Melissa Smolik runs a world-class animal rehabilitation center and sanctuary close to Park City Utah, which lends a special aura to the adjacent luxury property that brings guests much closer to nature.
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Many social good initiatives in hospitality happen out of the eyes of the guest. Often, these are the choices made along the supply chain of a hotel, as well as decisions with sourcing and community relations.
While important, the irony is sometimes the best ones happen in the background. In the case at the Lodge at Blue Sky, part of Auberge Resorts Collection, it happens out in the wide open. Guests drive through pastures and a sizable horse facility to get to the actual property. But what happens inside is quite unique. Since 2015, the property owner Barbara Philips and the Saving Gracie Equine Healing Foundation has rescued 28 horses, 30 cows, and counting, from mistreatment and abuse. Rather than the hunting lodges and meat-producing farms that pepper the landscape in Utah, the entire property is dedicated to the wellbeing of animals.
Melissa Smolik is the foundation director of the program, overseeing the operations of the foundation and the farm, and can often be seen riding on horseback in the pastures and tending to the animals.
The foundation started after Philips rescued a horse named Gracie from extreme neglect, highlighting a larger problem she felt compelled to solve. The foundation now takes in horses and other farm animals that have been abused, neglected, or have medical conditions.
The property employs a full-time vet to make sure that animals get the care and attention they deserve. The animals are given personalized rehabilitation programs. That includes Archie, a horse that was flown out of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which left him stranded at a racetrack without food, water, or proper care.
Smolik said what makes her job so interesting is that every day is different. “For example, yesterday we rode Cherokee and Grizzly, two retired guest horses, up to Alexander Creek for exercise, as keeping them active is important for their physical and mental health,” she said recently. “After that, we headed up to the Remuda, our 30,000-square-foot covered riding arena. There, we worked with Ozzy, an off-the-track thoroughbred who came to us after a career-ending injury.
“We are teaching Ozzy new skills as a ranch horse, and it is so rewarding to see him accomplish new things each day. Some horses cannot be ridden, so we take them out for rehabilitating hand walks on the trail.” She added that each horse receives their own “blend” of grain, supplements, and medications, as well as daily body checks and treatments or rehab.
Smolik concluded the day with chores to ensure the horses, cows, chickens, dogs, and cats on the farm were looked after properly.
Part of Smolik’s job is also serving as the link between resort guests and the program. The efforts of the rehabilitation lend a gentle karmic glow to the entire guest experience and property as a whole, and it is no surprise that the visitors are eager to see what’s happening. Smolik said that in the summer, mornings are spent guiding private tours for resort guests where they spend one to two hours with each group sharing their farming practices and teaching them about the rescues.
The farm’s efforts also extend to environmental protection: women farmers (who the property calls FarmHers), spent an entire year preparing the soil by hand using broad forks and organic compost before they plant a single seed. Smolik said they could have started growing immediately using heavy machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides, but they “took the time to nourish the soil and honor the land.” In addition, much of the produce served at the resort’s signature restaurant, Yuta, is grown at Gracie’s Farm and is another way to reduce impact.
The next step for the lodge’s program is to introduce new guest experiences where the guests will be brought together with local healers and wellness experts, forging a deeper spiritual link between humans and animals on the farm. And sometimes the interactions between guests and the farm are small, but still meaningful: guests are able to pick and taste vegetables directly from the earth as well as gather fresh eggs that are still warm in the nesting box and have the chefs prepare something with them within the hour.
For Smolik, her current role is far from where she started in real estate and managing a neuroscience laboratory at the University of Utah. But it is a return of sorts: “When I first moved to Utah, I was driving from the Wyoming border, taking in all the sights of the state that had just become home, when I drove by a wooden gate and ranch sign (reading Blue Sky Ranch),” said Smolik.
“At that point, I’m not sure why it caught my eye, but I was unaware that it would become my home years later.”
Photo credit: This would not be an uncommon scene at Lodge at Blue Sky, where the Saving Gracie Equine Healing Foundation is rescuing horses and other animals while educating guests about conservation. Tim Vrtiska / Flickr