A Pet Project: Educating with Animals

Krissie Newman ’00 isn’t the one on the racetrack—she leaves that to her NASCAR driver husband, Ryan. But her own venture, an animal welfare organization called Rescue Ranch, has her racing at 100 miles an hour.

“It’s nonstop, but I don’t mind rolling up my sleeves and doing what needs to be done,” she said.

The ranch is a family effort as Ryan, Krissie, Brooklyn (left), and Ashlyn all help out.

The ranch is a family effort as Ryan, Krissie, Brooklyn (left), and Ashlyn all help out.

As a board member for her local Humane Society, Newman was well aware that the number of homeless and neglected animals was a problem. The severity of the issue hit home when a teen approached Newman during a race in Virginia in 2004 and handed her an envelope. Initially assuming it was fan mail for her husband, Newman later opened it to find a letter and photos inside. The girl’s family dog had puppies and they couldn’t afford to care for all fifteen dogs. They weren’t the only ones who needed help.

“I didn’t realize how broad the scope was,” she said. “She opened my eyes to that. It wasn’t just happening in North Carolina, but in Virginia and all over.”

Newman earned a degree in criminal justice from Ship and had been working for a district court judge in North Carolina at the time she met Ryan. But she said she’d always been passionate about animals, and knew this was her calling. The key was to create a different kind of animal rescue that started with early education. “This was what I had to do. I was really inspired.”

The idea slowly started taking shape in 2010. Newman was ambitious, but admitted, “It took a while to do it right. …This was a very challenging and tough experience.”

For the next three years, she identified funding, located property, established goals, developed educational plans, and welcomed a variety of animals in need of care. In 2013, the eighty-seven-acre nonprofit animal welfare organization opened its doors in Statesville, North Carolina. With a vision to become the premier animal education center of its kind, its mission states, “Rescue Ranch promotes, through its education, respect for all animals, as well as agricultural, environmental, and wildlife conservation.” Today, more than eighty animals—from goats to snakes to hedgehogs to birds and everything in between—call the ranch home.

But the true power of the ranch lies in its educational programming. “We’re teaching kids to appreciate life in general and appreciate the outdoors.”

The ranch organizes programs for children from preschool through age eight, with additional opportunities for scouts, camps, homeschool clubs, and more. Each carefully crafted lesson is designed to meet school requirements, Newman said. “This is not a petting zoo. Kids don’t just run loose.”

“We’re teaching kids to appreciate life in general and appreciate the outdoors.”
— Krissie Newman '00
At Rescue Ranch, Krissie Newman ’00 loves to see students’ reactions in the snake room

At Rescue Ranch, Krissie Newman ’00 loves to see students’ reactions in the snake room

Some students arrive excited, and others are anxious. “Some kids are scared of the animals. I love the snake room, because I like to see why they’re scared. Sometimes, it’s just from their parents’ reactions, but by the end of a thirty-minute session, a lot of them turn from fear to curiosity to excitement.”

Children learn what pet overpopulation is and ways to end it. Staff members explain how the ranch acquires animals—for example, through owner surrender or animal rescue—and how they care for them once on the property.

Having two young children of her own, Newman understands that some lessons don’t hit home with preschoolers. “Maybe they learn not to tie the dog up outside anymore,” she said. “My goal for every child who comes in is to take a piece of the ranch and apply it to their life—to have more compassion.”

Rescue Ranch has plenty on the horizon, including plans for a self-guided agricultural center, memorial garden, hiking and walking trails, a 24/7 emergency vet clinic, and a therapeutic riding center. Newman is particularly excited about the creation of an all-inclusive playground for children with special needs.

From its initial concept, Newman said Rescue Ranch has been full of life lessons. “I’ve been learning lessons about being a boss, dealing with personnel, learning how the community would respond to what I originally thought and how to truly address community needs. … I’ve learned there are a lot more steps to this process,” she said. “I learn every day, and I learn from these kids.”