Chenoa Manor's Teen Program: Finding Common Ground Between At-Risk Youth and Abused Animals

Everyone and everything deserves a second chance, and veterinarian Rob Teti offers a new perspective on life for abused animals and their human counterparts.

Lucky residents of Chenoa Manor Animal Sanctuary and Youth Assistance Facility in Avondale. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)From the start, Tyrel Watson found something noble about Chenoa Manor Animal Sanctuary and Youth Assistance Facility, a rural respite in Avondale for some 250 rescued and abused farm animals. “I began connecting with the animals, remembering their names,” says Watson, who first volunteered at Chenoa during his sophomore year at the School at Church Farm in Exton. “Then so-and-so wasn’t just an animal anymore.”

He was also impressed by the near-herculean efforts of Rob Teti, Chenoa’s founder and executive director. “I admired Rob for finding and rescuing the animals, and I asked what more I could do,” says Watson. “He said I could volunteer for the summer—that there was plenty to do.”

In a world where instances of animal abuse continue to mushroom, Chenoa Manor is addressing an increasing need. Still, there’s a limit to what one man can do, and Teti must turn away some. “We can only do what we can comfortably do,” says the 39-year-old licensed veterinarian.

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Teti bought the 25-acre property in 2000, forming his all-volunteer nonprofit three years later. Now, Chenoa is actually two sanctuaries in one. Almost from the start, Teti saw a link between at-risk and overlooked teens and unwanted and abused farm animals. Chenoa serves 300-500 kids a year in small groups of up to 15.  “It’s not so much what I’m doing as just being here,” Teti says. “The experience enriches teens’ lives and opens their eyes. They see themselves as part of something greater, and they see that they, as individuals, matter. I see myself as a facilitator—the one who lets it happen, the person who opens those gates.”

Now a neuroscience major at Temple University, Watson grew up in urban Coatesville, where the only galloping horses he saw were on TV. At Chenoa, he quickly learned to never invade an animal’s space, or you risk being seen as a predator. “I’ve learned about spirituality, too,” he says. “When an animal dies here, it’s different than when a person dies. The other animals don’t mourn. It’s more natural.”

In Chenoa’s unique program, there’s a level playing field, and the fostering of a mutual sense of compassion and respect. If the animals aren’t receptive on a given day, volunteers stay busy doing something else on the farm. “The kids develop
their own personalities in many ways,” says Teti. “Nothing is forced.”

Teti grew up in downtown Kennett Square, though his parents had a farm an hour south of Rome, Italy. As a student at Ursinus College, he majored in biology, but he also took psychology and world literature courses. In 2000, he earned his doctorate in veterinary medicine from Ross University on the island of St. Kitts.

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Teti became a vegetarian in 1988, and subsequently transitioned to a vegan lifestyle. At Chenoa—Native American for “white dove”—he encourages abstinence from violence toward animals. “There’s a well-documented connection between animal abuse and abuse against people,” Teti notes. “Our goal is to halt this cycle through humane educational programs and positive life experiences.”

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It requires roughly $80,000 a year to operate Chenoa Manor. The nonprofit relies exclusively on contributions from the public. Teti once funded 75 percent of the operating budget working as a vet in Landenberg. Lately, public contributions have increased dramatically, and the founder scaled back to part-time hours to accommodate Chenoa’s more active summer programs. “[Vet] clients need to see you, too,” he admits.

The animals and exotics that call Chenoa home arrived there due to a variety of circumstances. Many suffered the abuses of factory farming. Others were subjected to cruel and unnecessary lab experiments. Some were abandoned. Others were en route to slaughter. There are no domestics, and all animals accepted become permanent residents.

Open to the public for tours twice a month, Chenoa is a recently accredited animal sanctuary, with a board of directors that includes Emmy-winning soap actress Tracey Bregman. “We’re not just people who say we love animals or that we rescue animals,” Teti says. “It requires certain standards for care—and these kids are part of making that happen.”

An eight-year relationship between Church Farm and Chenoa amounted to more than 1,200 volunteer hours during the 2010-11 school year. CFS’ head of school, Rev. Edmund Sherrill, credits “Dr. Rob’s” patient, caring and supportive work. The school even presented its J. Tyler Griffin Award for Excellence in Ambassadorship to Teti last May.

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In 2010, the CBS Evening News discovered Chenoa, airing a story that focused on CFS student and volunteer Josh Rice, an aspiring vet who’s now finishing his second year at the University of Maryland.

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When Rob Teti first laid eyes on the Chenoa property, there wasn’t any fencing, and it was overgrown with multi-floral rose and other invasive plants. Now, there are six defined pastures.

When teenage volunteers first see Chenoa, it’s safe to say that more than a few are skeptical. Most are referred through therapists or counselors. Church Farm students are required to do five hours of community service a year. One trip to the farm meets that—but many get hooked. All are assigned work based on the type of support group the teen belongs to, a school’s curriculum or the individual’s assessed needs.

Last summer’s daily camps were filled with kids from the Coatesville Youth Initiative. In that program, 40 of them were paid to work at host sites where they would also have mentoring experiences. Four of them ended up at Chenoa, spending part of the day working with animals and the rest creating artwork based on their experiences.

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Teti has always linked his outreach to the arts. It’s part of what he calls Chenoa’s “eclectic palette” of exposures—all in an environment where the teens already feel comfortable.

Even the farm’s pigs do their own artwork. “They’re the pieces that sell all the time,” says Teti.

For these abstract works, pigs stomp in foods with natural dyes (mud and muck, too) and then onto canvas boards. Remarkably, each piece includes a ghost-like image of a pig. “But no one knows it when they buy,” says Teti. “One woman bought two, then we told her about seeing the pigs in them. She couldn’t believe it.”

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