Hillenbrand relaxes with animals

Hillenbrand relaxes with animal menagerie

GILBERT, Ariz. -- Old-timers in Gilbert remember a day when a man stole money and tried to escape by galloping across a plowed field while being chased by the local constable, who was wielding a rifle and firing it through the non-existent front windscreen of a Model T Ford.

The Wild West, indeed.

That tiny, one-horse town is now a sprawling, ever-expanding suburb in the Valley of the Sun, where home developments and giant malls have gobbled up the vast fields of cotton and alfalfa. A modern freeway snakes through old dairy land and cattle yards.

Yet outside of town, there is still a sense and scent of the old days, where residents keep horses, goats and other animals on small acreage.

Like Giants first baseman Shea Hillenbrand.

Rather than build batting cages and workout facilities to keep in shape during the offseason, Hillenbrand constructed special enclosures for his eclectic collection of three miniature horses, a full-sized quarterhorse, three rescued rabbits, 30 tortoises and four schnauzers.

"It's fun -- it keeps us busy," said Hillenbrand of his wife, Jessica, and adopted children Austin and infant daughter Dakota. "It's awesome out there. We're not the type to sit around and watch TV or watch football on Sundays. It's like a petting zoo, and we really enjoy taking care of them and giving them the best life possible."

For his birthday last July, Jessica gave Shea an aldabra tortoise, which can grow into a monstrous 700 pounds, its shell nearly four feet off the ground, kind of a living -- if slow-moving -- ATV capable of reaching 100 years old.

On their acre-and-a-quarter lot, the Hillenbrands dote on their menagerie and are passionate about their health and living conditions. The rabbits enjoy an inside-mist system and air-conditioned home, while the tortoises have their own enclosure, complete with a pond, secure from birds, cats or coyotes who might lurk nearby.

Even the tortoises have names.

"My wife can tell them apart -- that's scary -- and the horses have middle names," said Hillenbrand, a native of nearby Mesa and an outstanding soccer and ballplayer for Mountain View High.

No time for laziness here at the Hilllenbrand ranch. Each animal requires attention and love, and that requires seemingly round-the-clock care. There are no roosters here to crow at dawn, but every morning the Hillenbrands awake to feed dozens of hungry mouths.

Even little Austin, just shy of two years old, shares in the daily chores by feeding lettuce to the tortoises and, Shea says laughing, points out the horse poop to be picked up.

"It'll be good for our kids to grow up and have responsibility," said Hillenbrand. "My son loves to see the horses and animals."

Thanks to a private jet, Shea can bring his family and those romping schnauzers with him during the season. In return, they give them "unconditional love," says Hillenbrand.

Just for fun, Shea often takes his miniature horses -- they're about 30 inches high at the top of their back -- for tours around the neighorbood, much to the delight of kids.

Those little horses may look like toys, but Shea makes sure the local children and his own are careful of them. "They're like a big dog, but have every characteristic of a horse -- they can kick and bite you if they feel threatened. At least I have good reaction time.

"I've always liked animals, and when I became a pro ballplayer, I decided I'd buy a grown-up quarterhorse," said Hillenbrand, whose miniature "caballos" have formed a close bond with the player, often laying down beside him with total trust.

The Hillenbrands often share their zoological lifestyle with an East Valley crisis center, inviting children to see and enjoy animals up close.

"My father-in-law is a veterinarian and my wife has been around animals her whole life," he said. "We love the connection with the different types of animals. One horse comes into the house and takes stuff from the refrigerator and drinks iced tea."

The infielder, who hopes to return to San Francisco for next season, says his mini-zoo will continue to grow, with future species perhaps being more exotic. He owns 13 acres nearby.

"When I retire, I want to get a zebra, buffalo and maybe a camel," said Shea. "My neighbor has two giraffes. I want a big cat, but my wife won't let me because she thinks they shouldn't be in captivity."

Rich Draper is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.