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.
“After almost four months of working nearly around the clock to get these horses out of an extremely cold and inhospitable environment, it’s nice to now have the freedom to relocate them to a much more suitable adoption hub,” Fleet of Angels president Elaine Nash said in a statement. “We are preparing to relocate the horses to a facility where each horse can be properly vetted and readied for their adopters or one of the participating Fleet of Angels transporters to pick them up and take them to safe, new homes.”
Funding for the horses’ care has come from additional horse and animal welfare groups, including Return to Freedom, which focuses its efforts on wild horses, and the Humane Society and Griffin-Soffel Equine Rescue Foundation.
Return to Freedom is also partnering with Fleet of Angels in an attempt to re-home bonded horses and herds together.
The ISPMB managed four herds with historical lineages. The Gila herd, for example, could trace its lineage back to Spain in the 1500s, according to Paley.
Paley says that he’s heard “rumors” that the Gila herd will be kept together when re-homed. “We’re very hopeful that the Gila herd will be taken in its entirety; we don’t know if it’s true or not and won’t know until it happens,” he said.
The settlement agreement allows Sussman to retain 20 horses from the Gila herd – although she had hoped to retain the entire herd – pending a $10,000 fee to the counties. It also forbids her from growing the herd to more than 40 horses, presumably because rapid breeding contributed to the ranch’s financial and feeding crisis.
“We don’t have to like it,” Paley said, noting that breeding was an important part of Sussman’s 16-year research and conservation efforts.
“Most people don’t understand the difference between a sanctuary and a conservation center,” Paley said. “A sanctuary typically is where abused animals or neglected animals are taken where they can live out their days or be adopted; no breeding is allowed to prevent ‘creating a bigger problem.’
“A conservation center is there to conserve or preserve the bloodline of the animals in its possession,” Paley continued. “If Karen [Sussman] had managed the Gilas the way a sanctuary would, they would be dead today and there would be none left. She managed the herds for genetic viability so that the animals would survive and their genes would survive. It’s obvious that the people who ask ‘how dare you breed these animals?’ have no clue what she was trying to accomplish.”
Paley said that Sussman reached out to various advocacy groups years ago when the society first started facing financial difficulties in hopes of adopting out some of the horses, but none of them stepped forward to help her.
The counties have expended about $200,000 in taxpayer money caring for the horses since October, although they expect full or nearly full reimbursement. Sussman has repaid $52,000, while the public has donated $11,000 and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals kicked in another $15,000. Fleet of Angels has agreed to pay the remaining $78,000, according to the Rapid City Journal.
Dewey County state’s attorney Steven Aberle also told the Journal that the settlement was “positive” for everyone – the rescue groups saw the horses saved from slaughter, the horses will be relocated to suitable homes, the society will get to keep some of its horses, and the counties will recoup their costs.
Although the agreement appears to be amicable, the settlement’s last line hints at lingering tension, instructing that “none of the parties to this action will make disparaging remarks, comments or statements about another party.”
“Karen is not guilty of being neglectful, she’s guilty of having a financial meltdown of her operation and finally being in a position to attempt a recovery,” Paley said, adding that he still “thinks the world” of her.
Fleet of Angels hopes to see all 520 horses in its care settled into new homes by the end of March.