Jackie Wagner plops down in a pile of hay, shuts her eyes and tries to forget. Beside her, a Belgian draught horse named Zoe chomps on her breakfast, glancing repeatedly at the teen as if to make sure she is still near. "Sometimes when I'm having a bad day, I'll just put my hand on her," whispers Jackie, 18. Her worst days should be behind her, but she is still sometimes haunted by the abuse she endured as a child at the hands of her late father. "Zoe just gets me in a way nobody else can."
If Zoe could talk, she might say the same about Jackie, who, for the last three years, has spent upwards of 20 hours a week tending to her equine friend. Like each of the 130 horses, pigs, goats, chickens and cows at this six-acre Santa Clarita, Calif., ranch known as the Gentle Barn, Zoe was saved from a life of abuse and neglect; she had been rescued as a foal on her way to a Canadian slaughterhouse. "Most of these kids come here feeling bad and unlovable," says Ellie Weiner, a former dog trainer who founded Gentle Barn. "But when I tell them what these animals have endured, they recognize it as their own story."
Weiner's idea of pairing mistreated animals with troubled kids is hardly new-researchers have been studying the positive effects of animal therapy since the late 1970s. Since it opened in 1999, the facility has welcomed thousands of teen drug addicts, gang members and foster kids, most of whom have also been abused. When the kids, who arrive for four-hour-long weekly and monthly visits, learn how the animals have suffered, they instantly see them as kindred spirits, and they become more receptive to Weiner's message that their own psychological wounds can be healed. Gentle Barn also welcomes younger children with developmental issues and physical handicaps, along with those who just love rubbing shoulders with pigs and cows. "Helping animals empowers people," says Aubrey Fine, a psychotherapist and professor at California State Polytechnic University. "It helps them realize that if they can make a change in another being, they can also change themselves."
Weiner, 44, is no stranger to abuse, having endured years of it as a child. As part of her own coping mechanism, she spent her youth on the East Coast tending to injured and stray animals. She started her sanctuary at the age of 32, after rescuing a sick goat that she convinced the owner of a run-down petting zoo to give her. Her backyard was soon overrun with critters she had nursed back to health, and it wasn't long before she started telephoning social service agencies, foster homes and inner city schools, inviting children to come visit. By last year her work with Gentle Barn began attracting donors like Ellen DeGeneres, Hilary Swank and Kirstie Alley, who learned about the program through friends. (The rest of the nonprofit's funding comes from corporate grants, foundations and private donors.)
One of the barn's most powerful teaching tools is a sweet-natured pony nicknamed Napoleon, who survived years of beatings at the hands of his alcoholic owner. "These animals help the kids realize that just because you're neglected doesn't mean you're a lost cause," says Dan McCollister, activities director with the nonprofit Pacific Boys Lodge, which brings groups of teens to the barn each month.
Wagner, who lives in nearby Valencia, Calif., learned about the sanctuary from the therapist who treated her after she spoke out against her abuser. During her first visit at age 14, she was withdrawn and distant. But Gentle Barn is not a petting zoo: Kids who come are put to work and are expected to be responsible for the care of their animal charges. "Ellie could see I hadn't been around large animals," recalls Jackie, who recently graduated from high school. "You could not get me into their stalls, no way." Within five months she grew comfortable, and after a year spent mucking out stalls and feeding and grooming the horses, she was paired exclusively with the skittish, easily spooked Zoe. "It was scary," says Jackie of her early days with Zoe. "But it was like neither one of us expected perfection from the other. We got to learn together."
Weiner thought they were a good match because, "like Jackie, Zoe never really had a childhood," she says. "She was searching for somebody, searching to connect with someone." The horse is now calmer, and, says Jackie, "I like to think I've done some things to help her." She knows the animals-and the people-at the Barn have helped her: "Ellie taught me how to be assertive with Zoe, how to find that good area between weak and aggressive. If I have a question or concern, I'm not scared to ask."
Jackie has been so inspired by her experiences with Zoe that she eventually plans to study veterinary medicine when she starts college in the fall. Adds her mother, Jeannie, who once worried about how her daughter's abuse would impact her future: "I don't even want to imagine what Jackie would have done without Zoe. She found a kindred spirit."