The one thing that can be said for Dr. Toni Leo, the clinical health psychologist and proprietor of Whisper’s Sanctuary, is that no grass ever grows beneath her feet.
A Massachusetts native, Leo’s love of horses has landed her in the Canelo Hills as caretaker of over 40 horses, donkeys, a couple of mules, geese, cats and a rather elderly goat.
Once the animals are there, they are there for life. “The difference between a sanctuary and a rescue is the sanctuary guarantees a safe place for the life of the animal, whereas a rescue will adopt out the occupants to another home,” explained Leo. She maintains the clean, well managed corrals and shelters with the help of volunteers and some compensated assistance. She also has three RV spots available; those who choose to dwell in the scenic area for a time help with the chores.
As a child, Leo rode horses and even had her own for a bit, until a health issue caused her family to sell her beloved horse. Later, while doing an internship in Michigan, Leo’s sponsor offered their horse for her to ride. A fall and subsequent injury triggered her to “have an epiphany to move to Arizona, a lifelong dream that I had for some time. I am a woman of faith and believe that God directs me.”
When she finished her degree in 1999, she moved to Sierra Vista and worked with families in the Bisbee court system. It was in Sierra Vista that she met her future husband, who was in the military and stationed at Ft Huachuca. They lived in Virginia until her husband retired in 2005, when they moved back to Arizona.
The couple decided that having a place for horses in need would be their next adventure. They bought 26 acres in Canelo and opened Whisper’s Sanctuary, a nonprofit with the mission to give “unwanted, previously abused/neglected or retired from public service animals” a permanent home. The sanctuary is named after one of her favorite horses. Leo started her clinical psychology practice online through Telehealth, offering her services to patients from 34 states, while her husband purchased an adjoining home and turned it into a bed and breakfast.
To help fund the sanctuary, the couple started a roadside lemonade and scone stand. They also purchased a soft-serve machine and worked out of a tent at various events. All that equipment was heavy. “It became difficult to tote around,” said Leo, “so in 2008 my husband decided we needed a food truck. We purchased one in Florida and once it was ready, he flew back there to drive it back.”
Leo’s husband unexpectedly passed away of a massive heart attack ten days later, leaving Toni with the sanctuary and the bed and breakfast to run, and the food truck to stock and supply.
She was able to turn the truck into the award-winning ‘Sparky’s Cantina’ food truck that it is today. With five sinks, a freezer, and a griddle, the 22-foot truck is fully equipped and ready for service at events in the area to help Leo fund her Sanctuary’s ongoing needs.
Leo’s newest endeavor is Soap Tahira. She has started to make soap and salves out of olive oil, supplied to her by a friend in Palestine. Again, the proceeds from that sale go to the Sanctuary. When a friend recently asked Leo what she doesn’t do, her reply was, “SLEEP!”
The money from all these projects, along with grants from Santa Cruz County, the educational animal care tours she offers to various organizations, and donations from generous supporters has managed to keep
Whisper’s Sanctuary funded for the past 17 years. On the downside, Leo states she “hasn’t had a day off in 12 years.” Leo added that she could use some summer help this year.
Concern about wildfires and possible future water shortages has her considering a move with the animals to a greener part of the country, although no definite plans have been made. The B&B is currently for sale and Sparky’s Cantina is also being put on the market to help lessen the heavy workload that Leo has been carrying.
Though the future of the sanctuary’s location is a bit uncertain, the animals will always have a home under Leo’s care. For further information, visit rrheartranch.com