Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Uncommon Companions: Eventers and Their Unusual Pets

By Pam Gleason, Photography By Gary Knoll



Event riders tend to be passionate, intense people who love their horses. They also often have other animals, especially dogs – dogs and horses go together, after all. In the Aiken area, however, there are a number of professional eventers who have taken their love for animals a step farther, sharing their lives with some uncommon companions. Who are these riders and what is it like to live with an unusual menagerie? We decided to find out.

Avalo Farm: The Call of the Wild

When you drive into the average horse farm, you often find your car surrounded by dogs. When you drive into Avalo Farm in Wagener, cats come out to greet you instead. This is because, in addition to being the place where Michelle Donlick teaches and trains a combination of natural horsemanship and eventing, Avalo is also a certified nonprofit cat sanctuary.

There are cats everywhere at Avalo. At first glance, you might spot one or two sitting in the sunshine. If you look more closely, you start to realize just how many cats there are: they seem to materialize from the shadows, revealing themselves part by part, like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. The yard, the barn and the front porch of the house are home to some 50 cats. There are about 20 more that live in the house or in the working students’ apartments. They are friendly, curious and well-cared for, rubbing against your legs and offering themselves up for petting. A few of them follow Michelle around the farm to see what she is doing. They get along remarkably well.

“If you take lessons here, you must love cats, it’s a requirement,” says Michelle. “This is cat heaven.”

Cat heaven is an apt description. There are cats of all kinds: black cats and orange cats, calicos, tabbies, longhaired cats and shorthaired cats, Maine coon cats, tail-less cats, highland curls and most especially spotted cats. These are Bengals, descended from a cross of a small spotted wildcat called an Asian leopard cat and a domestic cat. Although there are many regular domestic cats at Avalo, the sanctuary was specifically created for Bengals and other hybrids.

“I take mostly hybrids,” says Michelle. “I had to stop taking in regular house cats because then I would be like a regular shelter, overwhelmed with cats. Really, I would like to help all the cats. But I focus on the hybrids.”

Hybrid cats are classified by how many generations they are removed from the first crossing of a domestic cat and wild cat. The offspring of an Asian leopard cat and a domestic cat is an f1 Bengal (the “f ” stands for “filial.”) These cats retain a distinctly wild look, with spotted coats and large eyes. They act like wild cats, too, tending to be shy and exhibiting behaviors that are not what you would expect from a domestic cat – loving water for instance – and relieving themselves in it! This is a trait of the leopard cat, which does this in order to wash his scent downstream and away. F2 Bengals are a cross between an f1 and a domestic cat; f3 Bengals between an f2 and a domestic cat and so on. By the time you get to f4, the cat is considered to be a domestic cat. F4 Bengals are still distinctive, looking like especially beautiful tabby cats with spots instead of stripes. They have unique personalities as well: They are personable, active and talkative. Many people describe them as dog-like, enjoying games of fetch and tending to have an affinity for water.


The Bengals that roam free at Avalo Cat Sanctuary are at least f4; cats from earlier generations are mostly housed in special wood and woven wire enclosures that include shelters for sleeping, logs for climbing and ample water. There are about 30 cats that live in these enclosures, including some that live alone and some that share space with other cats of similar characteristics. Michelle, who keeps her own personal f1 Bengal in the house, spends several hours each day interacting with these cats, providing them with attention and enrichment.

“The f1s, 2s and 3s are definitely exotic,” says Michelle. “They can be very aloof and skittish, so they can’t be kept loose.” There is another reason. “Some of the bigger hybrids might see the domestic cats as prey.”

In addition to early generation Bengals, the cat enclosures house jungle cat hybrids, savannah cats (a hybrid of the wild African serval cat), a chausie cat (a cross between a jungle cat and an Abyssinian) and a safari cat (a cross between a wild South American cat called a Geoffreys cat and a domestic cat.) There is a pair of large enclosures in the back that provide homes for two genuine wild cats. One of these, Maija, is a serval cat. The other, Aki, is a very rare caraval cat, which is a cross between a serval and a caracal cat. The caracal is a wild native of Africa and Southeast Asia that looks like a small cougar with distinctive, tufted ears. Aki, who is about 50 pounds, is tawny and long legged. “He can jump about 16 feet straight up,” says Michelle. These cats are considered lesser cats: although they are larger than domestic cats, they are not as large as greater cats (lions and tigers.) The main difference between the greater and the lesser cats is that the greater cats roar, while the lesser cats do not.

