It’s 10am but Kathryn Gress has been already working for hours. Up a steep hill on a curvy tree covered road in Orefield the landscape opens up, revealing 15 acres of rolling meadows, a large home, dotted with tiny houses and fenced in enclosures with a sweeping view of the Lehigh Valley in the background.
The forecast was for a warm day in the 50s, but here, at Gress Mountain Ranch, which sits atop the second highest point in the county, it feels more like the 30s with an incessant wind. Gress is prepared for the colder temps, in a parka, gloves and numerous scarfs. I, on the other hand, in just a thin hoodie, not so much.
Gress doesn’t waste time on formalities. She doesn’t stop dumping out water bowls, shaking out ice, sweeping out pens, as she gives a guided tour of her sanctuary, as she calls it, a “forever home” for abused and neglected animals, who otherwise might have had no place to go. Over 70 animals call the ranch home — ducks, pigs, turkeys, cats, parrots, peacocks, dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, donkeys, alpacas, goats, horses — the list goes on and on. Each has a story that Gress can recount by heart — ducklings bought for Easter presents that families lost interest in, goats too skinny for slaughter, pigs kept in apartment buildings or better yet, roaming the Pinelands of New Jersey.
“This is Donald Duck,” Gress says introducing me to the first animal we meet by name. He’s a mallard who used to live with a family, enjoyed a big swimming pool and other amenities, but the family didn’t have time for his care anymore. It’s his first day in his new home and he stands in a covered shed, checking out the peacocks to the left of him in an adjacent pen. Gress welcomed Donald’s arrival, but braces for more. “Especially around this time, it’s Easter, everybody is going to start buying crazy animals and then the next day not know what to do with them. We have a lot of Easter presents here. I can’t take everybody but every year I’ve taken some in. One lady has given me hers year after year. I had to say, ‘Ma’am, I can’t keep taking your Easter presents, you have to stop.’”
The vision of the ranch extends beyond just taking in animals down-on-their-luck. To see it as such would be missing Gress’s mission entirely. Gress doesn’t see these animals as charity cases, she sees them as under-appreciated members of our animal society who still have the ability — given the right opportunity —- to make an impact on someone’s life. To that end, the ranch offers therapy and counseling sessions, a summer camp, volunteer opportunities and job training to help people. As the mission of the ranch states, “to foster the mutual well-being of both people and animals by intertwining their lives through nurturing, learning, fun, and healing.”
But back to those chores. Gress, at 60, is a force to keep up with. Never missing a beat in explaining the work of the ranch and the various residents’ stories, Gress multitasks, remembering who needs what medicine or treatment at one time, without a phone calendar anywhere nearby. “I keep it all in my head,” she says with a laugh.
The ranch has become a way of life for Gress. She can’t take vacations and even a single day away from the ranch has to be planned and calculated. “I don’t have anyone that can take over here. It’s a huge undertaking. It’s not just feeding them, it’s cleaning out their pens to make sure their living spaces are nice, taking care of them.” Now in its 19th year, the farm shows no signs of slowing down and neither does Gress. She does admit that she’s hoping to scale down to more of the bunnies and pigs rather than more 1800 pound horses, that not surprisingly eat massive amounts of food.
Moving from one bird shed to a more open duck enclosure, there’s a whole flock of ducks who stir as Gress approaches. As she nears the gate to the enclosed swimming pool (she’s lost ducks to coyotes recently so enclosures are a must) the ducks go absolutely bonkers, honking and chirping until they spill out of the open gate into the pond. The pond, Gress explains is heated and was an Eagle Scout project. The ducks seem appreciative. Another part of the enclosure is an award-winning girl scout project and part of the housing was built by volunteers from Via, children and adults with disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
“It’s 100% volunteers here,” explains Gress. I’m not ready to give it up, this is a great outreach to the community.” Gress goes on to explain how she just wrapped up a session with the state’s CareerLink, which placed unemployed workers needing job experience on her site for work. “CareerLink pays them minimum wage, which will at least get some money in the pocket but they’re getting skills they need and something to add to their resume. We’ve placed about 40 people in jobs outside the ranch, we’ve been a good stepping stone to assist others in finding employment.”
With so many animals and so many special needs there never seems to be enough volunteers or funds to cover the constant need for food, veterinary care, medication and other supplies. Gress credits long-time supporters like Carol Bowers who was at the ranch during my visit, her first day back after knee replacement surgery. “She’s been a great support and contributor and ranch hand, she’s a life-line to keeping the mission alive.” Gress admits it’s hard work for volunteers, “This is a hard sell. The place is nice right now, it’s sunny. But in the winter, it’s windy, this is all ice and we still have to do all of these tasks — the water bins are frozen, you’re freezing, the pens still have to be dug out.”
“Fundraising is ongoing but it’s exhausting,” admits Gress. “We don’t have anyone in the community like companies or organizations coming to assist us. Our biggest problem is we don’t have a consistent revenue stream.” Instead, Gress has consistent animals with consistent needs. Quakertown Veterinary Clinic does offer reduced rates. Still things like $65 regular toe trimmings for the pigs add up.
The success stories make it worth it. “That’s Clarence over there. He’s my oldest turkey,” says Gress, “he is almost 14 years old, he’s the equivalent of a 98 year old. I had him since he was eight weeks old.” Clarence is a lucky bird to have Gress who cared for a wound on his chest for months when others said to give up on him. “I was petting him one day and my hand just went into the side of his chest, like a bed sore. I had to treat him, everyone told me, Kathryn, he’s not going to make it. One lady, Dr. Lucy up the road suggested burn cream, pack it in there, make sure bugs don’t get in there. So that’s what I did for eight weeks and you see he’s fine now.”
Every single animal at the ranch Gress believes has a lesson to teach. As a counselor, her job is to train them to bring that out in them. “They become more people oriented because I have an idea of how I want them them to be to people. I want them to be a helper to people. So I have to work and train, coordinate everything I do in that direction. They have to have every day hands on experiences with these animals. Because you can have animals and you see them in the pasture or the pen and you throw food at them and leave but there’s no social connection there. This way he gets the touch, he hears his name, those things become very important in developing relationship.” Which Gress says translates into teaching people too.
“Relationships are hard for people to do. Making that connection with something that is living, this can be a stepping stone to improving those challenges.”
And Gress isn’t ready to stop learning herself. “The most important thing they can teach us is that all living things should be respected. And even in their dying [she’s had to euthanize some 40 animals] I have to act and make those hard but right decisions and it teaches me a lot. They are my friend, my companion but they are also my teacher, if you take the time.”
Contributions and volunteers: The Gress Mountain Ranch 3264 Highland Road Orefield, PA 18069. www.gressmountainranch.org.
Ranch Camp: June 18-22, July 9-13, July 30-August 3. For children entering 2nd-12th grades. Activities include horsemanship, donkey cart rides alpaca-felting, scavenger hunts, care and feeding of pigs, donkeys, goats and horses. Shadow a veterinarian, learn teamwork. $200/week. GressRanch@gmail.com or 610-398-2122.