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Mix-up is bad news for rescued horses

Times Staff Writer

It’s been a summer of tough breaks on a remote ranch where Barbara Clarke had hoped hundreds of old and ailing horses could live out their final days amid sagebrush prairie and juniper forests.

Now, Clarke has almost run out of hay and money to buy more for the animals with tattered manes, sagging backs and yearning eyes that she had rescued.

Her predicament underlines the precarious finances of animal sanctuaries that live and die on the donations of others. Some of Clarke’s animals were taken from sanctuaries that could no longer afford to care for them.

As a feed store owner familiar with the case put it, “Who is going to rescue the horses from the horse rescuers?”

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It’s a question that haunts Clarke, 60, a woman with short gray hair and a compact build, the lone manager of the 1,200-acre spread about 120 miles northwest of Reno and five miles east of the nearest electric power lines.

“There’s no money coming in. Zero,” she said. “I notified county animal control about the situation in case we have to decide which horses are adoptable and which ones are not.”

Those that can’t be adopted will be euthanized.

Clarke’s nonprofit with an unwieldy name -- Dream Catcher/a.k.a. Equus Sanctuary -- was meant to be a secure last stand for 200 mustangs and domestic horses and some burros abandoned by their owners. For four years, Clarke’s most pressing concerns had been hauling hay and rounding up strays.

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Not anymore. A raid on an Antelope Valley horse sanctuary with a similar name and its recent closure by Los Angeles County animal control authorities has had a devastating effect on her operation.

“People think our place and the one in Antelope Valley are one and the same,” said Clarke, making a high desert squint that comes with the territory. “It’s a real mess. Distrust and anger are thick as mosquitoes.”

Lassen County animal control authorities agreed. “I’ve gotten calls at my office from people confusing the two sanctuaries,” said local animal control officer Judy Walesch. “I tell them I can guarantee that Barbara’s sanctuary is a good one.”

A review of the operation’s financial records showed that its total monthly donations have dropped from roughly $10,000 to $500. Clarke has removed “a.k.a. Equus Sanctuary” from her title. She got $15,000 worth of hay on credit from a local feed store until its owners said, “No more, Barbara.”

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The trouble started June 15 after the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control raided Equus Sanctuary in the Antelope Valley community of Pearblossom and arrested its manager, Janis Damiani, on charges of animal abuse. Fifteen of the 100 horses at that facility were so emaciated they had to be euthanized.

“It was very sad,” recalled Michelle Roache, deputy director of outreach and enforcement for the agency. “We found horses with open wounds and sores on their legs.”

Damiani was sentenced in June to two years and eight months in state prison after pleading no contest to animal abuse charges.

Clarke’s troubles had only just begun.

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An e-mail shared among supporters of the Pearblossom facility alleged that animal control authorities had held a grudge against Linda Moss, sanctuary owner. The e-mail encouraged people to call certain telephone numbers to express their outrage against the animal control department.

But the e-mail started circulating among other horse sanctuary networks, and people zeroed in on the phone number for Clarke’s operation.

“It was like a knife in the gut,” she said. “We started getting threats on the telephone from people accusing us of animal cruelty.”

Clarke plans to “sit down and write a letter to clear up the confusion.” The letter will go out to the roughly 3,000 donors nationwide whom she had relied on to sustain an annual budget of about $175,000.

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Clarke’s primary donor, Patricia Shenker, a wealthy self-described “sucker for animal causes” who bought the Dream Catcher ranch in 2003 and then leased it to Clarke for $1 a year, has offered to put up a $50,000 matching grant to keep the operation alive.

But with winter coming on fast in the high country, Clarke, who handles most chores herself, said it may be too late.

“Folding up for us means a goodly number of these horses will have to be put to death,” she said. “With the cost of feed and fuel rising, people aren’t adopting horses anymore. There’s no place else for them to go.”

For the most part, the mustangs roam free on the ranch. Some of the rescued domestic horses travel with the mustangs, but most are confined to corrals. A few are so old and sickly that they are restricted to a barn that Clarke calls “my convalescent home.”

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It seems unlikely that the negative publicity surrounding the name Equus Sanctuary will end soon, because of a bitter, complex legal battle. A month ago, Shenker filed a lawsuit against Moss, owner of the Pearblossom facility, demanding that she stop using the name Equus Sanctuary.

Animosity between Shenker and Moss dates to 2001, when Moss’ horse sanctuary filed for protection from creditors in bankruptcy court.

According to Shenker, who said she had donated about $500,000 to Moss over the years, the legal right to the name Equus Sanctuary and its list of donors belongs to Clarke, who, by permission of a judge in a later bankruptcy, took charge of about 260 horses from Pearblossom in 2004.

Clarke later adopted out all but 85 of the horses.

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Clarke said she had hoped to maintain “continuity with the horses’ donors” by attaching the name Equus Sanctuary to Dream Catcher. In retrospect, she said, “that might have been a mistake.”

In an interview, Moss put it another way: “It’s amazing that a bunch of old, crippled horses that would otherwise be on their way to slaughter could cause so much conflict.”

For Clarke, there is no letup.

On a recent weekday morning, as clouds darkened the landscape Clarke calls “a patch of goodness in a whole big ugly human drama,” she toted bales of hay out to a paddock where a dozen old and skinny horses waited.

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Wiping sweat off her brow, she said, “I’m just a caretaker here.”

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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On latimes.com

Horse haven’s woes

For a video report see

latimes.com/dreamcatcher

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