Aki and Maija came to Avalo a few years ago from the same owners in Florida, a couple who could not keep them any longer because of illness. The cats’ enclosures include a small pen with doors on each side, one leading to the outside and one leading into the cat habitat. This is a lockout, a safety feature that can be found in most zoos.

“When I feed them at night, I go in through the outside door, and put raw chicken down, go out and close the door. Then I open the door to the cats from the outside, because they can get very aggressive at feeding time.”

Although both these cats are genetically wild, they were bottle fed and hand-raised by their first owners, so they are accepting of people. Maija, the serval cat, is shy with anyone she doesn’t know, but friendly to Michelle. “I can go in and play with her and pet her,” says Michelle. “When she sees me coming she chirps to me and purrs. She loves water and she loves to play. Like any cat, she loves boxes. About a week ago I got a new shop vac and I gave her the box, and she loved playing in it, just like a house cat.”

Aki, the caraval cat, on the other hand, has not yet adjusted to Michelle. He is aloof and watchful, although he condescends to come out of his hiding place to play with a rope. “Basically all I can do is a finger sniff through the bars right now,” she says. “He was really bonded to his owners. When I was in Florida and I met him with the owners, he was rubbing all over me.”

Michelle’s horse business is doing well. As one of a small minority of trainers who combines eventing and natural horsemanship, she gives clinics and lessons all over the country. Last year she even gave a clinic in Austria. But she is finding that cat business is occupying more of her time these days, and she is considering downsizing the horse operation to spend more time with the cats. Her husband, Steve, shares in the cat care and builds the enclosures. He also grows salt water coral, and recently opened a specialty store for coral in Columbia. Both Donlicks are devoted to conservation and belong to the Feline Conservation Federation, an organization “dedicated to responsible captive management of wild feline genetics.” The sanctuary relies on donations to feed and care for the cats, as well as to build and maintain their shelters and enclosures.

Michelle, who was formerly a vet tech, explains that the name “Avalo” is derived from “Avalokitesvara” which is the manifestation of infinite compassion in Buddhist tradition. Michelle has always been a cat person, although she says she did not always have lots of cats. When she worked in veterinary offices, she gained a reputation as someone who could handle even difficult cats. The sanctuary grew out of her realization that there were many cats that needed her compassion and her help.

“I realized that these hybrid cats were all over the place, just as much as domestic house cats,” Michelle says. “And they also need a place to go.”


The residents of Avalo might come from owners who can’t keep them any longer because of lifestyle changes or other issues. Some come from shelters. They may end up in the sanctuary because they don’t fit into their owner’s lifestyle: inappropriate urination is a big problem, especially for early generation hybrids that might be better off living in an outdoor enclosure rather than a house. Some of them come because the family member who cared for them died and no one else in the family could handle them. The hybrids are often cats that need a caretaker with the specialized knowledge, expertise and facilities to house them safely and comfortably.

Michelle gives the cats a home, medical care, food, shelter and many hours of her time. They give her something valuable in return.

“I love all cats, but I especially love the early generation cats because they are so exotic and aloof,” she says. “I love their wildness. They’re gorgeous to look at; so powerful and so stoic. I love to watch them, and I love the fact that they are particular. If a cat likes you, it’s a special thing, with the hybrids especially. They don’t bond to you right away. When they finally come around to you, it’s a feeling of connection that goes very deep. It’s special.”

Mollie Zobel Eventing: There Are Deer Here

Mollie Zobel is a familiar presence at eventing competitions around Aiken; a young professional who teaches trains and competes. On her website, directions to her farm in Springfield include a caution to drive slowly and carefully as you enter the property. Not only do Mollie and her family have small dogs and a pygmy goat: “Our deer often graze in the yard and paddock by the driveway and we do not want them unnecessarily spooked.”


Mollie and her husband David Moss live in a home at the back of an almost 400-acre property that Mollie’s parents bought a dozen years ago. Her parents’ house is in the front. There are paddocks and pastures with well maintained black board fencing, a barn, and a special pen the Zobels built for their deer, Rocky. The pen is tidy and secure, and the Zobels say that Rocky sleeps there at night. But during the day, he prefers to bed down in the house. According to Mollie’s father, Randy Zobel, he usually lies in the middle of the hallway.

“We put a blanket down and we just have to walk around him.”

In addition to Rocky, the Zobels also feed a semi wild doe named Vi and her son Maverick, who was born this year. Unlike Rocky, Vi and her son don’t come into the house. They roam the woods and fields on the farm and in the surrounding neighborhood, showing up at dusk when Ruby, Mollie’s mother, puts out food for them. Then all three deer graze and interact on the lawn.

