The A-Ok Corral

updated 12/08/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

"WHEN SOMEBODY OFFERS YOU AN ELEPHANT for free," Chris Byrne says, "it's either going to die within a year or kill someone."

Byrne knows whereof he speaks. As manager of Black Beauty Ranch, a refuge founded by animal-rights activist Cleveland Amory, he has seen enough to know that few discarded pachyderms arrive untraumatized by their years in captivity. (Tara, an Indian elephant who came to the ranch 1,000 pounds overweight and depressed after living alone for 35 years at a Rhode Island zoo, knocked that lesson into him—and gave him a severe concussion as well—when she smacked his head with her trunk.) The same is true for other cast-off pets and performers.

For 17 years, Black Beauty Ranch has been the last resort for animals collected one by one from cruel owners, decrepit zoos and abusive circuses, or rescued en masse from government-sanctioned slaughter in the wild. The ranch, 90 miles southeast of Dallas, near Murchison, got its start in 1980, when Amory—who had harbored a dream to build such a compound since he read the book Black Beauty as a child—made what he recalls as "a nervous buy" of 83 acres because he needed someplace to put the wild burros he was airlifting out of the Grand Canyon. (The National Park Service was about to shoot them as pests.) Now, thanks to the contributions and bequests of animal lovers to Amory's Fund for Animals, the refuge comprises 1,100 acres of softly rolling hills, 4 lakes, 12 ponds and several streams.

Managed for the last seven years by Byrne, a 47-year-old Englishman who once cared for the DuPont family Thoroughbreds, Black Beauty Ranch, with its $350,000 annual operating budget, provides care for nearly 500 animals, including 40 North African wild sheep, 14 wildly animated rhesus macaques, two ostriches, a security-minded llama that patrols the deer pen warding off coyotes, several types of deer, five buffalo, three rare kinkajous (a small arboreal mammal), a pair of exotic giant eland, two bobcats, three Siberian foxes, two prairie dogs, a large iguana, three elephants, about 190 horses and 175 of the friendly critters that started it all—the burros. These last retain a special place in Amory's heart. "They have a philosophy and sense of humor," he insists.

Among the animals are a few who made their mark in the two-legged world: A horse named Shiloh used to captivate audiences in Atlantic City by dropping from a high platform into a tank of water. Nim Chimpsky, a 27-year-old chimp, earned headlines by learning more than 300 words in sign language during his career at Oklahoma University's primate research lab. They don't have to put up with people anymore. None of the animals perform and none are ridden. "The animals are not here to be looked at. They're here to be looked after," says Amory, 80, who has described his Black Beauty enterprise in the recently published Ranch of Dreams. The animals do whatever they want. For the chimps, that could be watching television, browsing through magazines (they like the pictures) or painting.

Plans are in place to build a visitors center, and the ranch has open house on Saturdays. Amory says he is often asked why, with human suffering all around us, he devotes himself to animals. "It would be a horrible world if everything was on two legs," he says.

KAREN ROEBUCK in Murchison and NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City

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