An update from Sabrina, a sophomore majoring in business who participated in one of the two Alternative Breaks trips to Taos:

When most people think of spring break, they imagine taking a relaxing trip home to see family and friends or a destination vacation for sightseeing/countless hours spent on the beach. While these are certainly popular choices for many, the week full of experiences that I shared with 8 other students and a faculty advisor was far greater than any of the aforementioned endeavors.

We began our trip in the wee hours of the morning, meeting outside of Hughes-Trigg to load the (questionably) sturdy white van and depart for the ~11 hour drive to the SMU-in-Taos campus. After a long day of travel, and a little confusion as to where we needed to go when we first arrived, we all settled in for the night to get some rest before our first day of service.

IMG_1798On Monday morning we arrived at Stray Hearts Animal Shelter ready to put in some work; little did we know that the various tasks we would be assigned to do began with yard work. Given some instruction and a brief introduction to the shelter, we split up into two groups and began removing weeds from the areas surrounding the outdoor dog kennels. The Dollar General became our friend on this trip, and our first stop included the purchase of some work gloves in light of the many finger pricks we received from the weeds.

I was one of the lucky few to be taken away from the yard work to go inside with another trip participant and fold laundry; I say we were lucky not because of the switch in task, but because of what we got to see because of the switch. Adjacent to the cozy laundry room was the puppy area, and we had a perfect view of several sets of innocent faces. Our hearts melted as we saw them squirm around the kennel and curl up together when they settled down, but in the background of this scene we heard the barking of numerous other dogs, which caused our hearts to break a little. I know I find it hard to think about how sad it is that so many dogs are abandoned or seized from horrible conditions because they must be so scared.

We returned to Stray Hearts on Tuesday morning and were met with more yard work and some kennel cleaning. After a little dialogue between site leaders and shelter personnel, we arranged to have some dog time in three kennel rooms. It felt great to give the dogs a little personal attention, but leaving each cage was hard, especially when we saw the dogs so anxious to break free from confinement.

On Thursday morning we spent our last hours at this service site. We cleaned more kennels, moved gravel in the parking lot to prepare a level surface for the cat quarantine structure, and observed two dog behavior evaluations. This experience was interesting because we got to see how shelters around the nation are being instructed by the ASPCA to evaluate the various behaviors an animal can exhibit in given situations. This is particularly important when animals are being transferred to other shelters and when they are being considered for adoption.


Although our expectations for the general types of work we would be doing were a little misaligned with what we actually did, each member of the group approached every task with a solid attitude. During our time working we knew that the work we were doing was helping the animals, and we talked about this during our reflections at the end of the day.

Jumping back to Monday afternoon: after we ate our pre-packed lunches at a nearby park, we headed over to a location we all fell in love with. From the moment we drove up to the Equine Spirit Sanctuary we were met with smiling faces, namely Ruth, the sanctuary director. She welcomed us to the facility by telling us about the animals they house and how ESS originated.

After we watched a video about the birth of one of the sanctuary’s current horses, Bay Lee, we were introduced to the remaining horses and donkeys and then assigned our first task. The sun was shining, and we opened cans of paint and wood stain to touch up the riding arena, barrels, and new saddle stands. At the end of the painting we got to brush the precious donkeys and miniature horses. We returned to ESS on Wednesday to work the full day, when some students cleaned saddles and tack, some finished up painting, and others began cleaning up after the horses. After the dirty work was done, we were allowed to brush the horses and spend some quality time with them in the arenas, learning a little more about horse behavior.

On Thursday afternoon we completed our service at ESS and for the week by painting the arena at the entrance of the property. I’m pretty certain that every student on the trip had at least one moment of complete serenity at ESS; it was hard not to. The sanctuary is positioned far from the road, and with the beautiful mountains serving as a backdrop we were all hooked. The last time we drove down the very bumpy Los Caballos Road away from the amazing animals and loving people, I know we were all a little sad, but hopefully we will return someday soon.

On Tuesday afternoon we met one of the most intriguing and passionate individuals I’ve had the privilege of encountering in the animal world. Her name is Pennie Wardlow and she is the Executive Director of the Four Corners Animal League. Pennie spent the time telling us some of the tragic conditions in which she has seen animals and how she and her nonprofit have been able to help.

emuFrom the discussions we had, we even arranged a visit with four rescued emus on Thursday afternoon. It was a little shocking hearing about how horribly people could treat animals, and we all agreed that humans are charged with a responsibility to help animals because they do not control the situations in which they find themselves.

What was particularly inspiring about Pennie was the personal interest she has in doing whatever it takes to be an advocate for animals; she is a shining example of a selfless individual. Not only does she have a passion for helping animals directly, but she has a vision for the future and acts upon her goals by educating the youth about animal care and animal rights. Pennie even got us to realize that no matter what career path we choose, there are always ways to have a positive impact in the animal rights world.

Thursday night after our emu visit, everyone was eager to get to Ojo Caliente, a world-class spa resort with several mineral pools and steam rooms. It was the perfect end to the service portion of the trip and served as the segue into our free day on Friday. This is my second Alternative Break, so I was familiar with the concept of the “free day,” and in Taos we had many options. Although a few of us were sad that we didn’t get the opportunity to ski, all sadness was pushed aside when we unanimously voted on llama trekking!

This was something I didn’t know existed, but I can speak for everyone on the trip when I say it was time well spent. It was very fitting that a group interested in animal rights spent its leisure time hiking with five rescued llamas along the Rio Grande Gorge. Our enthusiastic and uber passionate guide Stuart took us along the route explaining the issues surrounding llamas and sharing his interests with us.

We hitched our llamas to some trees and took our lunch break at an overlook with a breathtaking view of the gorge. As we sat there eating our PB&Js, the clouds and wind rolled in making for a cold trek back to the van, but the presence of the llamas made the unfavorable weather more bearable. We arrived safely at the llama trailer and helped to get the llama saddles back in the truck. Before we said our final goodbyes we fed the llamas treats and took a few final pictures to remember the adventurous day.

This was one of the most enjoyable weeks of the entire school year and an amazing Spring Break that will be hard to beat. Between the unforgettable experiences we were so fortunate to have and the incredible group dynamic we had working in our favor, we knew it would be hard to return to the “real world” of homework, tests, and early morning classes. On our final reflection night we discussed what we could do when we got back to Dallas, and one thing we all agreed on was to finding our passion and sticking with it. All of the people we met in Taos shared with us what makes them truly happy, and inspired us to find a niche of our own in the future.