Horses have become the latest victims of a struggling economy and harsh winter.
In January, Ashe County Animal Control officers received and responded to approximately 130 calls concerning the suspected abuse and neglect of horses.
“As the economy gets worse, the problem gets worse,” Ann Lisk, co-owner of Southern Sun Farm Sanctuary, an animal rescue outside of Jefferson, said. “We have people struggling just to feed themselves.”
According to Director of Animal Control Joe Testerman, 130 plus calls is standard for a winter month, when call volume is at its peak.
“Animal Control officers will receive more cruelty calls from October-April, or until grass gets to growing and people really don’t have to provide hay or supplemental feed,” Testerman said. “Officers will receive multiple complaints regarding the same horses from different citizens.”
Testerman said most of the complaints regarding horses come from concerned citizens who report horses have nothing to eat, or that appear to be skinny or malnourished.
“Even people who have cared about these animals say they have to eat too,” Lisk said. “You can’t use food stamps to buy horse feed or good quality hay.”
Testerman said Animal Control officers respond to every call regarding cruelty or neglect, and one call or complaint may result in several trips to check horses to fully investigate and evaluate the situation.
“In some cases, we find a valid complaint that needs Animal Control to intervene,” Testerman said.
Penalties for animal cruelty can range anywhere from a citation, to seizure of property and in the most extreme cases, jail time.
“During an investigation of cruelty or neglect, Animal Control officers may issue a citation, and/or charge the owner and seize the horses in question,” Testerman said. “Some cases may only require a warning citation in order to get compliance.”
An intervention can be as simple as educating the owners about proper animal care and as severe as seizure and confiscation of property.
Such was the case last month when Animal Control seized two horses who were continually getting loose and running along the highway, creating problems for vehicular traffic.
At around 6 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 5, Animal Control received a call from a N.C. Highway Patrol officer in regards to two horses running loose on U.S. 221, at the intersection of N.C. 194.
Lisk said it took officers nearly three hours to get the horses off the road, probably because the horses were afraid and hungry.
Animal Control took the horses to Southern Sun Farm where they were immediately checked out by a veterinarian and placed on a steady diet of hay, grain and supplements.
“They got out because they were looking for food,” Lisk said. “Their halters were on and one’s halter was embedded in her skin.”
“She was dragging a rope and had wire attached to a chain in her halter,” Lisk said.
The two young mares - Penny and Bell - were in very poor physical shape when they arrived at Southern Sun Farm.
According to Lisk, their “growth was severely stunted.”
Bell was in the worst shape. She had protruding ribs and her backbone was exposed.
“We’re seeing more come to us like that,” Lisk said.
Late last year, two horse rescues from Robeson County arrived at Southern Sun Farm.
“They were among the worst that have ever come here,” Lisk said.
The oldest one, Tess, had to be put down after a week.
“She was so emaciated,” Lisk said. “I’m not even sure how she made the trip.”
Lisk said that they are seeing more horses like Tess.
“They are so emaciated that you can see skeletal features in their face,” Lisk said. “They’ve had no protein or fresh water.”
According to Lisk, the horses have the look of a lone survivor from a shipwreck.
Lisk believes a lot of these horses are more or less the victims of neglect as opposed to abuse. Their owners are struggling to survive in a tough economy and are having to make the the tough choice of feeding themselves, or feeding their animals.
The cold winter months can take their toll on horse rescues too.
According to Lisk, Southern Sun Farm is already nearing capacity. Some horses who are surrendered in good condition are sometimes turned away to leave room for local rescues.
“When I get Joe Testerman calling me saying he needs help, I have to be sure I have room for those,” Lisk said.
“By the end of February, we’d already gone through our entire budget of hay for the winter,” Lisk said.
“It’s been a tough year,” Lisk said. “A spectacularly tough year.”
Testerman urges anyone concerned with the welfare of a horse or any animal to contact Animal Control at 336-982-4060, or come by the office between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Monday, Wednesday or Friday
Ashe County Animal Control is located at 767 Fred Pugh Road, Crumpler, N.C., 28617.
Alan Bulluck can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @albulluck.