by Lori Tobias, The Oregonian
Saturday June 27, 2009, 12:45 PM
OAKLAND — On a cool morning in June, Jennifer Kunz folds herself beneath the electric fence wrapping most of 1,120 acres. Striding across the pasture, she calls, “Come on, girls. Come on, girls.”
All along a nearby hillside, dotted with oaks and brush, horses pause and their ears prick up. They are of every color, black and white, gray, spotted, sorrel, roan, pinto and paint.
“Come on, girls.” Kunz urges.
One horse whinnies. Another nickers.
“Come on, girls. Come on, girls.”
A trio of paints starts tentatively down the hillside and soon dozens of others begin to do the same. They travel slowly at first, then gather speed until 120 beefy mares, their sons and daughters, mothers and sisters, move as one mass of flying manes and pounding feet.
In a movie, this would be the place where the music swells, the audience dabs a collective tissue and everyone exits feeling just a little better about the world.
In the real world, nature provides the symphony, tissues are optional, but the happy ending is no Hollywood tale. This is the real deal.
This is the Duchess Sanctuary, home to 184 horses, almost all mares and their offspring rescued from pregnant mare urine, or PMU, farms, where their lives revolved around an endless cycle of pregnancy and birth. The urine was used in the manufacture of hormone therapy drugs. But when medical studies in 2002 indicated the drugs might be more harmful than previously thought, the demand for the drugs plummeted and the PMU ranches dropped from a peak of 450 to about 70.
It is the rescue that almost wasn’t.
Celine Myers, founder of Ark Watch Foundation, first learned about the mares in 2004. Somewhere in Canada, there were 89 draft mares; 54 were pregnant. Myers knew they were bound for slaughter and hoped to rescue them. But she couldn’t find the rancher who owned them. The local feedlot owner knew, but he was trying to buy the horses to sell for meat and didn’t want the competition. Finally, after he lost out to another meat buyer, he told Myers where to find them in Manitoba.
“I had been looking for them for months,” Myers says. “I ended up connecting with the right people to buy them 15 minutes before they were going to be loaded onto trucks where they would be auctioned for slaughter.”
Myers, who lives in California, had considered finding new homes for the horses. But when she finally saw them for the first time, she realized many were old and others were damaged.
“They really weren’t horses that were fit to put out in the world that people could turn into riding horses. Their experience with people had been kind of rough, so they really wanted nothing to do with people.”
The foals, on the other hand, would have been highly adoptable, but when Myers looked at the herd, she saw a family.
“Many of these girls had been PMU mares for 20 years,” she says. “I just decided they were going to get to keep their babies.”
She rented 1,000 acres in Alberta and arranged for the horses to be taken there while she looked for property in the United States. Meanwhile, she learned that about a dozen yearlings destined for slaughter, and 10 very pregnant mares. She brought them to the temporary home, too.
And for the next 2 1/2 years, she searched for a permanent home. Finally, she found the land in Oakland, a vast spread of rolling hills and grassy meadow. Ark Watch and The Roberts Foundation gave $2.25 million to buy the property and committed an additional $1 million in the next five years toward operating expenses.
Last June, 160 PMU mares and their offspring arrived, and Myers turned the keys to the ranch over to the Humane Society of the United States.
Today, care of the 184 horses at the sanctuary — the 20-odd other horses are wild mustangs and other rescues — falls to ranch manager Kunz.
“I was there when those mares came from Alberta,” Kunz says. “I was present for a big portion of the babies being born. Being able to watch them grow and have such a great life has been pretty fantastic.”
And she knows them all.
There’s Pearl and Grace, mother and daughter, one white, one gray.
Pearl is 16 or 17, by Kunz’s estimate. “She has been pregnant at least 10 of those years,” Kunz says.
“Guinevere has the most amazing hair, a really long mane. She’s not interested in human contact. She was pregnant when she came. Her baby died. Candida has two babies out there. So many of them are related. They have best friends they stay with.”
There are also the special needs horses, the old girls who have arthritis, are overweight or have other health problems.
“We call them the old ladies,” Kunz says. “One mare has a bad hip, and one has a paralyzed tongue. Spreckles walks sideways like a crab.”
In the future, the Duchess Sanctuary will expand its mission to rescue horses and find new homes for them. But for this extended family of mares and their offspring, the Duchess Sanctuary is meant to be the final stop, a sort of paradise of pastureland.
“The most important thing about this place is it is all about the horses,” Kunz says. “Everything is to maintain or improve their comfort, health or happiness. They are here for sanctuary, not for any purpose involving people.”
–Lori Tobias; email@example.com