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Backstory: Best Animal Instincts


Published December 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

Hamilton Hastings - RACHEL HELLMAN
  • Rachel Hellman
  • Hamilton Hastings

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2022.

In week four of my first professional reporting gig, I was eager to prove myself. I had landed my dream job through Report for America, a national service program that places young journalists in local newsrooms. I would be reporting on challenges and opportunities in Vermont's small towns for Seven Days, learning along the way through mentorship and training provided by Report for America.

Trouble was, I lacked story ideas. That made sense, of course — I had just started on my beat — but impostor syndrome was creeping in. "It takes time to get your footing," my editors assured me. "Just keep plugging away."

I wanted to get my feet dirty. One day, an opportunity arrived in a press release from Arnold's Rescue Center in Brownington. The rural nonprofit was throwing a first birthday party for a rare Baudet du Poitou donkey, Hamilton, one of only 500 of his kind in the world. 

Cute but not necessarily newsworthy, right? Unless you're a somewhat desperate, weird-event-inclined new reporter. "I'm in," I emailed the news team as soon as I got the email. 

I convinced a friend who lives halfway between Burlington and Brownington to sacrifice her Saturday to accompany me.

Blue balloons lined the road to a wooden pavilion where the party hosts had hung a colorful piñata. More than 50 people came to wish the rather shaggy-looking guest of honor a happy birthday. Some of them joined in a game of pin the tail on the donkey.

Hamilton's party kicked ass in more ways than one. After the festivities, I struck up a conversation with Bari Fischer, one of the women behind Arnold's Rescue, over a slice of strawberry shortcake. 

Fischer worked closely with Brownington's burgeoning — and decidedly private — Amish community. In fact, her good friend was coming up from South Carolina to train some of the Amish community's horses. She said the Amish farmers would line up outside the barn just to have an opportunity for their animals to be trained by this acclaimed horse whisperer from Australia. Would I like to observe him working, she asked?

Would I? The opportunity was journalistic gold, the sort of only-in-Vermont story I had dreamed of writing. The Amish community's desire for privacy was well known. This would offer a rare peek inside. 

A few months later, I found myself back at Arnold's Rescue handing a saddle to Gary Itzstein, horse whisperer extraordinaire. Next to me was Neil, a soft-spoken Amish man from Brownington. In front of us was a nervous pony. I had to pinch myself: How was this a paying job?

The whole donkey-birthday-party-to-Australian-horse-whisperer pipeline offered an apt lesson for a rookie journalist like myself: Follow your nose; it might lead to a great story.