I hate people who abuse animals. Hate them. One of my favorite recurring daydreams is the one in which I get to decide exactly how to punish Michael Vick for the crimes he committed against his pit bulls. Should you corner me at a party after a glass of wine or two, I will gladly share those plans with you, and you will be shocked by the intensity of the sadistic scenarios this self-professed, tree-hugging, vegetarian pacifist is capable of concocting. Really, I scare myself.
I have been rescuing animals most of my life, but the past 11 years, since my husband, David, and I began intercepting horses from slaughter and bringing them to our farm for rehab, have been the most intense. The things I have seen . . . and the disturbing, yet infinitely satisfying, daydreams I have about how I would love to punish the perpetrators of these horrors (really, Mr. Vick – you never want to run into me in a dark alley as I would make up for my lack of size and weaponry with an overload of passion for those pit bulls.)
And then there are days like yesterday, which give me pause . . . oh, how I hate to pause . . .
I had a long list of things to work on, and had made a pretty good dent, but at 2 p.m. I got a call from Karen Lombardi, one of our local animal control officers, who told me she was on her way to investigate a complaint about a horse that had supposedly been shut in a stall for the past two years and was knee-deep in muck and slime. Karen did not have a horse trailer, and she wondered if I would be able to help move this horse if needed, and if I had an open stall. I did a quick rearranging of stalls in my head, and agreed that she could be brought here in a pinch. However, at 3 p.m. I had a pit bull coming for a farm visit that I needed to spend some time with as I was hoping to help find him a home. I asked my trainer, Ashley, to hitch up the trailer and head over to get the pony. Oh, yeah, and I should also mention that I have seen so many God-awful animal situations, I truly was not feeling like seeing yet another; I was more than content to focus on taking care of the pony once she arrived. Why encourage myself to foster yet another sadistic, retaliatory fantasy? I mean, it just can’t be mentally healthy, these punishments I concoct . . .
I busied myself in the barn, but my phone rang again, and it was Karen telling me the horse might need to be sedated as the conditions were appalling and the poor thing was terrified. Dammit. I was going to have to witness it first-hand . . . I thought about a punishment scenario for Karen, but instead, I grabbed my medicine box, hopped in the truck and rushed to the scene, only five minutes from my home.
A state police car flashed its lights at the bottom of the drive near our horse trailer. I walked through the trees and up the rutted, rocky drive where I encountered waist-deep grass filled with trash and junk. Wow. Where was this horse? A narrow path wound uphill, and I followed it until I heard voices, and then finally found a crowd of people huddled near the entrance to a small barn, the back half of which was caved in. OMG. I didn’t want to go inside. But, of course, I did. And found my worst nightmare.
Karen and Ashley stood at the horse’s head, trying to keep her calm, while Paul Neidmann, our other ACO, used a crowbar to take down the side of the stall. This pony had actually been nailed into a 10 by 10 foot space. The horse was caked in filth, but that wasn’t my initial concern; I desperately tried to see her feet because if they hadn’t been trimmed for two years, getting her down the hill was going to be more than challenging. The pony, however, was sunk nearly a foot into the slop so I had no idea what the extent of the damage was.
I slipped past Karen and Ashley and gave the horse a small injection of a sedative, expecting the worst possible reaction, however, she didn’t flinch. It would be a few minutes before it kicked it, but it would take at least that long to get her out of the barn. Paul finished removing the boards, and we started coaxing the pony out of the stall into an aisle that was less than two feet wide. The mare wrenched one front foot from the sucking mud and we saw the worst case of overgrown hoof we had ever witnessed. The walk down to the trailer, through the overgrowth and down the rutted drive, was going to be the longest of this pony’s life.
But let me digress, because as much as I wanted to hunt down the horse’s owners and kick them into a bloody pile of body parts, in the background stood a girl, clearly an owner, and clearly distraught. As I watched her, I could tell she was very concerned about what was happening to her horse. And then, the true horror of the situation dawned on me . . . this girl really did love the horse, but in the same way this family was unable to maintain the property, house, barn, driveway, etc., they were also unable to maintain their pony. I could imagine them starting out with high hopes, buying brushes, lead ropes, halters . . . but as I began to understand this girl was afraid of this animal and couldn’t handle walking her on a lead line, I could see how the mare could be closed inside her stall for longer and longer periods of time until they really couldn’t take her out again. And then the long, slow buildup of manure and muck . . . and then being afraid to call anyone to help because the condition of the mare had become worse, and worse.
As expected, it was a long and torturous walk to the road, followed by the problem of loading a horse whose hooves were so long and curled they kept catching below the edge of the trailer so that we had to individually lift each foot and set it inside.
We arrived at the farm, and before we tucked Cheyenne into her stall we gave her a long, warm bath to remove most of the caked-on mud and feces. She stood quietly, whether it was from the sedative or her general good nature, I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter; in less than an hour from the time she was rescued she looked like a new horse.
