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Sunday, March 3, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge Steps In to Save|650 Starving Horses

LANTRY, S.D. (CN) — A judge has stepped in to aid hundreds of horses on a wild horse sanctuary, ordering their care handed temporarily over to two South Dakota counties, after a veterinarian confirmed shocking documentation of neglect.

The Oct. 11 order came two weeks after former employee Colleen Burns drew public attention to the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros by releasing 16 pages of photos, video stills and journal entries detailing the deaths of at least 30 horses on the ranch, many of whom died of starvation this summer.

The society's president, Karen Sussman, said in an email to "Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see," regarding Burns' depiction of the ranch.

But veterinarian Dr. Marc Hammrich, who investigated the ranch after receiving a complaint from Burns, categorized the horses as "neglected" in his Sept. 15 Animal Welfare Investigation Report, which was included in court documents released Tuesday.

"Immediately apparent was the lack of feed in the pen and the majority of the horses nosing through the dried manure looking for remaining hay to eat from the last feeding which was scant to nonexistent," he wrote.

He found similar conditions in all four of the ranch's herds, in one case noting that horses were "searching the ground for feed and in some cases eating manure."

He came across a dead horse carcass in one pasture, and a burial pit containing at least 25 carcasses in various states of decay. Hammrich estimated that 10 percent of the ranch's horses would not survive the winter without intervention.

Ziebach County Judge Jerome Eckrich's 2-page impoundment order on Tuesday adopts the conditions set forth in an agreement between the county attorneys for Ziebach and Dewey counties, where the ranch is, and Sussman.

Although the 650 horses will stay on the ranch, the Ziebach and Dewey county sheriffs will oversee their care temporarily, according to the Joint Motion for Voluntary Impoundment.

However, the sheriffs require that alternative arrangements be made before winter.

"I have dedicated my life, my fortune, and my reputation to the protection of wild horses throughout the United States," Sussman said in a statement. "More than once in my 30 years with the organization, I have personally financed our activities to feed, study, care for and protect these beautiful animals. I have dedicated the majority of my time freely, only rarely collecting a salary, and selling my personal property to provide much needed funds to the organization for hay. To accuse me of cruelty or disinterest of these wild horses, that I have dedicated my life to protecting, is both outrageous and preposterous."

Sussman can get the horses back if she can produce a viable plan for providing adequate food, shelter and veterinary care for the next 18 months. In addition, she must provide a specific "end of life plan" for horses suffering from age, injuries or sickness.

"We have been developing an ongoing management plan which includes downsizing our herds, potential purchase of a larger property to reduce our costs of ever rising hay prices, and a long-range vision for our organization," Sussman said.

Sussman's plan, which must include provisions for reimbursing the county for the horses' care, is due Oct. 27.

In the meantime, a veterinarian will inspect the horses and divide them into three groups: those that are healthy enough to survive the winter with adequate food and care, those that will require special attention to survive the winter, and those that are unlikely to survive the winter and should be euthanized.

The motion encourages Sussman to make arrangements for some of the horses to be adopted.

Any horses not adopted or returned to Sussman by Dec. 1 will be sold at a public auction.

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