I've always had a soft spot for animals and have never lost sight of my passion for the creatures who share our Earth.
In 1968, I was a Broadway actress, and founded an animal shelter in upstate New York. In 1972, I was invited to serve on the ASPCA board - the first woman ever! My two lives blended fame with dedicated service.
In 1974 I learned of the plight of Central Park carriage horses. This was before the days of animal rights. But I decided to help these overworked and often abused horses.
First, I documented their situation. One weekend, I went with a crew of volunteers to monitor the hours each horse worked, see if they got water or rest, and observe their physical condition. I learned they had a dismal life. Most were older, bought cheap, and worked hard until they gave out. The romantic image of a buggy through the Park would never charm me now that I knew its seamy, tragic underside.
A year later, on Broadway with George C. Scott in "Sly Fox," I came home between shows to find an urgent message on my answering machine from a man who had seen a carriage horse hit by a taxi. The cab had grazed the horse's leg, leaving it lame. The carriage driver, realizing the horse could no longer pull his rig, had said he'd sell it to slaughter. The man, who had heard of my concern for carriage horses, and somehow gotten my number, begged, "Please, can't you help? It's only $350." He left a number for Tony, the horse's owner.
I called and bought the horse. Next, I called my shelter to send a trailer to Manhattan the next day. Then I called my publicist. We both thought it was great publicity for my cause, so he alerted the press about the horse pick-up. By then it was time for my evening performance. So much for relaxation - it was 'on with the show!'
The next morning, I went to meet my new horse, Champ. He was limping as he was led to the trailer. We posed for pictures. The press loved it: ACTRESS ADOPTS INJURED HORSE. I was smiling, Tony was smiling, everyone was happy except the horse. He looked miserably resigned to whatever awful fate awaited him. Looking into his sad eyes, I said, "Champ, you will never be denied water or rest again, you will never walk up a slippery ramp or pull a heavy load, and you will always have a soft bed." It was a promise I swore to make good on - for all carriage horses someday, but especially for this one now.
We drove to the shelter. As we led him out, Champ realized something was up and when he saw our big field, picked up his pace. Turned out, he frolicked and explored until, with a shake of his head, he began to graze.
When the vet examined him, he said Champ was about 15-years-old. His leg was bruised, but not broken. And to think he could have been killed because of a limp.
Champ lived eight more glorious years that were grand beyond description. His stall had a brass name plaque, his blanket was monogrammed, and he had his own groom.
I hope Champ forgot his years in the waking nightmare he endured. I was pleased that my work for carriage horses led to improvements. And that morning, so many years ago, I made an individual promise to Champ - and kept it.
Gretchen founded The Ark Trust in 1991 as a national non-profit animal-protection organization devoted to raising public awareness about animal issues.