But let me digress yet again. For as long as we have been rescuing horses, we have been under public scrutiny. We have been attacked for the way we care for them (if there are a million horse people in this country, that means there are a million standards of how they should be cared for.) We have been attacked for the KIND if horses we rescue, i.e., “That horse is worthless and will never be ridable – it should go to slaughter!” (Because, of course, the only standard for horses is if they can be ridden or not . . . sigh . . . ) And we have been attacked on far more personal issues. Few things bring out an opinion in people the way any form of animal rescue does, but silly me, I didn’t know this before I went into the business.
This scrutiny has even degraded to the point of people calling animal control and filing complaints (anonymously, of course) that we are neglecting and abusive of our animals. About four years ago, on a horrible, sleeting, icy winter day, we found our driveway blocked by several SUVs from animal control. An ACO asked if they could come onto the property because several people had called to complain that we had not fed our animals for so long they were all in danger of dying at any moment. I invited them into the barns where workers were in the process of feeding everyone grain and hay, and I offered to remove all their blankets so they could see that our horses were not wearing “fat suits,” and that they were, indeed, just a lot of chubby animals. The officers looked around and saw that everyone had heated water buckets, right down to the chickens and ducks, and they all had shelter, and they apologized and went on their way. It wasn’t the last call they ever got about us, but it was the last time they were concerned about the welfare of our “babies.”
So, here’s the million-dollar question. If people are so concerned about our animals, who are fed and cared for to the tune of nearly $3,000 in hay, grain and supplies each month, never mind hundreds of hours of labor, how on earth did it take two years for a neighbor to finally realize it was time to report a horse that they hadn’t seen outside for two years? It was obvious that this family was in trouble on multiple levels and did not have the capacity to care for an animal. Why delay? I am not trying to put the blame on the neighbors – they weren’t guilty of the neglect. HOWEVER . . . how many neighbors of inner city dog fighting operations stand quietly by and do nothing? The same goes for cock fighting (and we’ve rescued our share of pit bulls and roosters, as well.) Why in God’s name do people go out of their way to report us, a farm with an open-door policy that allows visitors to stop by and see our animals any day of the week (really, how do you hide anything with a policy like that?) yet let a pony like this one stand in deep, wet feces for literally YEARS?
Sometimes I want to bang my head against a wall until it bleeds. Sometimes I want to quit and run away from everything. Sometimes I wish I can’t hear the voices of these animals crying out to me for help as the responsibility of it all can be so . . . very . . . overwhelming. And then, I shake it off, get out of bed with the sun, suck down my coffee and haul my butt out to the barns where I dump grain into buckets while my husband hauls the hay up the hill. Seven days a week. On call 24 hours a day. Vacation? I dream of vacation, but not nearly as often as I dream of beating Michael Vick to a bloody, mushy pulp, so I keep on taking care of my rescued animals, from horses and pigs and sheep to parrots and cats and yes, several pit bulls.
I didn’t sleep at all last night. I imagined what it was like to be that pony, whose name we now know is Cheyenne, trapped in that stall, sucked deep into the manure, forgetting what it was like to feel the sun and gallop in the grass. How deep was her despair? I imagined what it was like to be the girl who owned her, unsure of how to take care of her, afraid to ask for help for a horse that had completely overwhelmed her. Where to turn? How to make it better? And another day of animal suffering had already passed her by . . .
And I thought about how people involved in animal rescue spend so much of their time bickering over how it should be done instead of uniting for the same cause. What kind of difference we could make if we all did it for the sanctity of every life as opposed to our own egos? And, oh, there are egos in the rescue world . . . and a mean-spiritedness that sends chills down my spine . . .
But I digress again, and I must leave my ramblings behind and be on my way out to the barns to feed animals before the veterinarian gets here to help us begin the long process of healing and rehabilitating Cheyenne. If I am lucky, I will labor myself to the point of exhaustion so I will sleep through the night. If not, I will lie awake again and obsess about the nuances of animals and life and death. And maybe devise a new way of dealing with the sins of Michael Vick. Because if you can’t figure out how to make the world a safe place for animals, the only solution is to devise bigger and better plans to make the world unsafe for their abusers. When, of course, you can absolutely tell it is abuse, as it was with Vick. Because God help me, I am over my head with Cheyenne as, while the horse is clearly in dire shape, the circumstances of her neglect have so many painful shades of grey.
So I shall cling to the hope that those who drop a pit bull into an electrified pool (while laughing . . . OMG, please save the human race) will meet a similar end, and those who are confused, overwhelmed and lost, as I believe the owners of Cheyenne were, are educated and, at the very least, kept from having any animals ever again.
And on that note, I head out to take care of a very special little horse who is now safe and clean in our barn . . . while my heart continues to break for everyone involved. . .
(Yes, in spite of the insanity of that day, I did get to meet the most wonderful pitbull named Riley, a true gentleman who is looking for a home to love him as much as he deserves to be loved. If you are interested in adopting this handsome boy, please take a peek at him at Karuna Bully Breed dog rescue. You will not be sorry!)
Kathleen Schurman is the owner of Locket's Meadow Farm in Bethany, CT, where she and her husband David take care of more than a hundred farm animals rescued from slaughter and abuse situations. Kathleen is also the author of several children's books, and recently published her first adult novel, Three Days in August.
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