GRAY -- When he provides a tour of his ranch, Lewis Smith likes to tell the history behind every animal there.
At the Idyll Acres Ranch on Ga. 18 West in Jones County, Smith and his team of volunteers look after 31 neglected or abused horses and several other animals, such as goats, cats and chickens. Each animal has a history -- often a painful one.
Take the case of Candy, a donkey that got her name at the farm.
Candy, Smith said, was pushed off of a trailer and was left to die on a river bridge about 10 miles away from the ranch. Severely injured, she needed urgent care.
The Jones County Sheriff’s Office called on Smith to help the beleaguered animal.
Donnie Rogers, Smith’s son-in-law and a regular volunteer at the ranch, was a part of the team that picked Candy up.
“She was terrible. I mean, she was pitiful. You could see every bone, every vein in her. She was starved, bad. Didn’t know whether she’d make it when we brought her here,” Rogers said. “She’s been here, and she seems to be doing pretty good now. She’s put on a lot of weight.”
Smith also recalls the day he met Candy.
“She was really skinny, bones all showed and afraid of people,” Smith said recently while in his office, wearing a straw cowboy hat and a blue shirt emblazoned with the ranch logo and a distinct “CEO” label on it. “It took us about two hours to put her on the trailer and bring her up here.”
Candy has fully recuperated and she has a bunch of friends, too -- ranch volunteers and children who visit the ranch regularly.
One such volunteer is Victoria Horton, who has been helping Smith at the ranch for five years. Working at the farm “teaches you to take care of something other than yourself,” the 20-year-old Macon State College student said. Horton said she has felt the animals’ “spirit come back to them.”
Spread across 42 acres, the ranch currently is home to about 20 regular-size horses, eight miniature horses, four donkeys, five goats, about 10 cats and two chickens. The ranch has rescued animals from as far away as Kathleen, although Smith has received requests for help from as far away as Pennsylvania. He said the ranch received national attention after being featured on the “The Early Show” on CBS in 2006.
Smith, in his early 80s, is a retired minister. About a decade ago, he came to live with his now 99-year-old mother after she had a seizure and needed assistance to go about her daily life. Granting his mother’s wishes, Smith founded the ranch for horses seven years ago, after working for four years to build it.
Smith began operating his ranch by keeping boarded horses, meaning horses for which the owners paid for shelter and food.
But later, Smith switched to helping rescue horses only, as he realized the local area had a great number of those abandoned and abused animals needing love and care.
Giving up the work with boarded horses invited an obvious challenge.
“We lost all our income,” Smith said.
So the ranch was all by itself in feeding and taking care of the new animals. But the change in focus also enabled Idyll Acres to get a 501(c)(3) charity status, which entitled it to get tax-deductible donations.
But Smith and his volunteers’ rescue mission, which has run smoothly for most of the past seven years, is now in jeopardy. Not only has the rescue ranch stopped taking in horses -- it already houses 10 more than its capacity -- it is also having difficulty feeding and taking care of the ones already there.
To feed a single horse at the farm costs about $1,200 a year, Smith said. And the cost does not even include ranch operation and maintenance costs.
But donations, the ranch’s main source of revenue, have continued to decline following the recession.
Smith said income last year was a little more than $61,500. Smith and his wife, Diana, and an anonymous donor contributed about $15,000 and $40,000, respectively. The income, Smith said, wasn’t enough to cover expenses.
“The winter time is really rough on us because we have to buy the hay to feed them all winter,” Smith said. “In the summer time, most of the horses are able to live on the grass and the pasture because we have high-protein grass.”
Midsummer is the time when the ranch begins to receive donations for hay, Smith said. However, the only donation for hay so far this year has been $100, from a man who visited the place July 4. By this time three years ago, the ranch would already have had $1,000 in donations, Smith added.
Unable to find sources to fully cover the expenses, “we have had to foot the bill out of our savings and our Social Security and retirement,” Smith said. “Since the recession, it’s been rough, really rough, with getting donations, grants and so forth.”
This year alone they need at least $6,000 more to manage the costs, Smith said.
In addition to financial assistance, Smith and his team are also looking for volunteers to help the ranch to make the most of resources available on the Internet.
So Smith and his team are now trying to reach out to whomever they can -- both locally and nationally -- for any kind of help. Smith hopes to find horse lovers who would be willing to help the ranch. “And that’s our main mission right now,” he said.
While the ranch does not charge any money to clubs or schools for tours, it does seek to generate some revenue by providing space for private birthday and marriage parties. People can have the whole ranch for themselves for two hours for $150, which includes half-mile trips around the farm and hay or horse rides for children. “They have a good bargain at that $75 an hour,” Smith said. Last year, the ranch raised about $1,000 from such parties.
But despite the challenges ahead, Smith has not given up.
“When God closes one door, he opens another for us -- I am waiting for another door to open.”
To contact writer Manu Bhandari, call 744-4331.