The longer you hang around at Hidden Hills Ranch, the more animals seem to materialize around you.
If you wait by the ranch office for more than a minute or two, various cats and Cowboy the dog rub up against your legs; walk a little further onto the property in north Monterey County, California, and you’ll see a pony and cart being driven by youngsters, sheep and alpacas gazing at you as they chew their cud, and horses and goats cozying up to Emma, the resident emu.
Down at the corral, preschoolers are lining up to ride ponies under the direction of instructor Jennifer Strickland. “What do we say when we want to stop?” she asks the youngsters. “Whoa!” they chorus.
Just about all the creatures living here are rescue animals – previously neglected, abandoned or rejected – or have come here because there was no other place for them to go. A few, like Lucky the cat, have survived horrendous accidents and have permanent limps or other impediments. More than 70 animals make the ranch their home.
Since 2005, Hidden Hills director Gayle Comer has opened her Prunedale, California, property to a variety of uses that bring people and animals together – children’s day camps, riding lessons, preschool classes and other events – which draw families from nearby Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula.
The ranch began from Comer’s twin interests in animals and education. Almost a decade ago, the former schoolteacher spotted a “For Sale” sign on Pesante Road east of Highway 101, and followed the sign to an abandoned horse ranch that had been on the market for some time. Comer realized that it was the perfect place to house her educational resource library as well as her daughter’s horse.
It wasn’t long before other animals joined the ranch. Now the roster includes disabled animals like Skuttle, the blind rabbit; castoffs like Casper and Coco, alpacas that were not show quality and couldn’t be bred; and the elderly, like Jake, the gentle 29-year-old quarter horse, among many others. Even the turtles in the pond out front are someone’s former pets.
They were animals that no one wanted anymore, and Comer took them in.
“I’ve always loved animals and had never had a place to bring them before,” prior to buying the ranch, said Comer.
And since animals and kids just seem to naturally go together, it wasn’t long before Comer was organizing riding lessons and other activities.
And it’s not a place where all you can do is merely look at the animals. Youngsters also learn how to take care of them, to be kind to them, and to learn a sense of responsibility by doing do. Comer also has a soft spot in her heart for special needs and at-risk children, and said the disabled animals are especially inspirational for these youngsters.
“They want to see the blind bunny and the one-eyed hen,” said Comer. “These are animals that need love and kids that want to love them.”
She has also taken in rare animals, like the Santa Cruz sheep from the Channel Islands that a King City rancher was giving away, and a Panda miniature steer, bred for the limited resources of Third World countries.
On the 45-acre ranch, there’s also a vegetable garden and a butterfly garden, giving opportunities to show how plants grow – “This is why the Salinas Valley is famous, and (kids will) go by the fields, but don’t stop and learn anything about them,” said Comer of the vegetables growing there.
Comer has a small staff as well as a host of volunteers who help with the ranch, including many high school students from Salinas and North Monterey County, some of whom work there to fulfill community service hours, and some just to be around the animals.
The ranch has been the site of school field trips, moms and tots classes, Boy Scout campouts, respite day camp for Easter Seals, trail rides and nature workshops. More than ever, in this high-tech world, children need to be outdoors and to learn about the natural side of life.
“It’s all about getting them unplugged,” Comer said.
Interview with Gayle Comer, June 2012