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Back in the saddle

Scientist and activist Deborah Finco helps unwanted animals find forever homes

Published 12/11/2012 12:00 AM

"Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem."

— A.A. Milne, author of "Winnie-the-Pooh"

The slow drive down the leafy dirt road to Beech Brook Farm Equine Rescue in Mystic seems a world away from the sounds of traffic and suburban life. A small hill opens up to a scene of New England tranquility; of small pastures and field fences and shelters. A red barn stands proudly against the muted greys and browns of early winter woods. Grazing horses slowly glance up at the sound of a car, their coats shining in the sun.

Twelve full-sized horses and eight miniature donkeys and horses — as well as two permanent donkeys, some chickens, an alpaca, a pig and two rescued dogs and a cat — call this home.

Since its founding in 2007 the 501c3 nonprofit, volunteer-driven rescue has taken in more than 78 abused, neglected or unwanted horses and a slew of other animals. But its primary focus is horses, and more than 60 have been placed with new owners.

Deborah Finco, the founder and president of Beech Brook, says her love for horses reaches back to her childhood in Georgia.

"When I was a kid I used to go up to a boarding facility and they'd let me ride this old plug of a horse if I helped out around the barn," she recalls.

College, marriage, career and two daughters (Rachel and Ariel) gradually filled her life and horses receded into the background for awhile. Then young Ariel expressed an interest in riding.

"We got her a horse when she was 12," she said. And the wheels were set in motion. Not long after, Ariel suggested fostering a horse. The horse they fostered was then adopted into "what I thought was a horrible situation," Finco recalls. "And I said, 'I am never doing that again. I am going to have control over what happens.' So we started our own rescue."

Costs to adopt from Beech Brook can range from $50 to $800, depending on the animal's age and health. Right now, most are below $400. Prospective owners undergo a screening process; and if the new owner finds they cannot care for the animal, the rescue holds first right of refusal.

When they arrive, horses are quarantined while their behavioral and medical needs are assessed. A horse trainer visits twice a week — "we would have her come more if we could afford it," Finco explains, since trained horses can be placed in about 4-6 months.

Once the animal is healthy and strong, the psychological part of the adoptive process comes into play. These creatures are distinct individuals, with different personalities and needs, Finco says.

"A horse that needs a lot of training is going to go to a much different person than someone who just wants a little donkey as a backyard companion."

Do they experience stress? Absolutely, she replies.

"When horses spend a lot of time worrying, they get crinkles above their eyes."

And Finco worries about them. She hopes for applicants who honor and understand the time and hard-working care that go into rehabilitation.

Beech Brook is a tranquil refuge for the animals who have sufffered abuse ­— but they come to understand that in their own time.

"It really varies, depending on how much they were mistreated or neglected," she explains. She gestures to Cammy, a chestnut-colored mare with a white diamond on her forehead.

"Cammy, I would say, it was over a year before she started thinking that maybe we were OK. Her natural response was always to run away from us. A very sweet, sweet horse. Not a mean bone in her body but she was a petrified girl," she says. "She needs a person who exudes low energy, positive vibes."

As we walk, a horse with a dark, braided mane sidles up alongside the gate.

"Bella came to us extremely wary of people, lots of negative behavior, defensive, kicking." After two years at the farm, she's calm and happy, Finco says, "but still kind of a mystery."

And then, on the other sde of the spectrum, there's George, a large, older gelding "who would walk into your house and lay down on your bed if he could. He just loves people."

Some of the animals who come to Beech Brook are surrendered by owners who can no longer care for them; some are bought at auction to prevent them from going to other auctions or slaughter.

Finco offers a harrowing statistic: Although illegal in the U.S., "about 90,000 horses a year go to slaughter in Canada and Mexico for human consumption in Europe," she says. Standing under a quiet canopy of trees, she acknowledges the size of the industry; the world contains far more animals than rescue facilities.

