Krissy Hamilton followed her heart and calling to establish Freedom Ranch Outdoor Education. Here she takes care of animals with feathers, fur, and scales and seeks to educate others about all the things we can learn from and the responsibility we have for these great creatures. Check them out on Facebook and learn more about this great organization!
Fresh Paths: Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Krissy. I grew up in Valley, AL, with loving parents and a brother and sister. I would say that, besides my family, the experience that shaped my life the most was growing up along the banks of the Chattahoochee River where I have wonderful memories of swimming, mud pies, hiking, and wildlife such as geese, bald eagles, herons and musk rats. I would say my love for the outdoors and animals began at a very early age. I had no choice but to love animals between our outdoor adventures with our pets and my Mom's intense love for any creature. As I grew up, though, most people knew me for singing. I started singing in church when I was nine, and I just assumed this is what God wanted me to do forever.
As I got older, my interest in animals continued as my family began raising and releasing orphaned squirrels and I had the opportunity to raise and release many song birds. However, I had to have something that “paid the bills,” so, thanks to much encouragement from family, my singing continued. I even majored in vocal performance for the first three years of college! The entire time, though, I had an unsettled feeling about this direction. It wasn't until I took a break from school and worked at a wild animal park and a veterinarian clinic that God revealed a new path for my life. I would say that's one of my favorite times to remember because it was one of the first times I actually listened to God. In previous years, I had just done a lot of assuming and doing instead of waiting for his word. Through those two jobs, God opened this big door of animal care and conservation, and my life has never been the same.
Fresh Paths: How and when did you become interested in animals?
While in school at the University of Southern Mississippi, I volunteered at Hattiesburg Zoo, and my love for exotic animals only became greater. I was blessed to receive a job there right after graduation. My first six years or so were as a full-time animal keeper where I cared for tigers, gibbons, gators, lemurs, and so much more. It was not work--it was a passion. I finally found where I was supposed to be, and I was discovering who I really was. After several years as a keeper, I saw the great need for conservation education, applied for the education curator position, did not receive it, and I was crushed. It was then in that valley that I really began to see God working in my life. For the first time, He wasn't just there, it became personal. I knew He was fighting for me. At that point, I thought He was just fighting for my career because, after all, that was MY biggest priority. Of course, it was so much more. I found that He was fighting for my surrender. To surrender all worldly gain to Him and trust Him for the past, present and future.
Thanks to that time, I began learning how to surrender to Him and let Him lead. As we all know, sometimes we have to choose to trust each moment in the tough times. After six months, the education curator position was offered to me, and I gladly took it. I had about seven years leading the education department, not only watching it grow, but watching my relationship with Jesus grow. I will forever be grateful for my time at the Hattiesburg Zoo not only for spiritual reasons, but, of course, all of the fantastic animals I cared for and educated with. My love and passion for animal presentations and classes blossomed during this time.
Fresh Paths: Tell us the story of how Freedom Ranch came about! After 13 years at the zoo, and what I considered safety, God was calling me to something different. While looking for jobs, my sister, Mindy, had this crazy idea that I could do this animal education on my own! At first I laughed out loud at this outrageous idea. I would have never even thought of such an adventure without my sister. However, the more I thought and prayed, I knew it was what God was calling me to. God had blessed me with an abundance of exotic animal experience and training, important contacts in order to begin, and many items on the checklist seemed to fall into place.
Within the first few months of pursuing Freedom Ranch Outreach Education (FROE), God gave me many affirmations that this was where he needed me next. In February of 2015, Freedom Ranch officially began. Animal conservation changed from a desire to not only educate people of all ages of the wonders of animals, but to also encourage them to see animals as God's way of encouraging us all. After all, if He thought of everything the tiniest bird needs in order to survive, how much more will he provide for us, His children.
Fresh Paths: What obstacles did you face in getting started? What have your friends/family said about it? Of course, there are many obstacles involved in a new business start up. Advertising would be the biggest obstacle. Initially, it was hours on the phone and email attempting to book programs to spread the word. After almost four years, I feel it is still a constant struggle to spread the word of our uniqueness in that we are not only educational, but also faith-based. Churches are the toughest venue to convince that animals and Jesus fit rather nicely together. He has so many lessons of his love woven within the animal kingdom.
