While visiting Belmont earlier this month, I took a morning to wander to the far reaches of the track's backstretch, hunting for barnyard companion animals. I had just finished talking to Dr. Nicole Finch about Mikey, the striking black barn cat in Linda Rice's shedrow, and was about to leave when she asked, “Have you seen the petting zoo at Bruce Brown's barn?”
Brown is situated at the farthest end of the backstretch, around the back edge of the training oval. From the front, it looks like the other Belmont barns, but when you step out the back door to the bath mats, it's easy to forget you're at a racetrack.
The spacious backyard of Brown's barn is shaded by trees and divided into pens, coops, and nesting boxes. Goats bounce on piles of hay, chickens wander by, and several dozen ducks and ducklings are tucked into sheltered areas out of the sun. A miniature horse is bucking in her pen, and a pig lazily observes the Thoroughbreds' baths from the shade.
Brown is, by all accounts, an animal lover. When a pet is abandoned on the backstretch, he gives it a home until it finds a new place to live. Some of them, like Boe Boe, the pig watching the morning baths, have special needs. Boe Boe's back legs are paralyzed, so he can't move fast or far. Others were left homeless when their trainers went out of business.
“He loves the animals, and his kids love the animals,” said Brown assistant Maria Marrone. “He has 4-year-old twins and a 7-year-old boy. His son rides everything. He rides the mini, he rides the goats, and then when I say 'No more riding,' he rides my dog.”
Marrone, a lifelong racetracker, is one of the main caretakers of the petting zoo. She knows what each creature needs, and who's best buddies with who. She even knows the family tree of Poncho, the goat Finch adopted to be a companion for her elderly horse.
The mix of animals has changed through the years. According to a profile on America's Best Racing, the petting zoo once had as many as 50 chickens, but ducks are the big thing now. One duck turned out to have 14 ducklings, which everyone agreed seems like some sort of record, and it has brought the duck number to 32.
“Nobody wants ducks because they're just sort of messy and noisy. We don't mind them here. Do we need 32? No,” Marrone laughed. “I have 32 ducks, we have 34 horses, it's almost a duck for every horse.
“Nobody here complains. Animals, any animal, gets along with the horses.”
Marrone tries to find new homes for the animals. Chickens are popular because of their ability to provide fresh eggs, and goats make for good companions to horses. She had a much larger number of rabbits at one point but is down to just a handful now.
Now and then, Marrone adds new species to the zoo. Just a few days before my visit, two turtles appeared in the pool she had left out for ducks. She suspects, based on their appearance, they had some help finding her.
Belmont Park officials are aware of the Brown petting zoo and even called Marrone some time ago when they found a guinea pig abandoned in a box in one of the track's parking lots.
“You know how many people drive by and don't know this is here?” said Marrone. “Obviously it wasn't to this extent at the time I asked [permission to keep them here], but they don't bother anybody. We keep it neat, we keep it clean, we keep it quiet. We try not to have any renegade loose ones.”
Possibly the most amazing thing about the petting zoo: Marrone said she's never been given an animal that didn't find its place in the social dynamics of the others. Roosters can get a little territorial, so she tries to limit the number of them on the property, but otherwise, Thoroughbreds, pigs, cats, chickens, rabbits – everyone is in the picture of harmony. Chickens sit on Boe Boe's back because he's warm, and Roxy the mini-horse cuddles with the barn's other pig back in her stall. Marrone thinks the activity is soothing to Thoroughbreds and sets them up well for a life away from the track, where they might meet any one of these species in a barn or on a trail ride.
“Everybody says, 'How do they stay [in the yard]?'” said Marrone. “They get fed, they get water. They stay. Why would you leave? Where would you go?”
For Marrone, that contentment makes her day more pleasant, too.
“I always help the animals. I always have something going on,” she said. “I've been here 37 years and it doesn't feel like I've ever worked a day.”
Do you know a Barn Buddy we should profile? Email [email protected] All species welcome.
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