Volunteers ride to rescue of neglected horses

Equine abuse, neglect cases climb in Clark County

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter



How to help

• The Clark County Executive Horse Council’s Adopt-a-Horse program is a 501(c3) nonprofit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible.n To become a foster family or make a donation, contact Paul Scarpelli, Clark County Animal Control manager, at 360-397-2375 ext. 4705.

• To donate to Ripley’s Horse Aid Foundation, another nonprofit organization, contact Pat Brown at ptsy45@aol.com or Lori Harris at harris2885@yahoo.com.

Last August, a mare named Pearl was among six horses seized by Clark County Animal Protection and Control from a Battle Ground home in what a longtime veterinarian called “the most inhumane situation” he’d seen.

The stable was filthy and excessively muddy; the horses had not been outside. Two horses had to be euthanized. Pearl and three other horses were put into foster care.

Pearl was dehydrated, malnourished and her hooves were in such bad shape she could barely walk.

Pearl was also pregnant, said Paul Scarpelli, Clark County’s animal control manager.

In October, Pearl arrived at horse foster parent Marilee Donovan’s home in Brush Prairie. It was difficult to tell how far along Pearl was in her pregnancy, Donovan said.

“Because we didn’t know when she got pregnant, we were on alert for the birth for months,” she said. Pearl had the tired, pleading look of a woman who reaches her due date without going into labor.

“She would look at me, like, ‘Do something,’” Donovan said.

Shortly after midnight on April 13, Pearl delivered a healthy, 95-pound

colt. It took 11 minutes, and the birth was witnessed by Donovan, her daughter and her granddaughter, who’d all prepared to spend the night in the barn awaiting the delivery.

Due to the timing, Donovan’s granddaughter named the colt Midnight.

Scarpelli said that when veterinarian Brian Johnson first saw Pearl and her friends he said it was the most inhumane situation he’d seen in 34 years of practice.

The fact that Pearl has healed and Midnight is healthy stands out as one of a few bright spots in an otherwise unrelenting bleak streak of horse neglect and abuse cases in Clark County, home to an estimated 30,000 horses.

Some owners, Donovan said, get horses without understanding the costs involved or they think breeding horses will be a profitable venture.

In 2008, factors including rising hay and grain prices and dwindling opportunities to sell horses fueled horse neglect cases nationwide.

Clark County was on trend.

In 2007, animal control received 102 calls about horses.

In the past four years and four months, the county has received a total of 684 calls about horses. Neighbors call with a tip about neglected horses (as was the case with Pearl), physically abused horses or horses running loose in a road.

Scarpelli said when animal control officers take custody of horses, they rely on the Clark County Executive Horse Council’s Adopt-a-Horse program to find a home.

“We don’t have a facility for horses,” Scarpelli said. “Thankfully, the horse council has been very generous with their time.”

Ideally, owners who find themselves temporarily unable to care for their horses would ask for help before the situation gets out of hand, Scarpelli said. Ripley’s Aid Foundation -- which recently lost a $5,000 annual grant due to a county decision to stop giving grants to outside agencies due to budget cuts -- offers vouchers that can be used for feed and veterinary care.

“The best scenario is to keep (the horse) healthy in its own environment,” he said. “That’s the goal.

Scarpelli also encourages owners of stallions to take advantage of annual low-cost gelding clinics to stop unwanted births.

Once horses are either taken by the county or relinquished, the costs for caring for the horses are either paid by taxpayers or the executive horse council.

Civil penalties

The county only files criminal charges in extreme cases of physical abuse.

Typically, owners in neglect cases receive a citation, which can include a fine, that demands the animals be taken away. Owners can appeal to animal control court.

Pearl’s former owners are on a schedule to pay $3,250 in fines and reimburse the county for a $2,300 veterinarian bill, Scarpelli said.

Donovan, who currently has a total of seven horses including Pearl and Midnight, said she and her husband used to breed Morgan horses but they stopped in 2004 because they recognized the demand was gone.

It felt unethical to breed, she said.

“Horses are a luxury, and most people can’t afford luxury right now,” Donovan said.

She said some wannabe breeders read that a Kentucky Derby winner sells for more than $1 million and they think breeding will be lucrative.

“We never even recouped our expenses,” she said. “You do it because you love it.”

In addition to regular costs such as hay and feed, medical costs include the routine and unexpected. When Midnight was 12 hours old, Pearl stepped on his head and Donovan had to call a veterinarian to come out and stitch up Midnight’s wound.

“She’s a good mother, but she was busy looking at another horse and forgot he was there,” Donovan said.

Donovan said she was told Pearl is 22, but from her teeth she looks 15.

“She is a lovely horse,” Donovan said. “She wants to be with people. She wants to be hugged and petted and groomed.”

Both Pearl and Midnight will be up for adoption after Midnight is closer to being weaned, said Pat Brown of the Clark County Executive Horse Council.

“We don’t like to place undue stress on the mare and foal by moving them if it’s not necessary. We usually rehabilitate the horses that come in the program fully and then have them evaluated by a trainer to see what their abilities are and if they would be appropriate for a beginner, intermediate, or advanced rider and how horse-savvy the prospective adopter needs to be,” she wrote in an email.

That helps ensure a permanent placement.

Once Pearl and Midnight are ready to be put up for adoption, they will be featured on the horse council’s website, http://ccehc.org.

Stephanie Rice:360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.