Personally, the obstacle I deal with the most is fear. I have always been a person that tends to focus on the negative.....what can go wrong. Although that can be helpful in the animal business, it really needs to be balanced. This adventure continues to teach me that I cannot do this on my own. I need to trust in God with each step and rely on volunteers and family for help at times.
As far as my friends and family, my sister has always been my biggest supporter. She is my prayer partner and best friend. Together, we have trusted God to provide in every way. My parents were absolutely wonderful when we first told them about FROE. They were obviously scared for me and sometimes still are. I have seen my parents grow in their faith through the years, though, especially my dad. My mom has always been an adventurer, but my dad has always been one to worry. He especially has truly tried to encourage and lift me up in prayer. I believe that God has used this business to help him trust the Father with his own kids.
There was some opposition with a few friends and family members. After all, this is not a get-rich-quick endeavor. With their opposition, I listened, took good advice, and then moved on to the next step. Fresh Paths: What sacrifices have you made to pursue this dream? There are a few sacrifices in an animal business especially. For one, it is a seven days a week job. Animals always need feed and care. My days often begin at 6 am and end at 7 pm. There is also the financial sacrifice. The animals are usually the ones receiving pretty much every dime that you bring in.
Fresh Paths: What's your favorite thing about what you do?
I cannot choose just one favorite thing about what I do. I would say I have three top favorites. My first is to see my animals happy. When they play with an enrichment item or run just to have fun, that brings me great joy. The second would be teaching with the animals. I have always loved the combination of people and animals. Animals bring such joy and comfort to most people, and I love to see them living in their purpose.....to bring glory to God. My third favorite is flying our turkey vultures. It truly makes my heart soar to see our girls doing exactly what they were created to do. I especially love hearing the screams and seeing the smiles on faces when they fly over a crowd of people. I really believe the vultures enjoy the screaming, too! Fresh Paths: Have you ever become discouraged? Thought about quitting? What has kept you going? Why do you continue to do this? In most endeavors, there are ups and downs. There are certain times of the year when business is slow, and I wonder if I can keep going. It can get draining at times when most advertising seems to fall on deaf ears. Of course I have thought about quitting, but one thing remains the same. This is what I was meant to do. This is the passion God has given me. This is how I serve God best. I continue on in the good and bad times because I have 48 animals that I am responsible for, but also, I crave more opportunities to allow people to see that God reveals his personality, love and provision through his creation. Fresh Paths: What's it like working with your sister? My sister Mindy has been vital to FROE since the beginning. Not only has she sacrificed a piece of land for exhibits and our backyard for critters, she has been there for me every step of the way. She does have a full-time job during the school year as a social worker and play therapist, but we are so blessed that she has summers off to travel with me. Like all sisters, sometimes we are grumpy, but mostly we have fun and enjoy the animals and the people we visit. There is a certain comfort about having your sister travel with you. With Mindy being my big sister, it has been a strange role reversal. She's always been the one teaching me, so it's been pretty neat to train her with animals she wasn't used to. I love sharing this love of birds of prey with her, and it's been a joy watching her grow comfortable in handling them. I do believe these animals have been a true blessing in her life......even though they do take up most of the room in our house!
Fresh Paths: Has the time and effort been worth it?
The time and effort put into FROE is definitely worth it. There are quite a few animals here that may not have a loving home without it. Also, the good times have far outweighed the bad times. I would not trade the spiritual growth that has taken place through this adventure for anything!
Fresh Paths: What advice would you give to someone who has a “crazy idea” they want to pursue? The advice I would give to someone with a crazy idea is pretty simple. Spend time in prayer, consider your resources, and, if you feel it is the right decision, let your faith be bigger than your fear.
Fresh Paths: How can people support you and Freedom Ranch?
Freedom Ranch survives and thrives by presenting hands-on, educational animal presentations with both exotic and native animals. The best way to support us is to spread the word, or, if you are within driving distance of Hattiesburg, MS, book a program!