June 28, 2006

Horse Rescue Breeds Hope

It's just after 5 p.m. on a recent sunny Thursday, and the scene at Meghan Mills' Bostwick Bay horse farm in Greenport is bucolic, the pastoral setting humming with a pervasive sense of peace.

It's dinner hour for the farm's equine residents, and Mills is caring for her quadraped clients, feeding and brushing each horse and tending to turnout. There is one horse, however, that needs a bit of extra TLC — Lady Hawke, a 16 year-old warm blood rescue horse that Mills is fostering until a permanent home can be found.

One glance at Lady tells the story of legions of horses in the United States, many of whom have not fared as well: Her visible ribcage is evidence of starvation. When she first arrived in Greenport, Lady was 200 pounds underweight.

Lady also has hoof damage, which she suffered as a result of foundering, a devastatingly painful disease, also called laminitis, that can prove to be a career-ending condition for a horse.

Lady, who has lived at Mills' farm for just over seven weeks, was brought to Greenport by Bella Horse Rescue, a Plainview-based operation that seeks to save horses from slaughter.

Kathy Martin, who does not own a horse, or even a barn of her own, founded Bella Horse Rescue in 2004 to raise awareness of a shocking epidemic of carnage that left over 95,000 horses slaughtered last year alone for meat consumption in countries such as Japan, France, and Belgium.

According to Martin, there are presently three slaughterhouses in this country, including operations in Texas and Illinois. The ride toward death is horrific, with horses packed into trailers where they receive no food or water and arrive at the last stop of their lives starving, dehydrated and freezing.

Martin said by law, horses are supposed to be unconscious while slaughtered and are stunned with a "captive bolt gun." Some, however, are improperly stunned and remain conscious while strung up by one leg to have their throats slit: "It's very brutal. They're frightened. It's really very bad."

Many advocate the passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act; a vote on the measure will take place in the House of Representatives soon.

Desperate to put an end to the suffering, Martin, who was working for a landscaper and only started riding in her 30s, formed her non-profit organization, aimed at saving neglected and abused horses.

Mills read on a website that Martin was looking for a stall for a foster horse and stepped up.

"If Meghan hadn't offered her stall, I couldn't have taken Lady Hawke," said Martin.

The road to Greenport was a long one for Lady, who began her life as a European show horse bred for dressage. She could have fetched up to $20,000 in her glory days.

Many horses end up at slaughter auctions because their owners can't keep up financially. "It's really sad," said Mills. "In a lot of cases, people run out of money. Some people can be too proud or embarrassed, and the horse will suffer because of it."

After Lady's retirement, she was sent to a farm in Pennsylvania where she was starved; a subsequent bust by the Pennsylvania Society for Prevention of Animal Cruelty saw the facility's proprietor arrested on charges of animal cruelty.

After a stint in Niagara Falls, where she was quarantined for seven weeks, Lady arrived in Greenport on April 28. "She was distraught when she first came, crying and pacing," said Mills. "She was mangy and malnourished, and her immune system was very weak," with osteoarthritis in her knees.

After weeks of loving care, Lady has gained more than 100 pounds; Mills exercises Lady daily to strengthen muscles weakened by starvation.

After purchasing a horse at a slaughter auction, Martin pays for medical expenses and transport, with costs totaling approximately $1000; a foster parent provides a stall, feed, water, turnout and love.

After Mills fosters Lady, the goal is to find her a permanent home. As The Independent went to press, a possible candidate was considering adoption; both foster and adoptive parents undergo reference checks.

Mills warns fostering is no simple feat: "Taking something like this on, you have to be an experienced horse person, because a horse's needs are constantly changing."

But the rewards are incomparable. Watching Lady put on weight after being so weak was gratifying, said Mills. "The next few weeks after that were a little tough because once she started to get her energy back, it was like having a new horse."

It is an experience Mills hopes to repeat one day: "The best part about it is that I've saved a horse's life."

Even someone who doesn't have the physical resources, said Mills, can make a monetary donation, which goes a long way.

Martin said every cent counts: "I had two little girls save up their pennies and give $32; what an awesome donation."

Mona Kanciter, founder of the Manorville-based New York Horse Rescue Corporation, a not-for-profit horse charity, rehabilitates and places between 500-600 horses a year in qualified homes.

Donations, she agreed, are crucial. "Most people simply cannot adopt but it's so nice when they sponsor a horse." The money, she said, helps to offset costs; one group of young people recently sponsored a horse as a bat mitzvah gift. "Anybody who's in the animal rescue business is in the charity business," said Kanciter. "It's tough, because it's heartbreaking, but it's nice when you get those happy endings."

For more information or to send donations to Bella Horse Rescue go to www.bellahorserescue.org or write P.O. Box 73, Plainview, New York 11803. For more information or to make donations to New York Horse Rescue, go to www.nyhr.org.

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