LANTRY, S.D. (CN) – Hundreds of wild horses from a troubled South Dakota conservation ranch may still see a happy ending, thanks to a settlement agreement transferring their care to an out-of-state charity.
The International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros first came to the public’s attention at the end of September 2016, when a former employee released shocking documentation of emaciated and dead horses that she claimed suffered from starvation-related causes on the nonprofit ranch in rural, north-central South Dakota.
Around the same time, a state veterinarian classified the horses as “neglected” after an inspection found them nosing through manure looking for food on the barren, overgrazed land. The ranch, which straddles Ziebach and Dewey Counties, was court ordered to temporarily hand the horses over to the counties for their care and maintenance just two weeks after the former employee’s documentation went public.
“The county attorneys came in because the society needed help,” Howard Paley, a fundraiser and longtime supporter of the ISPMB said in an interview. “The county did exactly what the county should have done, and although we may not be happy with the outcome of the whole ordeal, they had a choice to make and they made the right one.”
To get the 810 horses back, society president Karen Sussman needed to submit a plan of action and proof that she had the funds to feed the horses for at least 18 months. When she was unable to raise the necessary money by deadline, the horses were set to be sold at a public auction on December 20, 2015.
Although Paley managed to help the society raise $450,000 between September and December of last year, much of that money went to pay Sussman’s outstanding debts that had piled up when the price of hay skyrocketed after droughts in 2010-2011.
Despite Sussman’s inability to come up with enough money to give the horses a viable future, the auction was delayed “indefinitely” when horse advocacy groups stepped in to attempt to reach a settlement with the counties and Sussman.
That settlement finally came to fruition late last week, when Sussman and the counties agreed to transfer ownership of 520 of the remaining horses to Fleet of Angels, a Colorado-based nonprofit that provides emergency assistance and transport for at-risk horses.
Fleet of Angels had already been active in re-homing 270 of the society’s horses prior to the settlement.
“The settlement sets the stage for one of the largest known equine rescue and adoption efforts in U.S. history by allowing the wild horses to be placed in safe homes rather than sold at auction, where they could have fallen into the hands of kill buyers who would transport them to Canada or Mexico for slaughter,” Fleet of Angels said in a statement.
Although Fleet of Angels can keep the horses on the society’s ranch for up to 60 days, it plans to transport them to a hub in Colorado where they can avoid the harsh winter conditions of South Dakota while they await adoption by private owners and other wild horse rescue organizations.