Animal Whisperer: The Gifted Alicia Caffrey

Updated: May 28, 2019

by Sofia Bianchi, Founder

Ausome is always trying to make our platform a better, more informed place to provide services to the worldwide autism and learning disabilities community, while the challenges that autism places on individuals tend to vary from case to case. That is why I, Sofia Bianchi, founder of Ausome, have been recently volunteering at a local organization called OASIS tlc to meet and learn more about my #ausome peers. OASIS tlc is a Monmouth county-based autism residency and day internship program for young adults with autism. This not-for-profit organization teaches life skills to adult autistic youth by employing their skills on an in-house organic farm, weekly farmstand, and Wednesday luncheons. Student interns at OASIS engage in sustainable repurposing of items, selling their fresh products and merchandise to visitors and guests.

I recently caught up with Alicia Caffrey, both a fellow colleague of mine, and a notoriously talented intern at the OASIS tlc farmhouse in Middletown, New Jersey.

On the day I am set to interview Caffrey, Lauren Payer, Director of Behavioral and Educational Services greets me in the office, and begins leading me into the den to introduce me to Alicia. “Alicia is a really cool member of the team, I can’t wait for you to meet her,” she says, smiling. “We call her ‘our empath’.”

I walk in the room where Caffrey is waiting for me and I can immediately sense why. Caffrey greets me with sharp, perceptive eyes. Sitting comfortably on the sofa, she radiates warmth. Caffrey studies my face, in the way that somebody would take a moment to study a chess board deep into a match. It is as if she were trying to give me, in my entirety, her full attention first, before allowing herself to turn some of her awareness away from me to lend her thoughts to the questions. It is a gesture of genuine respect and emotional wisdom. “Hello,” she says, smiling a taciturn smile. Her voice is soft, honest, genuine.

I begin the interview by asking Caffrey of her roles at OASIS, to which I learn that Caffrey happens to be a talented sewer and basket weaver. At OASIS, she produces aprons, pillows, and reusable bags made out of recycled plastics. Samples of Caffrey's work are on display in the den, and I am very impressed and intrigued. However, Caffrey is humble and docile, acknowledging these skillful creations simply as part of her regular everyday activities. However, when asked what her favorite thing to do is of all of her daily activities, whether at OASIS or in general, Caffrey’s eyes light up, and it is almost as if I can see that there are a series of images flooding to the front of her mind. She takes her time, relishing in the moment, and at last responds, “I like to observe the animals.” A large smile rushes to her face at the thought of it, like a kettle of hot water boiling over. It is thrilling to witness such pure joy Alicia evokes, at the simple thought of the thing that sets her soul on fire. I am eager to learn more.

Caffrey tells me that at home, she has two Tabby cats: Emma and Lunay (Emma’s child). She makes a point to tell me that Emma was a rescue cat. “I am glad that we rescued her,” Caffrey explains. “That is what I want to do when I am older: to save animals,” she says. “They are vulnerable, they need somebody to care for them, to look out for them.”

I quickly learn that whether it is tending to the goats on the farm (the main dairy source for OASIS’s goats milk soaps and farm-fresh baked goods) or tending to her two tabby cats at home, Caffrey is gifted in caring for and nurturing animals of all shapes and sizes. Lauren elaborates to me later that Caffrey is extremely intuitive, and is incredibly skilled when it comes to communicating and connecting with animals.

“That is what I want to do when I am older: to save animals,” she says. “They are vulnerable, they need somebody to care for them, to look out for them.” - Alicia Caffrey

Not only is Caffrey’s passion contagious and unmatched, but she is also very evidently well-researched. She begins to walk me through her inner-encyclopedia of animal knowledge by first telling me of her elected role of being the one feed the goats every morning OASIS, a task she looks forward to executing each day. She tells me how long it takes, what the goats like to eat. She recites all of the names and relations of the 23 goats on the farm, specifying that they are Nigerian dwarf goats, telling me which goat is whose son, or daughter, or cousin. She tells me of a favorite memory of watching Blondie being born to Butterscotch last May. “It was beautiful, except it made me cry a bit,” Caffrey says, her eyes turning towards the window, and the light illuminating her intuitive eyes and melancholy gaze.

“Tears of joy?” I ask.

“Not exactly,” Caffrey responds. She takes a moment to articulate the answer fully in her mind before she speaks with perfect, earth-shattering clarity. “Their voices when they are first born sound... pathetic,” she says, adding, “they are vulnerable,” she explains. I can suddenly understand the feeling Caffrey is so beautifully pinpointing. Her eyes search the room a bit more, as if reliving the moment, as if it were happening right then and there. Then she comes back to my gaze, and says, “they grow out of it when they are older, though.” The thought leaves the room like a cloud passing overhead.

Caffrey’s efforts to care for and learn about animals extend beyond the property of the farmhouse at OASIS. Caffrey explains to me how in 2014 she volunteered at the Monmouth County SPCA, where she socialized with cats and made enrichments for the dogs.

Caffrey also has a hobby of frequenting zoos all across the country, one in nearly every state she has traveled to, including the San Diego zoo, as well as others in Washington DC and North Carolina. Caffrey expresses her pride for having made a generous donation to an up-and-coming elephant exhibit at a zoo she had visited while on a road trip to Florida in 2016. She is beaming from ear to ear as she recalls the memory of this special moment. Caffrey was rewarded by being allowed to touch one of the elephants. She tells me that its skin felt “hard” and “leathery.”

“Another thing that I like to do, is to daydream,” Caffrey says. I smile, for two reasons: the first one being that I can relate, and the second recalling a quote by Albert Einstein, whose Asperger’s Syndrome status has been widely overlooked throughout history, stating: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I have come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking. Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I ask Caffrey what she likes to daydream about.

Alicia Caffrey after having donated to an elephant exhibit, May 2016.

“I like to daydream about traveling all over the world and saving animals,” Caffrey responds. Her face is radiant as she tells me how she is inspired by all kinds of exotic animals, including and not limited to giraffes, seals (she specifies that she especially wants to save the Weddell seal of Antarctica), snakes, elephants, lions, hippos, zebras, pandas, snow leopards, polar bears, panthers, cheetahs, and tigers.

Caffrey explains her ultimate dream to me in vivid detail. She wishes to have a house in San Diego and to own a pet green mamba snake, and to travel to zoos all across the world, tending to different exhibits and educating audiences about the importance of caring for animals in positions of vulnerability, for instance endangered species. Caffrey also explains to me that every time she speaks to her mother on the phone, her mother finishes the call by reminding her: “Everything is for your future.” The future that Caffrey imagines for herself is her guiding light day by day, propelling her forward beyond any challenges she may have to face along the way.

Yet at this point, this dream does not at all seem far out of reach for Caffrey. At this rate, I would say that it is slowly becoming her reality. Not only does Caffrey have these powerful intentions, but she is well researched, and is hard at work each day at OASIS working towards manifesting this dream into becoming her reality.

Sofia Bianchi is the founder of Ausome and the sister to #Giulio. She interns at OASIS tlc, a non-for-profit autism organization in New Jersey providing education and life skills workshops for young adults on the autism spectrum. Sofia believes that the world can benefit tremendously by coming together to cater towards the global autism and learning disabilities community. More on Sofia's mission under the Ausome Mission Statement.

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