Volunteers describe horrific horse starvation

Beth Ann Bender, left, a volunteer photographer at Last Chance Ranch, and Stephanie Lorenz, the barn manager, tries to photograph Otto, a severely malnourished twenty-five year old quarter horse at the facility in Quakertown, Pa on Saturday, January 30, 2016.

The remains of untold numbers of dead horses, sheep, and other animals were found where they dropped. Burned carcasses poked out from underneath a woodpile. A trench was filled with bones.

"Dead and dying animals were everywhere," said Judy McHale, one of the volunteers from the Lehigh Valley County Animal Response Team called in Jan. 22 by the Pennsylvania State Police to help transport the surviving animals in what rescue groups are calling one of the worst cases of neglect they have seen.

"This is the worst I've seen," said Lori McCutcheon, president of Last Chance Ranch. "For people to walk away and not take care of any animals is unfathomable."

The location of the property and names of those responsible are not being disclosed until police complete their investigation, McHale said. State Police could not be reached Saturday for information.

With the first winter snowstorm bearing down, police and rescuers had to act quickly to move the most critical animals to safety.

The horses were dehydrated and starving. Some of the equines were so thin every rib could be seen, their hip bones sharply visible. Their bodies held very little fatty tissue. Two dogs had frostbite on the tips of their ears.

"How can you just let them wither away and die?" she asked.

The original rescue plan to take the livestock to a facility in Maryland was scrapped because of the condition of the animals and the snow that had begun to fall.

The nonprofit Last Chance Ranch Animal Rescue in Quakertown was called in to assist. The five most critical horses were taken to Quakertown Veterinary Clinic. Three were euthanized.

"They were just too far gone," said McCutcheon.

When it came time to load Clarissa, a chestnut thoroughbred, onto the trailer, the emaciated horse balked and fell to the ground. While they were able to get her upright, no amount of coaxing could get the mare into the vehicle. She was left in a small shelter to weather the storm.

Neighbors had complained to police about the neglect, which had been ongoing for years, McCutcheon said. But the remote location made getting enough evidence to seize the animals difficult until recently, she said.

The stronger animals had survived by eating trees, bark, and their own manure, McCutcheon said. One horse would routinely slip away, walk a mile to a nearby home where he was fed, and then return, she said.

Four days later, after the storm, police and the Carbon, Lehigh Valley, and Schuylkill County animal response teams returned to take the remaining animals to Last Chance. Four healthier horses that eluded capture remain on the grounds.

Last Chance Ranch is now caring for six horses, 18 sheep, two goats, five dogs, a calf, and a pig, said Jackie Burke, 24, the organization's equine health manager.

The cost is running about $500 a day for food and immediate care. The group estimates it will take $20,000 to return the animals to health.

Clarissa survived the storm but was in a more weakened state. Rescuers were able to lead her onto the trailer, but the trip to the Last Chance Ranch took its toll. The starving horse, with every rib visible, collapsed upon arrival. The staff dragged the 1,000-pound animal onto a tarp and into the barn, but the horse could not stand. The Richlandtown and Haycock Fire Departments responded and hoisted the horse to her feet using a sling and pulleys.

"The signs of life just came back immediately," Burke said.

On Saturday, the horse, about 300 pounds underweight, showed off her spunk when taken on a brief walk outside the barn by giving the staff a bit of a hard time on her lead.

"I didn't think she'd live through the weekend," McHale said. "She looks better already."

For more information on Last Chance Ranch Animal Rescue or to donate, call 215-538-2510 or visit http://lastchanceranch.org/lcr/.

mschaefer@phillynews.com

610-313-8111@MariSchaefer