In South Carolina, as in most states, it is illegal for private citizens to keep a captive deer. The Zobels can have Rocky because they are licensed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as white-tailed deer rehabilitators. As such, they are allowed to keep and care for deer, and they are often called upon for help in the late spring, when deer begin to have their fawns.

“On May 15 every year, we start getting the calls,” says Mollie. “Most people know now that when you find a fawn bedded down by himself you should leave it alone,” she continues, explaining that it is normal for a doe to hide her fawn during the day. People sometimes come upon these fawns and think that they are abandoned when they are not, which leads to many people accidentally kidnapping baby deer. But there are times when there is a problem, and the fawn does need some kind of help.

“They call us, and usually they just need our advice. If there is no other solution, we will take the fawn,” says Mollie.

The Zobels became deer rehabilitators by accident in 2011, after their neighbors came upon a 2-day-old fawn sprawled out on one of the dirt roads nearby. The fawn, now Rocky, showed signs of having been in an accident.

“Our best guess is that the mom crossed the road, and maybe a car bumped him. He had a scrape on his nose and he was dazed. The neighbors knew we were animal freaks and so they brought him to us,” says Mollie.

The Zobels began nursing the fawn, feeding him goat’s milk every two hours around the clock. They realized two things very quickly: one was that Rocky was going to stay with them; the other was that this needed to be a legal arrangement. Randy entered into discussions with the state’s DNR and soon obtained the necessary license to keep and rehabilitate deer. It was a good thing too, because Rocky didn’t have many options.

“We raised him so domesticated, there really wasn’t a way to put him back out to fend for himself,” says Mollie. “He slept in the bedroom for months and he likes to be in the house. He doesn’t like the bugs in the summer, and he hates to get wet when it rains. But we also knew that he was a buck, and that you cannot have a buck. When the testosterone kicks in, they get very dangerous, even if they were hand raised. We were lucky enough to find Dr. Harvey Atherton, who is one of the few vets around who has experience with deer. When he turned 6 months old we gelded him.” In 2013, the Zobels ended up with two more fawns: Belle, a tiny fawn whom they found on a trail screaming for her mother, and Vi, who came to them very sick and dehydrated as a DNR referral. The does grew up on the farm, but did not spend much time in the house the way Rocky did. Sadly, Belle died over the summer of a common deer disease that is spread by gnats. Vi, on the other hand, jumped out of the yard last February and went missing for four days.

“Then she jumped back in and was waiting for her dinner as though nothing had happened,” says Randy. But something had happened: in July she surprised everyone by presenting the family with a fawn, Maverick who was born on the property.

Today, Rocky wears a blaze orange collar to let hunters know that he is a tame deer. He also has a radio tracking collar, like those worn by hunting dogs so that if he does get out, the Zobels can find him. Usually he stays in the yard, but occasionally he might jump the fence and go exploring. Once, he got quite far away, too far for the radio collar to work. Randy and Ruby went looking for him in their pickup truck and finally found his tracker collar signal in some woods near a dirt road. “We stopped the truck just as he was coming out of the woods. At the same time, a guy in a pickup truck made the turn to come down that road,” says Randy.

“We could see that Rocky was lost and he had a panicky look about him. So Ruby hollered at him, and he came running out of the woods and jumped into the back seat of the truck. Then we closed the door and took off. I can just imagine what the guy in the truck was thinking and what story he told around the camp fire.”

“Yes,” says Ruby with a laugh. “This is how we hunt deer around here: we just call them and they come running!”

Living with a deer has been an enlightening experience for the Zobels. Rocky is affectionate, friendly and doglike in the way he has adapted to the family. He has adjusted his schedule to sleep during the night, unlike a wild deer that is mostly nocturnal. He is polite in the house, and even housebroken, although he does have an affinity for paper and will chew up any papers or magazines he can find. He is especially affectionate with Ruby, who is sometimes the only one who is able to catch him if he doesn’t want to be caught – “Ruby is our ace in the hole,” says Randy. “When Mollie or I try to get him, he knows we mean business.”

Mollie sees Rocky as just another member of the happy menagerie at the farm. “He’s pretty much taken my place as the first child,” she says, smiling. “But having him isn’t that big of a jump for me. It’s really neat for me to be able to watch his behavior and learn about him. I like to see how all the animals interact. I’m not advocating keeping deer as pets, because they are wild, but it is interesting to see how well they all get along and how happy they are together. They all play together –dogs, deer, goats. We have a very diverse family.”

