Questions surface over Aspen Valley Horse Rescue operation
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A rescue operation that has captured the hearts of horse lovers in the Roaring Fork Valley since late September is now capturing scrutiny from observers who fear the effort is well-intentioned but misguided.
Aspen Valley Horse Rescue has purchased and is relocating 127 mares and foals from ranches in North Dakota and Alberta, Canada. The fledgling nonprofit organization has raised more than $100,000 for the effort, mostly from donors in the valley. Organizers Kathy Raife and Mary Bright said the horses would have been sold to slaughterhouses if not for intervention.
But an e-mail signed by a respected Glenwood Springs veterinarian raises concerns that the rescue operation actually enables the ranchers to continue breeding their stock and “churning out new horses” and selling them. Veterinarian Tom Bohanon was out of his office Friday, but his e-mail has widely circulated among the valley’s horse owner community and was forwarded to The Aspen Times.
“The integrity of our organization is in question up and down the valley,” Raife said.
She discussed the issue with Bohanon Thursday night and hopes to address his concerns early this week.
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Raife and Bright said the controversy has diverted precious time from saving horses to addressing skepticism.
“One of my favorite sayings is, let no good deed go unpunished,” Bright said.
The local organization was formed specifically to save horses from operations labeled PMU ranches. Drug manufacturers had contracts with those ranches to provide pregnant mare urine for a drug sold to menopausal women. Aspen Valley Horse Rescue organizers said the ranchers’ contracts had expired, and they were unable to feed all their horses. Therefore they were being bought by auction houses for slaughter.
The motives of the ranchers and of some other rescue organizations is part of the tangled web. Bohanon’s e-mail raised concerns that the ranches haven’t supplied pregnant mare urine for years but had turned to the lucrative business of selling horses to “bogus” rescue operations that, in turn, were selling foals to the public at a profit.
No one accused Aspen Valley Horse Rescue of participating in a scam. Instead it was suggested the organization was hoodwinked into mounting a rescue that isn’t all that it seems.
Raife was clear from the start of Aspen Valley Horse Rescue’s fundraising efforts that the ranches she was targeting no longer had contracts with drug makers. She said in early October and repeated Friday that she believes economic distress was forcing the former PMU ranchers to sell their foals because they couldn’t afford to feed them.
Raife said it is unrealistic to expect all of the horses to be immediately rescued from some of the former PMU ranches, purely from their sheer size. Some of the ranches had hundreds of horses. The ranchers kept breeding their mares after the contracts with the drug makers expired in an effort to maintain profitability. The young horses were sold; the mares were retained for breeding, she said. Now she believes the poor economy has put those ranchers in a bind.
Aspen Valley Horse Rescue and other organizations are removing horses from the equation. Bright said that as the local organizers have learned more about the ranches they are dealing with, they are targeting mares and pregnant mares for adoption. That will prevent the ranchers from conducting irresponsible breeding, she said.
“We’re making a dent, for sure,” Bright said.
The bottom line for Raife and Bright is they are rescuing unwanted and imperiled horses that came from ranches that built up their inventory as PMU ranches. They don’t deny or try to hide the fact that some of the ranches stopped PMU operations up to five years ago.
“We know that these horses, that if we don’t help them, they will go to slaughter,” Bright said.
Raife said they will monitor the ranches they are working with to make sure they aren’t breeding horses irresponsibly, becoming “horsey mills.”
“We will just refuse to work with them,” she said.
Bohanon acknowledged in his e-mail to other veterinarians and horse people that the issue is complex, and “there is certainly no consensus amongst those of us discussing the situation” on how to proceed. Many veterinarians in the valley have been asked to provide care at discounted rates for the adopted horses.
When asked if the scrutiny has soured her interest in the rescue operation, Raife responded, “Absolutely not, not even one bit.” Aspen Valley Horse Rescue remains committed to saving additional horses and finding new homes for them, she said.