Animal Magnetism

updated 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE BABY BARN OWL, ALL OF 3 weeks old and with just a few clumps of white down sprouting from its scrawny, pink body, is squawking loudly, demanding to be fed. Four boys—Elvin and Ollie, Alexander and Raynard—crowd together to watch, wide-eyed with fascination. "Just touch the food to his beak," says Paul Kupchok, 45, farm director at Green Chimneys juvenile rehabilitation center in Brewster, N.Y. "The bird will do the rest." As Raynard, 13, cups the as yet unnamed owl in his hands, Ollie says, "Oh, look, he's opening his eyes."

Someday, when the owl is ready to take care of itself in the wild, the residents of Green Chimneys Children's Services will hold a little ceremony, wish him good luck and set him free. And someday, helped by the animals they have helped at Green Chimneys, Elvin and his friends will be able to leave too.

"If a child helps heal a disabled animal and sees that it can survive," says Dr. Samuel Ross, 65, founder and executive director of the 150-acre farm campus 60 miles north of New York City, "then he gets the feeling he can survive too. They both get a second chance."

The kids who live at Green Chimneys, which is home to 102 emotionally disturbed young people between the ages of 6 and 21, need all the second chances they can get. Although Green Chimneys doesn't take totally antisocial children, most have been referred by psychiatric hospitals, and 99 percent come from families living in poverty. Many have been physically or sexually abused, and some have been in trouble with the law. "If you pick up the daily newspaper," says Ross, "you'll see where our children come from."

At Green Chimneys, treating injured or orphaned wildlife as well as seeing to the daily needs of farm animals is the key to the kids' rehabilitation. The campus is home to 350 animals ranging from shaggy Scotch Highland cows to Cotswold sheep, Nigerian dwarf goats and garden-variety rabbits and chickens. There are baby deer whose mothers were killed by cars, and there are 20 horses, one of which turned out to be blind after it was accepted. One of the farm's most honored residents is Mr. Postman, a bald eagle injured in the Exxon Valdez oil spill 5 ½ years ago. Most of the animals come from the ASPCA, rare-breed conservation groups and local residents who had to get rid of their pets. "The kids can relate to the fact that these animals are unwanted or abused—that they need help," says Kupchok.

The animals seem to relate too. "The farm animals are handled so much," says Ross, "that when the child goes into the barn, they run up to be touched. That is exciting to the child." It is also therapeutic. "There is a carryover to human relationships," says Ross. "Once a child who has probably been poorly nurtured himself can nurture an animal, it is easier for him to relate to peers and then to adults. Trust is established, and the child risks the human connection. The goodness of the child is unleashed."

For Ollie, last seen gazing in wonder at the baby owl, a former racehorse named Saucey may hold the key to rehabilitation. Ollie, 13, came to Green Chimneys in 1991. After his mother lost her apartment when he was 9, Ollie went to live with an aunt in Harlem. "I was doing bad things at school," he says, "like beating up kids and disrespecting staff. I used to think everyone was against me." His behavior landed him in the psychiatric center in New York City's Bellevue Hospital. Finally he was referred to Green Chimneys. There, says Ira Staubaum, Ollie's social worker, his behavior has improved. "His mood still changes swiftly if things don't go his way, but since he's been here the outbursts have come less frequently."

And Ollie is bonding with Saucey. "He likes to be petted," he says. "I brush him and I ride him." All kids at Green Chimneys ride horses once a week to learn balance and sharpen their concentration. "Horseback riding keeps them so focused they don't have to worry about a mother on drugs or a father in jail," says Kupchok, who came to Green Chimneys in 1986 after a varied career ranging from special education teacher to racehorse breeder.

Green Chimneys wasn't always devoted to healing the lives of traumatized children. It was opened by Ross in 1948 as a private boarding school for the very young children of divorced parents, celebrities and others whose lives tended to take them away from their home. Eventually the school began taking in older, often more troubled children. In 1974 it became a social-service facility and is now 90 percent funded by New York State, with the remainder coming from private donations.

Ross has devoted himself entirely to Green Chimneys. In fact, says Myra, his wife of 40 years, "I married him—and it." Ross and Myra, 64, a former elementary school teacher who is now Green Chimneys' director of admissions, live in a caretaker's cottage on the premises near the house in which they reared three kids of their own—Donald, 36, now a convention director at Bally's in Las Vegas; Lisa, 34, the quality-control director at Green Chimneys; and David, a doctor who died eight years ago of Hodgkin's lymphoma. "The children pulled us through," says Ross of the Green Chimneys kids.

Over the years more than 5,000 children, the vast majority of them boys, have passed through Green Chimneys, and some still return. Ross has become used to answering the door and "getting squeezed by enormous-looking monsters called young adults"—alumni who have come back to thank him.

In the meantime there are the current residents—94 boys and eight girls. Elvin, 12, in Green Chimneys a year, is the youngest of four children. He knows his father, a mechanic, only from photographs, and he tried to kill himself after a favorite uncle died. At Green Chimneys, Elvin, like the other kids, is in individual and group therapy as well as in family sessions with his mother, Gloria, 35, a former office worker. And, of course, there are the animals. Elvin is especially close to Spirit, a huge Newfoundland who is his dorm's mascot. "When Elvin is on a home visit," says Gloria, "that's all he talks about—'I wonder how Spirit is doing.' " Although Elvin is still easily frustrated and has a hard time accepting direction, he is making slow progress. Recently, in an unguarded moment, he mumbled that he might want to be a vet when he grows up, "so I can take care of animals."

Back in the classroom, Raynard has gently placed the baby owl on a table. There is a collective "Oooh" as it tumbles onto its side, and then a sigh of relief as the tiny raptor rights itself. Someday it will take flight.

MICHAEL NEILL
MARLENE McCAMPBELL in Brewster

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