By James Natsis
A drive out to Prospect on the northeastern edge of Jefferson County near the Ohio River conjures images of well-constructed brick commercial venues, gated estates, beautiful homes and grounds, and harbors and yachts. Yet, a short jaunt beyond the commercial area along U.S. Highway 42 to Rose Island Road offers a unique opportunity to explore a parcel of land that is home to animals such as bison, llamas, doe, goats, water buffalo, pigs, emus, ducks, chickens and others.
Henry Wallace raised five of his six children in a house perched above a large farmland where he kept animals he adopted from the Kentucky Humane Society. Wallace had a variety of animals over the years — from llamas to donkeys, and just about any other animal other than dogs and cats.
In 1988, he purchased three bison that ran about the front field near the road. This became a potential hazard, and it generated some public outcry. After a lengthy period of reflection that led to how to best utilize the land to continue adopting various animals, Wallace decided to create nonprofit organization Henry’s Ark in 1992.
Penny Schaefer first began working on the Wallace farm in 1983.
“Mr. Wallace was notorious for picking up animals nobody else wanted,” she recalls of her former boss. As the Wallace kids grew up and moved on to raising families and pursuing careers, Schaefer stayed on and worked with Wallace until his death in April 2006.
The Wallace farm encompasses a total of 660 acres on both sides of Rose Island Road. However, Henry’s Ark takes up about 25 acres and is run as a separate entity. There is a gravel parking lot at the entrance to the right on Rose Island that is not very well marked. A farmhouse, various stables, shelters and coops, and watering holes are found throughout the grounds.
The assortment of animals has varied over the years, and regulations and restrictions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other outside entities have tightened roaming space and the feeding of the animals by visitors.
The farm has downsized as of late and is used mainly as a refuge. According to Schaefer, this is because the exotic animals are costly to obtain, feed and care for, especially when they are sick. Also, the farmland is ill-equipped for exotic animals due to its proneness to take on swampy conditions during heavy rainy periods.
When Schaefer retired in December 2015, she left the Ark in good hands with longtime employee Patty Wilhite, who has spent most of her adult life working with animals. She worked for 17 years as a polo groom at a local farm in Crestwood where she kept the stalls and exercised and prepared the horses for the riders.
She joined Henry’s Ark in February 2000 and is one of two full-time employees along with Angela Klemenz. A lifelong animal lover, Klemenz first worked at a pet shop before volunteering her time at Henry’s Ark about seven years ago. She has been a full-time employee for the past two years.
“She was coming around here a lot,” says Wilhite as the two colleagues laughed at how Klemenz’s frequent visits evolved into a volunteer role.
Jim Roberts begins his eighth year in June as a volunteer at Henry’s Ark. He served as a volunteer for five years at the Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky before taking on a handyman role every Tuesday that has him doing just about everything that needs to be repaired on the grounds.
“It’s like having my own farm,” Roberts says.
Wilhite amiably adds that on Tuesdays, “It’s Jim’s farm. We stay out of his way.”
Running such an operation takes more resources than the tight budget will permit. A small trust governed by a board consisting of several Wallace family members and others provides the bulk of the necessary funds to pay two full-time salaries and everything else. Monetary donations are very helpful, as well as volunteers assisting with some of the handyman duties that never end.
Schaefer says Wallace’s vision for Henry’s Ark was to maintain a quiet, peaceful refuge for animals in need of a home. Equally important was the conservancy of a place for learning.
“The reason for the nonprofit for Mr. Wallace is that if there were a price tag for learning, the people who needed to learn the most would never learn,” says Schaefer, referring to Wallace’s reluctance to charge an admission. In his eyes, he wanted to give back to the community and keep it accessible to those who could least afford it.
Families have roamed the grounds for more than 25 years, as one generation passes on the experience to the next.
“Everybody has a story about Henry’s Ark,” Shaefer says.
Wilhite recalls the days when she first came with her kids. “I still have pictures of them running around with the camels,” she says.
During our visit, a grandfather was there for the first time with his granddaughter.
“She has been here before with my daughter. But this is my first time,” he said with a proud grin.
Another lady was roaming the grounds with her granddaughter she watches on Tuesdays. She decided to visit Henry’s Ark as she did with her own kids years ago. “We’re gonna do the zoo thing next week,” she said.
There is no updated Facebook page or website for Henry’s Ark. Opportunities are available to volunteer and gain experience working around animals. Monetary donations also are encouraged to assist in maintaining and improving the facilities and the learning experience.
Admission is free and the grounds are open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, call 502-228-0746.