Janet Tuttle has been rescuing horses — abandoned, abused and surrendered — for more than 30 years. She tends to three dozen horses at Rockin’ T Equine Rescue in Lisbon Falls with the help of just her husband and a 78-year-old handyman.
But Tuttle is struggling as she never has before. On top of a long, hard winter and the poor economy, more horses are coming to her farm than ever while at the same time donations are at an all-time low.
Every horse rescue in the state is in the same predicament, she said.
“I cannot even tell you how bad it is,” Tuttle said recently. “It is the worst, worst, worst I’ve ever seen it.”
She said that not only is the lack of donations devastating, the conditions of the horses surrendered are appalling.
“There are a lot worse things than death,” she said. People have been leaving horses in barns and fields to die, she said, simply because they cannot afford to care for them.
“One or two times a month I get a call from someone with a 29-year-old horse asking what they can do,” she said. When people can’t afford their own medications, they certainly can’t afford an aging horse’s, she said. “People are desperate.”
Meris Bickford of the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals in Windham deals solely with horses seized by the state. As of this weekend, the society was caring for 86 horses.
“We are just swamped with returns,” Bickford said. In the past year, five horses have come back to the society because the owners could no longer afford them. Another four are awaiting stalls.
“This has been the worst year,” said Brenda Green at Double B Equine Rescue in Industry. “It costs us $1,300 a month for hay in the winter,” Green said, “and we rely on donations. Bills mount and we do what we can.”
Green has 25 horses right now, many of them surrendered by owners who could no longer afford to keep them.
“The last five were so thin. People are waiting way too long to turn over a horse. Then we have to spend even more to bring it back to good health,” she said.
The economy, combined with illness, forced a well-known rescue in Troy to close this winter. Last Chance Ranch shut down in January as owner Vicci Dwyer, 62, struggled with cancer. Before Dwyer died last week, seven of the rescued horses were taken to Double B rescue, Kathy Mesaric of Last Chance Ranch said.
“We had already discussed closing down when the cancer struck,” Mesaric said. “Contributions had trickled down to nothing.”
“It’s hard to ask people to reach into their pockets when everybody is struggling,” Tuttle said. But she owes $20,000 to the farmer who supplies her hay, and four more state-seized horses arrived this week.
“If I could get these animals through on heart and love, I sure would,” she said. “But dedication doesn’t pay the bills.”
Deb McLain, owner and operator of Down East Large Animal Society in Deblois, is caring for 14 horses now — the most she has ever rescued — as well as a menagerie of cows, sheep, goats and poultry.
“We have turned down several horses, and a few other animals already this year because of financial worries,” McLain said. “The new ones we have taken in all were sad stories or abuse cases that we just couldn’t turn down. A llama and one of the horses were put in a barn when their owner was foreclosed upon and just left. Since they were already thin they would have starved if we had not heard about them.”
McLain said that without hay donations soon, she may have to close her rescue.
“As hard as the past winter was, we have used up our spring supply of hay already,” she said. “It is the worst feeling in the world to not know how we are going to feed the animals for the next month or so.”
Tuttle said that even $1 makes a difference. “It is always the kids and animals that pay the price in our society,” she said. “There is a lot of help for dogs and cats but no one ever thinks of the livestock.”
Jen Winchester at Spirit of Hope Farm in Winterport said that as fuel costs rise, so will the cost of hay and grain. “Last year, hay was $5 a bale. This year it could double,” she said Saturday. “That is not going to be affordable for most people.”
Winchester, who has five rescued horses on her farm, said that for most people who rescue horses, movies and other luxuries are are given up to help the animals. But this fall, as prices rise and donations slip, Winchester predicted that many rescues might be making decisions about continuing another winter.
“There are going to be some hard decisions to be made,” she said.