LANTRY, S.D. (CN) — With another harsh South Dakota winter just around the corner, a former employee at a wild horse sanctuary has released documentation of emaciated and dead horses at the ranch, hoping to get help for the others before the cold sets in.
"When I began working for and living on the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros ranch in April of 2015, I was full of hope and joy," Colleen Burns wrote in a statement accompanying her documentation.
"I was working my dream job and able to apply my life and professional skills to help wild horses for an organization that has been saving them since 1960. ... It was a dream ... a dream that turned into the most horrific of nightmares."
Burns says that since June more than 30 horses have died of starvation, lack of veterinary care and other causes at the ranch.
She released her documentation of the deaths to the public and to The Animal Legal Defense Fund late last week.
(Editor's Warning). The document is rife with harrowing photos of horses whose every rib is visible, hipbones jutting sharply out of flanks. One photo depicts a horse with a gruesome open wound on its neck.
NBC got wind of the documents early, running a story on Saturday. By Monday this week, the story had spread across South Dakota newspapers, into Iowa, and onto horse enthusiast websites, many of which reprinted the less-graphic of the troubling photos.
Burns' fears about how the horses will fare in the coming winter are understandable. In 2013, an October winter storm killed up to 30,000 cattle in South Dakota, according to Weather.com.
When neither the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros president Karen Sussman or its board of directors heeded her concerns about the horses, Burns said, she began creating her 16-page document of photos, journal entries and stills from videos.
Five days after she posted her document to a public Google page, the society (ISPMB) updated its homepage with a flood of images dated Oct. 3. These images show clean, healthy and placid-looking horses surrounded by mounds of hay.
The number of horses at the ISPMB ranch has risen from 260 to 650 in the 16 years that it has been studying wild herds, according to the society's website. Burns says the ranch does not have the money to adequately feed them all, nor enough grass on its 680 acres to support their grazing.
On Monday, Dewey County Sheriff's Department announced on its Facebook page that it is investigating. Dewey County Sheriff Les Mayer has been visiting daily since Burns contacted the state veterinarian on Sept. 15, according to Burns' documentation.
Mayer told the Rapid City Journal that Sussman must feed the horses daily or risk citation or arrest. The sheriff said she has complied.
The ranch has been in dire financial straits for years. As early as September 2011, Sussman issued a plea on the society's website for help feeding the horses.
"Today, I am writing to ask for your help," she wrote. "The severity and length of the economic downturn has hit charities hard and we are facing the upcoming winter without enough funding to purchase enough hay."
Sussman is facing grand theft charges in nearby Perkins County, accused of writing a bad check for more than $9,000 to pay for hay, according to the Rapid City Journal.
The society has been sued at least four times in three South Dakota counties since 2015, accused of writing bad checks, not paying for hay or failing to repay loans, according to the Courthouse News database. The claims total more than $160,000.
Burns says food for the horses was delivered sporadically over the summer, and that horses were being fed only once a week by the end of August.
Susan Watt, director of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, has stepped in to help with $6,000 worth of donated hay, enough to feed the herds for three days, according to The Rapid City Journal.
The Dewey County Sheriff's Department also is setting up a fund to help pay for hay for the troubled horses.
Burns says Sussman fired her after she released the documents. She said their relationship had been deteriorating since the beginning of September.
"I pray that the remaining horses are appropriately cared for and that the ISPMB president Karen A. Sussman and board of directors are forced to provide the necessary veterinarian care to those currently suffering and to ensure they have hay every day," Burns says in the closing of her document. "If that happens, all of my pain will have been in the name of the wild horses, especially the ones who starved to death."
The ISPMB, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in north central South Dakota, claims on its website to be "a leader in the field of wild horse and burro protection and preservation."
Its founder, Velma Johnston, was instrumental in passing federal legislation in 1971 that protected wild horses on public land, according to its website. Today, the society focuses on the study of wild horses and manages four herds. It aims to share its findings with the Bureau of Land Management for better wild horse management nationwide, the website says.
Sussman did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Those interested in contributing funds, hay or pasture space for the horses can call Susan Watt at 605-745-7494, email [email protected] or contact the Dewey County Sheriff's Department.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.