Home on the Range

Michelle Feldstein stands on the bank of the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley. Cottonwoods sway in the breeze next to the river at the feet of the Absaroka Mountains. Snow still skiffs the crags. Her eyes scan the rolling 270 acres of Deer Haven Ranch that reach to the west. About 170 rescued animals—horses, llamas, sheep, goats, donkeys, miniature horses, mules, cats, dogs, ducks, and one donkey-zebra—are at home here. This is their paradise.

“I’ve always loved animals,” Michelle says in a quiet but energetic voice—a voice used by people used to working around animals. “Al and I moved here after a couple of years in Jackson, Wyoming. We fell in love with it right away—in part because a herd of deer were grazing on it when we visited. That and the view of the mountains above the river.” Friends began telling them about animals that needed rescuing not long after she and her husband arrived.

Some have been brought to her by owners who can no longer care for them. Some she bought at auction because their owners thought they were too old or not perfect enough. Friends have called her about a cat or dog. Some of the horses were headed for the slaughterhouse—again because they were not perfect enough in either form or behavior. Some because a kitten or puppy grew up and was more work than the owners, or their children, bargained for.

Christmas is the lunch donkey. She rushes to the picnic area by the river whenever guides stop with their clients, hoping one of the fishermen may have brought her a snack. Constance is a spotted donkey/zebra cross. She doesn’t neigh or whinny—like a proper zebra, she barks. She came here because her former owner didn’t want her to be exploited. Cowboy the horse came to the ranch with sores and his ribs showing. Today, you can’t tell that he was ever abused. Dudley the llama, Michelle says, came with some sheep. After posing against the backdrop of the mountains, he trotted over to our four-wheeler and sniffed my hair. “His form wasn’t perfect enough for the family who owned him,” Michelle explains, then adds that like many animals, llamas are being over-bred and now there are too many. No one seems to want an animal that isn’t perfect—whether a large animal considered for recreation or a house pet like cat or dog. “We live in a throw-away society—and that includes animals,” she muses.

We continue our drive around the ranch, passing small groups of horses and llamas, a pair of Welsh ponies, and a cat that has been away from the house and barn all summer. Game trails—probably made by mule deer—meander through the tall weeds. Three pintos and a bay pose at the top of a ridge against dark gray scudding clouds.

A mile and a half of Yellowstone River wraps around the ranch. Fishermen float past by the hundreds during fishing season, oblivious to the world above them. They stop at the picnic area under the old cottonwoods provided by the Felsteins without knowing their story—the story of a Mad Magazine editor from New York and his wife who wanted to create a home for all these beautiful creatures.

We drive back up to an overlook high above the river. “This is where I like to come any time of day or night,” Michelle says. “This is my other favorite place on the ranch—after the picnic area.” I ask her what it is that she’d especially like other folks to know about her animal friends. “That it is important to remember that the pet you brought home from the pet store or bought from a breeder is going to grow up and need your care and attention,” she says. “Some days will be fun and many days they will require work—work and a lot of patience.”

We bounce over packed snow as hard as ice; stop by the water troughs to make sure the hoses are running and there’s water for the menagerie; feed the chickens, cats and goats; count the sheep; and then drive out toward the lower pasture to check on the horses. Today all is well.

Michelle explains that even during winter storms, she heads out however she can, whether by truck, four-wheeler, or on foot, to feed, water, and check on each four-legged or feathered member of the ranch—every day. This is her paradise too—beside a river, beneath the mountains, among the animals whose lives she has helped to save.