re the court of last resort. If whatever animal is at death’s door, it’s the end of the line, then we take them. But otherwise we prefer you to work it out. You can cross a fine line and really find yourself in big trouble with a place like this. That’s how these very nice people wind up with 90 cats or 90 dogs in their house.”
As Friedman watches his own dogs trot around the yard, squeaky toys and drool dangling from their mouths, he reflects on the cruelty people are capable of. Kinky empathizes with the animals because he’s a stray too, shuffling from place to place, absorbing love and hate, and always turning up at Utopia.
“We do live in the kind of culture where people are weak; they consider everything to be disposable. You don’t like your husband, you get rid of him. You don’t like your family, you get rid of it, and the same with animals. We do meet people who make a commitment, but that kind of person is rare these days.”
Utopia is a safe place for strays of all kinds: the animals, Friedman, even his friend Reverend Goat, who took refuge on the ranch after Hurricane Katrina. “All a dog really wants is love. A dog living in a mansion is no happier than a dog living under a bridge, as long as he’s with somebody who loves him. Money may buy you a fine dog, but only love can make him wag his tail.”
The same can be said for people, and Friedman, despite his celebrity status and beautiful home, has everything he needs in his circle of friends.
With his salsa and cigar line, benefit concerts featuring himself and good friends Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, and Dwight Yoakum, and help from the community, Utopia is thriving, and the crew has hit its stride.
“Many people have remarked it is a peaceable kingdom. If you were a stray dog, this is where you’d want to go. You wouldn’t necessarily want to be adopted. Some of them are very happy to go. Most of them I would say I’m not so sure, which is a tribute to Cousin Nancy and Tony.”
I’m a little sad to leave the ranch myself, promising the gang I’ll return and wanting to take home the adorable dogs I’ve met. As I pull onto the dirt road, the sun is climbing behind the cliff, bathing Utopia in a golden glow. Friedman’s pensive words are ringing in my ear: You can’t save every starfish on the beach, just this one.