As part of its mission to preserve and protect America’s wild horses, the Return To Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary has engaged heavily in the long battle to end the slaughter of horses for human consumption. A major fight in that battle was won far away: in Washington D.C., with a federal court ruling closing the last of three slaughter houses in the United States. That victory’s impact, however, was soon felt very close to home at the 300-acre Sanctuary in the Santa Barbara area’s Lompoc.
Shortly after the ruling was made in April of last year, 28 horses in a processing house in DeKalb, IL were given over to the Humane Society of the United States, which set about finding them homes. Return To Freedom offered to take in wild or untamed horses, and on April 18, three “miracle horses” arrived, explains the Sanctuary’s Jill Anderson. They included 2, 5 and 15 year old mares named Ginger, Flicka and Scout. They’d been picked up by a “killer buyer” in Utah and traveled to Wyoming before going to the meat house in Illinois, Jill says. Before that, however, “We do not know what story each of these three mares has to tell.”
The two younger horses settled into their new home pretty quickly and warmed up to their caretakers. Scout, however, took her time. “When she first came here she had a comfort zone of 15 or 20 feet,” Jill explains. “Cross that line and she was out of there.” More recently, and “on a good day,” Scout would let Jill and others reach out their hand toward her. “She’s not letting us groom her or anything, but she does seem to be letting her guard down.”
Since her rescue from the slaughterhouse floor, Scout seemed en route to a fairy tale phase of life, spending her final years in open pastures and cared for lovingly. But almost a year after her arrival, Scout presented symptoms consistent with a mild colic. Taken immediately to the Alamo Pintado Equine Clinic in Los Olivos, she received but did not respond well to round-the-clock care and treatment for a few days. Blood tests indicated a problem in the small intestine, and eventually, surgery was put forward as the only option to save her life.
Return To Freedom is a non-profit entity already caring for 200-plus horses, most of them herds that have been removed from public lands. Drought conditions that have further spiked hay prices have doubled the Sanctuary’s feed costs and an estimated $8,000 surgery bill was not in the budget. However, on Feb. 5, Return to Freedom’s founder Neda DeMayo and her staff made the decision to OK the procedure.
The Alamo Pintado surgeons discovered that Scout had an enormous blockage in her large intestine. It was a condition that would typically illicit thrashing and other signs of severe pain in most horses, Jill relays. “She didn’t even present that many symptoms of pain.”
As of Feb. 11, Scout was doing very well. She was interested in food and her system was processing it properly. “Her behavior was alert and eager,” Jill notes. Delivering medical care of any kind to a horse that is not comfortable being handled is always tricky, observes Jill, who had been worried about how Scout would handle the post-surgery care. “She’s on constant IV fluids, but the vets have said that she’s not giving them any trouble. If there is a bright side, it could be that this has an impact on how she looks at people after being surrounded by all these people giving her love and care.”
Whatever her eventual demeanor, the mare’s successful emergence from surgery is a great relief to the Return To Freedom staff. “They had thought it might be a tumor and told us that, depending on where the tumor was, they might have to euthanize her on the spot,” Jill says. Instead, Scout was slated to come home to Return To Freedom on Feb. 12.
Once they decided on surgery, the next step was figuring out how to pay for it. An e-mailed call for help was promptly answered with $3,000 in small donations from supporters of Return to Freedom. The plea found its way into the Santa Barbara News Press, and a local resident and animal activist, Dwight Lowell, responded to the story with an offer of $2,500 if RTF raised the remaining $2,500. It turned out that the veterinary bill for Scout’s treatment came to $12,000, but at presstime Sanctuary staffers were optimistic they could cover the cost through more donations. And they were grateful to Alamo Pintado for allowing a payment plan on the tab. As Scout arrived home, a second individual had offered an additional $2,500 in matching funds.
Scout, Ginger and Flicka upon their arrival at Return To Freedom.
They were huddled close, nervous and skinny,
their feedlot tags from the auction still attached.
The need for financial help, however, doesn’t end with Scout’s safe return. “She’ll need ongoing special care and treatment,” Jill notes.
Many things could have caused Scout’s intestinal blockage. “In general, we are told that a blockage of this size accumulates gradually over time,” Jill explains. Ingesting sand might have been a contributing factor. Bad teeth, from age, poor maintenance or both, could have played their part, too. “We have no history of how she was taken care of before she came here,” Jill says. “The only thing we knew was that, in the end, she and the other horses she came with were considered dispensable and thrown away.”
Because Return To Freedom cares primarily for wild horses that have been removed from public ranges, the Sanctuary rarely deals with this type of health problem. “The wild horses might get an injury from being kicked by another horse,” Jill says. “But otherwise they don’t often have medical complications. That is usually the case with the domestic horses that we’ve taken in ‘second hand’.”
Hopefully, Scout will be fully recovered and ready for visitors by May, when Return To Freedom starts its seven-month season of Wild Horse Walks, facility tours, volunteer work parties and a variety of other educational and fun activities.
To help Scout or check up on her progress and to learn more about Return To Freedom: the American Wild Horse Sanctuary, visit www.returntofreedom.org or call 805-737-9246.