As far as integrating him with the horses goes, they don’t see much of one another. “But my students know that if they come here, and there is a problem with the deer – if Rocky gets out and is lost – there might be a delay in their lesson, and they might have to go out on foot and help us find him.”

The Zobels are also keenly aware of how dangerous it is to be a deer in the wild, especially in an area where there are so many hunters. Vi, like Rocky, wears a blaze orange collar so that hunters know she is tame. The Zobels are trying to think how they will mark Maverick during deer season so that he won’t be a target either—he is too wild to get a collar 82 The Aiken Horse February-March 2015 on, plus he is still growing. Perhaps surprisingly, all the Zobels neighbors know about their deer, and are quite solicitous of them, even though most are avid hunters.

“I was a deer hunter myself for a number of years,” says Randy. “I did it very primitively – I made my own bows, and I wasn’t much of a threat to the deer. But I was always out there. When Rocky came into our lives, it was a whole new world for us. Before, it was like you would go seek the outdoors, and now, all of a sudden, you have the outdoors in with you. Watching him, understanding his behavior and seeing what an unbelievably gentle soul he is has been amazing to me. I never knew deer could be this way. I wouldn’t have believed how affectionate they are and how smart they are. As a hunter, you see them from 50 yards away – you get a glimpse of them, and you just don’t know. Anyone who has had a pet deer could never ever hunt them again—it would be like hunting one of your dogs. Now we’ve turned the whole farm into a preserve and there is no hunting here.”

Paradise Farm: Lellie Has a Little Lamb

It is not especially unusual for horse people to have sheep. After all, sheep are common farm animals, and they often go well with horses. What is unusual, however, is to have sheep that come into your house and are your personal pets. It may be unusual, but, if you ask Lellie Ward, owner of Paradise Farm and an event rider who has competed at the Olympic level, she will tell you that it is very gratifying. Lellie, who has an active schedule of teaching, training and competing, not to mention running horse trials, shows and events, has become almost as well known lately for her pet sheep Cloudy as she is for her other accomplishments and activities. When you consider the length, depth and breadth of her resumé, that is certainly saying a lot.

“He’s had interviews and pictures in about five national publications,” says Lellie. “He has his own Facebook page with hundreds of fans and his own personal veterinarian, Dr. Harvey Atherton.”

Cloudy is a Dorset sheep, who is just a year old now and probably weighs over 200 pounds. When Lellie got him in early 2014, he was a fluffy three week old lamb. He had been an orphan, and the farm where he was bred and born had too many bottle babies, and were planning to put him down. Lellie met him at a horse expo in Columbia. He was sweet and affectionate, and you could hold him in your arms like a baby. Lellie fell in love immediately, presented her credit card to the owner, and bought him for $100.

Back at Paradise Farm, Cloudy took to following Lellie around like a dog. He came when she called him, slept in a dog bed, and enjoyed being held on her lap. As he grew bigger, he eventually outgrew living in the house, and now is relegated to Lellie’s back porch. There, he has ample straw and a wooden shelter.

“It’s actually my grandmother’s day bed,” says Lellie. “It’s a great antique. We were going to build him something, but I had this day bed, and we decided to turn it over, and it works perfectly.”

Although it is probably better for Cloudy to live outside, he does seem nostalgic for how things were in the past. When Lellie is in the house, he spends much of his time looking at her through the window.

This winter, Lellie went back to the same farm that bred Cloudy and picked up Stormy, another lamb, this one a ewe. Little Stormy is now the “house sheep.” She gets to sleep on Lellie’s bed, sometimes even in her arms.

“The plan is for me to get two more,” Lellie says. “I’m going to train them to drive and go in the carriage parade at the steeplechase with a four-in-hand. I’m totally serious.” Cloudy has already started his driving training: he long lines and pulls around noise- makers, such as empty soda cans to get him ready for a cart.

At the moment, however, the sheep are still maturing. Cloudy will be shorn for the first time in March, and Stormy has a lot of growing to do before she can be part of a hitch. Their main job now is to play with the dogs, run about the farm, and spread joy.

“Having these sheep is a totally unique thing for me in that it has no restrictions,” says Lellie. “It’s a total stress reliever. It’s just love, happiness and nothing else. I have always been very regimented in my horse thing, so this is very different, and there is no explaining it. They put their breath on you, and you love them, and that is all that matters.

“The sheep are just a different animal, and so affectionate,” she continues. “I love to be with them. They are peaceful, happy and friendly. I love to watch them buck and play. They just take the stress away. I don’t know how to explain it other than to say that they bring me pure joy.”




This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.