It takes a certain kind of person to oversee an animal refuge, and John Ramer is one of those.
You have to be comfortable living in isolation miles from the nearest city, he explains as he bombs along a single-track, dirt road in his pickup, and you’ve got to have a big heart for animals.
He didn’t realize he had either of those qualities until a girlfriend, who he later married, invited him nearly two decades ago to visit her at a refuge in Utah where she was working at the time.
Before receiving his girlfriend’s invitation, Ramer didn’t even know what a refuge was. After that one visit, however, he was hooked.
And though the marriage didn’t pan out, his newfound passion stuck, ultimately prompting him to trade in his former career as a DJ and high school music teacher for a new life saving and rehabilitating animals.
Today, Ramer is the executive director at the Kindness Ranch, a sprawling 1,200-acre animal refuge off Wyoming Highway 270, north of Hartville, in remote southeastern Wyoming, with a sole mission of providing homes and rehabilitation for lab test animals who would otherwise be euthanized at the end of their medical research experiments or clinical trials.
Along with offering the animals a comfortable home, live-in caretakers and staff help them make the transition from life in the lab to living in the outside world among humans, with the ultimate goal being to prepare them for adoption.
Giving these animals a second chance for a better life was the impetuous behind Denver psychologist Dr. David Groobman’s decision to purchase the land in 2006 and turn it into a sanctuary with full-time staff to take care of the daily operations.
Currently, the refuge is home to more than 100 animals including a handful of pigs, goats, sheep, rabbits and horses and a bunch of cats and puppies who live in yurts with their trainers and caregivers.
The round yurts are congregated in clusters on the rolling hills and sagebrush-covered prairie. There are even additional yurts that can be rented by guests, including a massive five-bedroom, six-bath double-decker yurt, known as the manor, that’s perched on top of a hill with a bird’s eye view for miles into the distance.
Ramer stops the pickup briefly to point out the handful of thoroughbred horses grazing in separate pastures in the distance before giving the pedal a little gas to climb up the windy switchback leading to a rustic barn. He parks in front of the barn and jumps out of the driver’s door — engine still running — for a quick stop to see his favorite piglet, De Luca.
When he opens the gate, short, barrel-chested piglets charge his feet, darting in figure eights around his ankles, vying for attention as Ramer greets them each by name — as he does every animal in his care.
The only one who ignores him is Dayaluta, who makes a leisurely pass around the group and heads over to a mud puddle on the other side enclosed ring and belly flops in the murky water with feet splayed like a super hero in flight.
“What a diva,” Ramer says, walking over to the mud puddle and bending down on one knee to give Dayaluta’s mud-packed fur a belly rub, reminding her that her name means kindness in Hindi.
All the time, he’s smiling like a guy who can’t believe his good fortune that this is how he gets to spend his days.
Next is a visit to see the 35 new puppies who just arrived last Friday in what has been the single largest intake of animals by the ranch.
The beagles are among more than 100 Ramer was able to save from a Texas research facility. Their release was negotiated with the help of two other rescue facilities in California and New York. Additional help came from a nonprofit pet transportation company that delivered the puppies to their various new homes.
Ramer can’t say too much more about where the puppies came from or the nature of the clinical trial they were involved in, given the thorny ethics surrounding animal testing in general. He purposefully avoids discussing the issue and instead focuses on establishing relationships with research companies to help facilitate the rescue of test animals.
In this case, he made three separate trips to the research company’s office to talk to officials and impress upon them the fact he was serious about taking the puppies.
It can be tenuous process, he says. Because of the number of animal rights activist groups who’d like nothing better than to see these facilities shut down, trust takes a while to build.
Ramer prefers to focus on happy endings and saving as many animals as he can.
The bulk of the puppies used in testing tend to be beagles due to their affectionate personalities, submissive demeanor and willingness to obey commands, along with their small frames, relatively uncomplicated pregnancies and large litters.
Despite their small bodies, when packed inside a tiny yurt, the beagles can be kind of overwhelming as Valery Yuravak has discovered since 14 puppies moved into her yurt less than a week ago.
To her credit, the 21-year-old dog trainer and Ohio native seems unfazed by the barking from the cluster of older dogs cordoned off in one corner of the main room of her yurt as she stares down at the puddle of urine pooling at her feet in the floor of the kitchen.
The offender, who had been relegated to the kitchen for a doggie timeout after nipping at another dog, looks up at her with baleful eyes when she asks him why on earth he would pee on her floor.
Getting no response, Yuravak wheels over an industrial size mop and bucket that will permanently live on her living room floor for the next four to six weeks as the new beagle pups become acclimated to their new lives outside of the cinder blocks in the lab.
The dogs have already made a lot of progress, Ramer notes, moving from individual cages into small groups — the first steps in the process to eventually let them roam together as a group once all are spayed and neutered.
During this time, they’ll live in tight quarters with Yuravak in the front half of the yurt, but she’ll be able to get a break from the animals in the small apartment with separate bathroom and sleeping quarters on the other side of the kitchen wall.
A row of crates lines the curved arc of the living room wall. Looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows, one can see two groups of dogs playing in separate enclosures filled with a pile of toys and a couple kiddie wading pools that the dogs don’t seem to know what to do with.
It’s because they’re not like other dogs, says Yuravak, who up until now thought she had a pretty good handle on training techniques and dog behavior. Not so, she notes, and these new recruits are teaching her.
“They don’t act at all like normal dogs,” she says. “In fact, they behave just the opposite.”
Where most puppies jump on humans and want to be held, these guys shy away from attention and are wary of going outside. Sounds and smells freak them out because they are used to living in a sterile, quiet environment.
Part of the socialization process is to get them used to the sound of a vacuum cleaner, blender or radio, as well as being around other dogs and humans. It’s a process that can take anywhere from four to six weeks and one that requires a lot of patience.
These animals have come from controlled environments with limited noise and distractions so entering the outside world is sensory overload, Ramer says, and it takes time for them to get used to all these strange noises. Which is one of the benefits of putting them in a home environment with their trainer where they’ll slowly get used to the various sounds, smells and movements of normal life.
In the meantime, they’re all getting used to each other.
Yuravak has already assigned all the puppies names.
And Ramer has somehow already memorized all those names so he can greet each one.