Can rescue animals change the way we grieve?


Psychologist and grief counselor Joanne Cacciatore is walking across the sprawling land of her Selah House Respite Center and Care Farm, on the outskirts of Sedona, Ariz., toward the high metal fence of the horse pen.

There’s a fall heat wave, and her deeply tanned arms — tattooed with an artful array of black-ink images that range from St. Francis of Assisi communing with birds to the Psalms quote “God is nearest the brokenhearted” — glow in the blazing sun.

Four mellow horses stand grazing in various shady corners, but we’re headed for one in particular: Chemakoh, who is a beautiful reddish-brown with patches of white.

“He’s my soulmate,” says Cacciatore, and calls out his name as we get closer. He’s waiting for her at the gate, and she leans right into his broad face, cooing, “How are you? How’s my baby?” He shudders and flicks his tail and looks back at her intently through fist-size eyes.
Joanne Cacciatore enters the property of the Selah care farm, just outside of Sedona, Ariz.

The horse is healthy and beautiful — a far cry from when Cacciatore just happened to come upon him two years ago, hiking with friends on a trail along the Grand Canyon’s south rim. Then, he was starving and abused and bleeding, packing 150 pounds of gear for a hiking group, and he had fallen down out of exhaustion. When his handler began to yell at him and hit him, the deeply empathetic Cacciatore stopped in her tracks and sat down in the dusty dirt with him, crying.

That split-second decision brought an abrupt end to her backpacking journey deep into the remote Havasu Canyon, a trip she’d been planning for decades. But suddenly she had a new goal — to rescue the horse — and three determined days and nearly 100 calls and emails later, Cacciatore made it happen.

“I had to fight for him,” she says now, feeding him carrots out of her open palm. “I made a lot of noise. I took a lot of pictures and videos of the abuse. And when I was not allowed to take him on sight I said to him when I was leaving, ‘You’ve got to remember me, because I’m going to come back for you.’ I promised I was going to get him out.”

Volunteers soon delivered him to Cacciatore’s house in Sedona. “There were about eight people there that day, but he got off the trailer and whinnied and walked right over to me,” she recalls. “It’s like he was saying, ‘Hey, you came back for me.’”

She named him Chemakoh, a Pima (Native American) term that refers to two souls that come together in destiny, and though she’d had zero experience with horses before his arrival, she began to love and nourish him back to health. And so did her clients, bereaved parents who would come to see Cacciatore for intense private sessions, and soon find themselves drawn to the rescued horse in her backyard.

“They would go out to his paddock, and they would stand at his fence and just cry. Bring him carrots and just cry. And I could see this connection,” Cacciatore’s says. “People said, ‘Look what he looks like now. Look at what love can do, look what compassion can do — and they started seeing themselves in this horse. And I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s something really important happening here.’”

Seeing those connections, fostered between grieving humans and the badly abused horse, was ultimately what led Cacciatore to the idea of opening Selah, on land embraced by canyons and pine thickets and the iconic red rock mountains. Just five months in and not yet fully up and running, the care farm is already home to a fast-growing menagerie of rescued horses, sheep, dogs, and (so far just one) pig. And it is a unicorn of a place, where people can come and find solace after suffering the death of a loved one, often through bonding with an animal, such as Chemakoh, who truly seems to understand.

Because while the idea of care farming in general is rare enough outside of Europe and Australia —where the “green” approach to therapy utilizes the natural healing power of land and animals to help people deal with issues from spectrum disorders to PTSD and addictions — Selah is rarer still. That’s due to it being the first care farm ever to focus on treating the traumatically bereaved.

“This farm is a place where people can go in their trauma and grief and get some space, and just be with their authentic emotions,” Cacciatore says, adding that the name comes from the Hebrew selah, meaning an interlude during which to pause and reflect. “There aren’t very many places like that in the world, where you can have that space and freedom to just be.”

Selah is still in its infancy, actively fundraising so that the actual brick-and-mortar therapy residence center, for weeklong stays, can be built. But it’s already bringing deep comfort to pretty much anyone who spends any time here, either for daytime visits or to volunteer on the land — people like Roger and Jennifer Huberty, whose daughter Raine was stillborn in 2011; Beth DuPree, a breast cancer surgeon whose brother was killed by a drunk driver when she was in high school; Diane Keller, whose 18-year-old daughter was murdered at college in 2010; Rachel Tso, whose 3-year-old son Zaadii was run down in 2015 by a distracted driver in a Best Buy parking lot; and even this writer, grateful to find a place at which to plumb the depths of grief, no matter how old or frozen over, decades after surviving the drunk driving accident that killed her brother and best friend.

Selah’s comforts are simple but immense, gained by caring acts like brushing a pig, feeding a baby sheep its bottle, putting one’s hands into the warm earth to plant flowers, or just sitting and crying under an almond tree.

“Animals just have this innate ability to connect with us humans in a completely nonjudgmental way,” says Joel Bacon of Connecticut. He and his wife, JoAnn, lost their 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte, in the Sandy Hook school shooting five years ago this week, and have made many trips to Sedona for both counseling sessions and retreats with Cacciatore. When their son Guy, now 15, returned to classes after his sister’s murder, it was the presence of therapy dogs brought in by the school that made it bearable; the family has since created a program called Charlotte’s Litter, which advocates for the use of therapy and comfort dogs. “They help us to feel,” Joel says of animals, “which is so important, especially when it comes to grief.”

It’s this cycle of compassion  — from human to animal and earth and back again — that Cacciatore hopes will be the heartbeat here.

“I believe that the people who have suffered are the peacemakers in this world,” she says. “If we can stay with our pain and stay with our grief, we can know a compassion that is boundless, and we can enact that in the world. It doesn’t make it OK that that person we loved most in the world died, and it shouldn’t. And yet we still can bring that love to the world in an amazing way.”

Or as Tso, who owns horses, says, “I sometimes find myself more able to relate to animals than people. We’re all these sentient, living beings, and to be able to look into the eyes of an animal who has been through trauma and is learning how to live day by day, just like me? It’s powerful.”