"The reality is I've done this long enough, and you realize you can't save them all. We do the best we can."

Yet Finco is undaunted. She has to be, for the rescue to exist, because the 24/7 work of maintaining the farm — cleaning up after the animals, grooming, feeding and socializing them, tracking their health, fielding calls from prospective adoptive and foster homes, organizing fundraisers and applying for grants — is not her full-time job.

Finco holds degrees in microbiology and immunology. By day, she is a laboratory senior principal scientist at Pfizer, serving as a subject matter expert and designing experiments for researchers. She tends the rescue animals before and after work. And she gets a lot of help from Brian, her husband of 29 years, who does an intense level of physical labor around the property — clearing land, building shelters, "and moving a lot of poop," she laughs appreciatively.

Finco also emphasizes that the rescue could not meet its mission "if it were not for our incredible volunteers."

But friends who know and work with Finco say, unequivocally, that it is her dedication that makes a difference in the lives of these animals.

"She gives 100 percent and more to every horse that we rescue," said volunteer coordinator Rev. Kathleen Crockford. "Her energy and vision have made the rescue what it is today — and we are still growing."

"Deborah is very generous with her time and talent," program director Kathy Freeman wrote in her email nominating Finco for Grace. "She has a particular interest in developing a sense of compassion and empathy in youth."

Love and compassion are healing forces, and their ripple effect is being felt in the community at large. Tucker, whom Finco describes as "a wonderful, wonderful" horse who suffers from a metabolic condition, was so severely overweight when he came to Beech Brook, he was lame. Now firmly back on his feet, he is a trusted part of the rescue's work with disadvantaged and at-risk kids referred by Stonington Human Services and Noank Group Homes. Like the horses at the rescue, the kids who take part in the Equine Facilitated Learning Program know what it is to feel a little alone in the world. The sessions offer hands-on experiences to help them build empathy, confidence, and communication and problem-solving skills. Freeman describes this combination as "a powerful one."

"The unknown and/or troubled history of our horses, coupled with certain behavioral issues some exhibit, seem to really resonate with our students," she said.

Of finances, and Taco

Running the rescue costs about $75,000 a year. Last year it broke even, but this year has been "tough," Finco says. Expenses have run about $58,000 and they've raised $52,000 to date.

New residents can bring surprises — and unforeseen bills

Mia arrived at the rescue in December of 2010, covered in ticks and rain rot. Unbeknownst to Finco, she was also pregnant.

Her filly, Brooke, then came down with a nearly fatal bout of strangles at 14 months. The virus — an equine form of strep — is as ugly as it sounds. The animal's lymph nodes ballooned, blocking its airways. The Twin Pines veterinary team of Ashley Leighton and Matt Kornatowski rushed to the farm and performed the emergency tracheotomy that saved Brooke's life. In gratitude, the rescue named two miniature donkeys after them.

But that kind of intervention does not come cheap. So Finco is as creative as possible when it comes to raising money. When Ashley gave birth to a new baby, the rescue let people bid on her name for $5 an entry. "Taco" won out.

Finco estimates the rescue's support as 70 percent private donations, 8 percent from grants and the rest raised through fundraisers — spaghetti suppers, silent and online auctions, a wreath sale and promotional partnerships with like-minded retailers, like horseloverjewelry.com

And she takes full advantage of the reach of technology. The rescue's Facebook page has 4,457 fans, and the website links to youtube.com video narratives of the animals. There is extensive information on the myriad volunteer opportunities available. (Young people are welcome but those younger than 18 must attend training.)

There are also sponsorship opportunities; $50 a month helps provide food for a horse. Or a donor can opt to pay for blankets, equipment or medical care.

Finco pauses for a moment as Taco pushes her impossibly soft, plushy head against her leg. She recalls how Taco wouldn't eat after she was born, and that Ashley had to be milked so her baby could be hand-fed with a syringe.

"They're so trusting of us," she reflects. "They seem to know we are here to help them."