BROOKSVILLE — It was time to eat, and Frankie, a tiny pony with an inhospitable personality, was using his hooves to make room for himself at the food bowl.
Surrounding Frankie were towering, 1,500-pound camels, a few billy goats and several alpacas, which resemble small llamas.
The hungry camels, including an alpha male named Big Cash, could have stomped Frankie into the turf, but showed great restraint.
“Frankie, you better behave yourself, or you can’t stay with the group,” called Felicia Bass, 50, who handles the animals at Spring Lake Equestrian Center, a 27-acre ranch off Spring Lake Highway.
The camels are resting at the center between stints with the Picadilly Circus in Sarasota. In a fenced pasture away from the camels, 55 horses grazed peacefully. Many of them had been rescued from careers on the race track.
“More than 30 of the horses are true rescue cases from the sheriff’s office, or just people who couldn’t care for them anymore,” Bass said. “Some of them are off-the-track thoroughbreds that are forever lame. They’re long-term care cases.”
The land is not just a vacation spot for working animals or a retirement home for race horses. The center has also been the home of the Human Animal Life Foundation’s Miracle Ranch for Children and Animals.
Through the Miracle Ranch, Bass has conducted human-animal interaction therapy, often working with at-risk youth, some of whom have suffered severe abuse and had significant behavioral, mental and legal issues.
At the ranch, children did laborious jobs, such as cleaning stalls, but they also learned to interact with the animals.
“It does something. It changes you,” Bass said of the therapy. “The American Psychological Association has even recognized the benefits of children working with animals.”
Some children, she said, simply need to understand how to share and respect others’ space.
Just like Frankie, the irritable pony.
“If the animals can learn to share, coexist and live in such close proximity to one another, then why can’t we?” Bass said. “We’re just going back to what God intended: Protect the environment we live in and all of God’s creatures.”
That Bass is able to have occasionally aggressive camels living side-by-side with alpacas, goats and Frankie is “a big deal,” said Peter Schroeder, who helps at the ranch.
“There’s a trust that occurs,” he said.
Over the years, Bass, 50, has also been a foster parent to more than 30 children.
This year, however, she did not renew her state license to operate a group home because the land the center has leased since 2008 is being sold.
In short, the Spring Lake Equestrian Center, which has survived mostly on donations, needs money.
“We’re creative and artistic, and we’ve been using our other ventures to help fund the program,” Ball said, “but I need philanthropic people.”
Sandra Blanton, the center’s clinical director, said the ranch has served the community well, as many of the children Bass took in were among “the worst of the worst” cases in the juvenile justice system.
A forensic psychotherapist and licensed mental health counselor, Blanton said she has seen Bass’ work change children for the better.
“One of the youngest kids was 10 and had already been through 40 foster homes,” Blanton said. “She has a way of working with these kids that builds trust. They don’t trust anybody, because they’ve never bonded with anybody.
“They’re traumatized, but once they find out she has a certain discipline — and it’s faith-based — they find a rhythm, and realize there’s someone here who cares enough to establish a boundary.”
Bass said she is simply inspired to help disadvantaged children develop an appreciation and respect for animals that she has always known.
Her mother, Antoinette Cristiani, was a member of a famous circus family that specialized in acrobatic equestrian stunts.
The Cristiani Troupe was wildly popular in Europe before being hired by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1930s. The family later started The Cristiani Brothers Circus.
Her father, James Bass, was a country music promoter, who worked with the likes of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams.
When Bass was a girl, she traveled with her parents, who blended their careers and traveled the country. Bass even learned to performed some of the equestrian stunts made famous by her uncles.
“I grew up with elephants, camels, lions, tigers, bears and monkeys in my back yard,” she said. “They were always there.
“My passion is just working with animals and teaching children what I grew up with.”
How to help
For information about Spring Lake Equestrian Center, visit www.springlakeequestriancenter.com or call (352) 424-9312.
If you are interested in donating money, a fundraising account has been established at www.Crowdrise.com/MiracleRanch