The first time I visited New Mexico’s Heart and Soul Sanctuary, a home for abused and neglected animals, I was warned I’d be greeted by a pack of fiercely excitable pups. As I approached the gate, literally dozens of dogs came galloping toward me, and the next few seconds were a delirious blur of fur and yipping and sloppy licks up and down my cheeks and neck. I loved the place already.
Two years later, when I made my second trip to Heart and Soul, I’d forgotten about the enthusiastic welcome I should have known to expect. I got out of the car prepared only for the vague smell of hay and sunflowers. But as I passed the horses and headed toward the entry way, the dogs, like the memories of my first seminal visit, came rushing back in a most welcome and satisfying fashion.
To listen to the Road to Rescue interview with Heart and Soul founder Natalie Owings on Animal Radio Network, click here.
Natalie Owings is the sanctuary’s founder, fundraiser, groundskeeper, and caretaker. (And yes, any one of those on its own is a full-time position.) An animal lover since childhood, Owings spent much of her adult life “unofficially” rescuing dogs. She became intricately involved with municipal shelters around New Mexico, but frustrations with the way the organizations were run, and what she considered misguided goals, led her to open her own sanctuary for needy animals.
In 1997, Heart and Soul became an official, government-recognized, nonprofit organization. And though the work can be physically grueling and emotionally wrenching, Owings has never looked back.
Always a place to call home
They dogs live in the main house with Owings – new mothers have their own private quarters – and are free to come in and out as they please. The cats, fowl, horses, and llamas all have their own expansive indoor and outdoor quarters. If an animal was to dream about an ideal living situation, Heart and Soul Sanctuary might just be it.
Unlike many private shelters, which are set up as temporary housing stations for animals who will eventually be adopted out, Heart and Soul was established on 130 acres of woodsy, romp-able green – and was designed to feel like home. Adoption isn’t out of the question for her animals, but finding them new homes isn’t Owings’ primary aim. Because so many of her charges are pulled from terribly abusive situations, her goal is to provide a place where they always feel safe and at home.
Heart, soul, sweat, tears
No question, Owings is the matriarch here. She’s tall and slender with a sort of detached nobility about her. Her attitude about the many medications she dispenses, the lack of reliable volunteers, and even the difficulty of fundraising for such a large operation is all very matter-of-fact, very practical. And there is an added hardness to her voice when she talks about the cruelty she is regularly exposed to.
I’m sick to my stomach when she describes the starving, beaten animals who miraculously make their way to her sanctuary. Or when she tells me about a “game” prevalent in the southern part of the state in which young men deposit their dogs on the side of the road – and then attempt to hit them with their cars.
But when I notice a photo on her desk of a particularly soulful looking terrier mix, she looks away and tells me she can’t talk about him. Owings reassures me that the story’s outcome is a happy one, but she can’t bring herself to relive it. In so many of the animal advocates I talk to, there is a layer that never toughens up, that remains forever raw. I’m amazed that anyone can do this sort of work, day after day, year after year.
As we finish the interview and I gather my things to go, a young girl and her mother – volunteers – arrive to spend some time with the sanctuary’s nursing mothers and their pups. It’s heartening to see first hand that Owings is not alone in her pursuit to create better lives for these animals. And it’s reassuring to see a new generation of New Mexicans who understand compassion, respect, and the sanctity of life.