Last November 2016, I visited the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) in South Salem, about an hour above Manhattan in northern Westchester County. Established in 1999, WCC presents year-round public programs and events promoting wolf conservation, along with customizable engagements for corporate, school and social groups.

Our program that day, “Wings and Wolves,” incorporated education on WCC’s resident ambassador wolves—their ancient, mournful howls casting quite the spell—with “Talons!  A Bird of Prey Experience” from Syracuse area-based master falconer Lorrie Schumacher. Among the feathered ambassadors performing controlled flying demonstrations for our group was Big Mama, a magnificent eagle owl who posed patiently for close-ups and selfies.

Informative and uplifting, the experience inspired this story, and as I would find, Upstate New York offers several places for groups to meaningfully explore the wild side of life and gain deep insight into new possibilities and ways of thinking from our furred and feathered friends.

Safe Havens

From the battlefield to the highway to the farm, the horse, domesticated some 6,000 years ago, has courageously served humankind like few other animals. Yet, for many thousands of horses each year, the end of the road is the slaughterhouse—including 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand. News of his demise in Japan inspired former Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen to establish Old Friends, his Georgetown, Ky.-based thoroughbred retirement and rescue facility founded in 2003 on the concept of “equine aftercare.”

Several years later, while developing their own retired thoroughbred sanctuary in Saratoga County, married couple JoAnn and Mark Pepper reached out to Blowen for mentorship.

“We had long admired Michael’s work,” JoAnn related. “More than just offer guidance, he said, ‘Let’s do this together.’”

In 2009, the Peppers debuted Old Friends at Cabin Creek, their 40-acre horse haven in Greenfield Center, not far from the historic, group-capable Saratoga Race Course.

“Taking only geldings and stallions as space allows, our mission is to provide a dignified retirement home for thoroughbreds and raise awareness of their lifelong needs,” JoAnn said. “Saratoga County’s only publicly accessible farm, we offer tours on Saturday afternoons year-round, plus five days a week in July and August. We have welcomed groups of up to 100 people, and are willing to accommodate more, with plans for event hosting in the future.”

In terms of benefits, she said, “Many visitors discover a profound relationship with our horses and their stories, and with the lifetime value of, and respect due to horses in general, plus the lessons they inspire around hard work, perseverance and keeping life in perspective.”

Founded in 1986 “to combat the abuses of factory farming and encourage a new awareness and understanding about farm animals,” Farm Sanctuary is the nation’s largest farm animal rescue and protection organization, with two facilities in California and one at Watkins Glen in New York’s Finger Lakes region. Set amid the picturesque Sugar Hill State Forest, this 175-acre facility, sheltering more than 500 rescued farm animals, offers tours and hosts May to October wedding ceremonies and events for 40-plus people.

With the same mission of saving farmed animals from cruelty, neglect and abandonment and providing them with loving lifetime refuge and care, while also championing veganism, Catskill Animal Sanctuary is a pioneering New York organization that hosts groups of 10 or more for tours, educational programs and events.