A horse found this week tied up in an almond orchard and left to die in agony could be an extreme example of the economic strain being placed on large animal owners as the price of feed spikes amid the lingering effects of the recession, experts say.
They urged people to seek help or give humane deaths to horses or other large animals they can no longer afford to feed instead of starving or abandoning them.
Kern County Animal Control was forced to euthanize the horse Tuesday after it was discovered abandoned in an almond orchard near Lamont, its back legs tied to a tree with cheap black rope.
Kimberly Mullins, Animal Control division manager, said an orchard worker found the animal and reported it to officials at around 7:30 p.m.
The first animal control officer to arrive on the scene found the older horse in severe distress. It was emaciated and had been there “quite a long time...you could see that from the dig marks,” Mullins said.
The officer immediately cut the animal free, but the horse was unable to stand.
Veterinarian Chris Comeau with Bakersfield Veterinary Hospital was called out to the scene. He said Wednesday that his best guess is that the horse had been tied up for a day or less because it hadn’t defecated in the area.
But the systematic abuse and neglect of the old grey horse had been going on for a very long time, Comeau said.
When he arrived at the spot where the horse was lying, he said, he at first thought the animal was already dead. He shone his flashlight into the animal’s eyes and the horse moved a little bit.
The horse was covered with evidence that it had been sick for a long time — patches of bare skin where the hair had been worn away and the skin had thickened, showing that it had spent much of the last part of its life lying down.
“He was so weak and emaciated that he could barely move his head,” Comeau said. “This animal was too far gone to save.”
Comeau said he euthanized the horse to stop its suffering then drove back to town at around 11 p.m., the horse’s life and death rattling around in his head.
“You just re-live that for the rest of the evening and, frankly, most of the day.”
“This level of cruelty or abuse I haven’t seen a lot of,” Comeau said.
The horse was neglected, but tying it to the tree made his death inevitable, he said.
“It left no opportunity for this animal to have any possibility of recovery,” Comeau said. “At the end of his life, when he simply couldn’t move around anymore, he was dumped there to die.”
“It’s one of the worst (cases) my officer has ever seen — and she’s a horse person and has been doing this job a long, long time,” Mullins said.
Tracy Totton-Martin, who runs the Bit-O-Heaven Ranch, a nonprofit horse rescue in Bakersfield, was horrified and angered when she learned about the case.
She said the horse must have been terrified as it waited for a mountain lion or other predator to find it there, helpless and unable to run.
“For a horse, who is a prey animal, that is torture,” Totton-Martin said. “I have no use for people who torture animals.”
Mullins said Animal Control has no leads on who tied up and abandoned the horse, but it will investigate the situation as an animal cruelty case. People with information about the horse were encouraged to call Animal Control at 321-3000.
Mullins said the case is a terrible example of what animal control officers believe is a growing trend of people neglecting horses as the price of feed rises.
“We’ve brought in 10 horses in the last three weeks. That’s a record,” Mullins said. “Alfalfa is $21 to $22 a bale. People can’t afford to pay for them. They’re abandoning them.”
Totton-Martin said the price of hay was $8.50 a bale six months ago and now it is $18 a bale.
“I’m looking out of state for hay,” she said. “It’s a scary time for horse people.”
She has a seen a spike in the number of horse owners coming to her hoping to turn their animals over to the rescue.
Totton-Martin has, reluctantly, been turning them away. Her rescue is funded by donations and simply can’t afford to take more animals now.
She said harsh though it is, she tells the owners “if you can’t find a home (for it) and you can’t feed it, you need to have it euthanized.”
Putting the animal down, Totton-Martin said, is a kinder act than that committed by the person who tied the horse to the almond tree near Lamont.
Comeau said abandonment of large animals is surging as feed costs rise and the economy remains in turmoil.
But he urged animal owners of all types to find a way to treat their animals with care and respect.
“If you’re getting into trouble with your animals, seek help,” he said. “Seek some help before you resort to animal cruelty.”
Talking to friends, family, a veterinarian or an animal rescue can turn up solutions or options to abandonment.
In the end, Comeau said, “If you can’t care for it, at least provide it with a dignified passing.”