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The website for the California horse rescue organization CHANGE: Coins to Help Abandoned and NeGlected Equines provides a troubling glimpse into the horrific conditions that horses sometimes experience. There’s Mindy, a thoroughbred mare who was more than 300 pounds underweight when she was taken in. Art, an Arabian gelding—also severely underweight— was abandoned in the middle of the night at a local intersection. A horse named Nonie was found starving in an unattended pasture. And a horse named Argus—often referred to as the group’s darkest case—was rescued from a criminal hoarder who had kept him confined in a 12-by-6- foot pen—for 15 years. Some horses have scars. Some have chronic wounds. Some are partially blind. Some are agoraphobic. Some have been living in such deplorable conditions, they don’t even know how to eat grass. “Yes,” acknowledges Dr. Grant Miller, an equine veterinarian and one of CHANGE’s founders. “We see the worst of the worst.” CHANGE was launched in 2007 the old-fashioned way—the group distributed empty water bottle jugs asking citizens to leave their spare coins (hence its acronym). When Miller started telling the equine community about the project, he was heartened by the enthusiasm: “I found that there was an overwhelming response in the community for those who wanted to help—because many people who have lived here for generations had observed there were few options available for horses in need.” The evolution of the group has been dramatic. CHANGE is now buoyed by more than 200 volunteers, has a committed board of directors, and has rescued more than 75 abused and abandoned horses in Sonoma County.
Filling a Need
Miller was inspired to start the group in August 2007, when he assisted Sonoma County Animal Control on an equine abandonment case. An ink-black quarter horse gelding had been found tied to a fence post on a punishing 100-degree day; he was severely emaciated, dehydrated, and suffering from colic. Ultimately, the horse was euthanized, and Miller says the outcome troubled him. “As a vet, I want to euthanize animals that have no hope of recovering. But I knew at that moment I was euthanizing this horse, I was doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Those reasons were simple and sad: Sonoma County Animal Control—despite what Millers calls its “best intentions”— was unequipped to take care of the animal. Helping such a horse come back isn’t just an issue of medical care, Miller explains. “You have to have a facility; you need personnel; you need people to monitor the horse, to help the veterinarian in the case. And unfortunately, Sonoma County didn’t have anything at that time,” not even a horse trailer or a horse shelter. To Miller, this was a catastrophic situation: Home to more than 20,000 horses. Sonoma County is one of the most populous horse regions in the nation.
In the wake of the case, CHANGE was born. And to fill the vacancy that Miller observed, the organization specifically works in a close, private-public partnership with the county, functioning as a subsidiary to animal control. A citizen cannot relinquish a horse directly to the organization; rather, “We provide rehabilitative and adoptive services to horses, which in turn relieves the county of a very difficult task,” Miller says.
This is strategic: Miller knows that if CHANGE can deal with horse rehabilitation, the county can devote more time to another important arena of tackling equine abuse: law enforcement.
Amy Cooper, director of Sonoma County Animal Care and Control, says the partnership has allowed the agency to get training from CHANGE, enabling its officers to distinguish between a healthy, elderly horse and one who is being neglected. “The hands-on training provided by Dr. Miller allows the officers to physically evaluate a horse to determine its age, weight, and overall condition. Without this training, the officers would have to contact a veterinarian to come out and evaluate the animal, sometimes with a delay of a day or two. This can be a critical delay in saving the horse’s life,” Cooper says.
It also “enables us to ensure that the horses who come into our custody receive compassionate, professional care.” Previously, she says, medical care for the horses in animal control custody was piecemeal, provided as resources allowed. Now, Cooper says, “We are able to make one phone call and have the horses’ care needs promptly met.”
That “one phone call” is the heart of the CHANGE program. In a kind of underground railroad of equine care, more than 45 separate barn facilities in Sonoma County donate their space and time (while Miller donates his services) for 24/7 rehabilitative foster care and shelter space for horses in need. It’s run on a phone tree system, and the identities of the barns, their locations, and their owners are protected.
This protective approach has a history; Miller’s role as horse defender is not always warmly received. “I’ve had a number of death threats,” he says, mostly from those who are being accused of animal abuse. He has been spit on, jumped on, verbally accosted, and threatened in online chat rooms. Some people don’t see their treatment of horses as abusive, Miller says. “They feel like they’ve always done it that way, or it’s a tradition in their family—or maybe in their culture. To them, it’s a complete stranger coming onto their property and taking something they own. So to them, we are the criminals.”
That notion helps explain why CHANGE keeps the identities and locations of its helpers private. “You never know what these cases will entail,” says Miller. “Some of the people whose horses have been taken from them might want to try and get animals back. Some of the people might have criminal records. We don’t want to put our private barns at risk.”
Fresh Gear—and a Fresh Start
When a horse enters the CHANGE program, Miller immediately conducts a medical examination. Each animal receives dental work, foot care, vaccinations, deworming medication, blood tests, and instant attention to any critical or painful conditions. Miller’s care is comprehensive: Besides being an equine veterinarian, he says he is also certified in acupuncture, chiropractic care, and dentistry.
Upon entering CHANGE, each horse is also given a new bucket, blanket, halter, and brush, all donated by supporters. Miller thinks the horses are aware of this: “I think a horse having its own set of equipment provides some emotional comfor t. I want them to know their bucket is their bucket. Their brushes are their brushes. And I’m very adamant that the supplies we give to each horse follow that horse throughout its rehabilitation process into its new adoptive home.” The horses are also given different names once they enter the program—a symbol that their lives are beginning anew.
On average, a horse in the CHANGE program takes three months to be physically rehabilitated, but it can take another six to 12 months for the animal to be adopted. The group takes adoptions very seriously. Angela DeCarli, owner of Winners’ Circle Ranch in Sonoma County, is a major CHANGE supporter. Nonetheless, she says she had to go through an extensive interview and questionnaire process— and sign a strict contract, which, among other stipulations, explicitly states the horses cannot be sold to another party—in order to adopt her horse, Olivia.
As a third-generation Sonoma County resident, DeCarli says CHANGE has had a major impact on the equine community: “CHANGE really brought horse abuse here to light. Whether it’s how much of it existed just in backyards and nobody saw it ... or that it’s actually happening more … it’s all come to light because of Grant.”
Adopting the now-thriving Olivia from CHANGE has been a deeply rewarding experience for DeCarli—and a startling one. She’s been around horses for more than 50 years, but says she was unprepared for the level of abuse previously inflicted upon Olivia, who was rescued from a particularly egregious cruelty situation. “You could see every bone in her body. It was like an anatomy lesson. Her vertebrae popped through the mane. All of her hip bones, all of her ribs. She had scars that we’ve tried to heal—and it’s been almost three years.”
Commitment to the justice system is a core part of CHANGE. Because Miller is trained in large animal forensics, he offers gratis expert witness testimony to criminal cases. He has testified in court more than two dozen times, including a 2008 landmark case in which he says a Sonoma County citizen was sent to jail for horse cruelty—the first time that had happened. Miller is passionate about the law: “If all you are doing is rescuing horses, you are taking care of other people’s messes,” he says. “I’m looking to the future. If you want to affect the way society functions, you focus on the law and on law enforcement. That way, you affect change from the ground up.”
Miller’s work with law enforcement officers and the court system recently inspired him to co-author a handbook called Minimum Standards of Equine Care in the State of California, a resource that gets very specific about what horses need. Miller says that his work with the rescue group has illustrated that “it is a very gray, mottled line as to what is OK to do with a horse and what is not.” For example, he explains, “We know [by law] a horse has to have ‘an adequate amount of water’—but what does that mean? An animal control officer and a [district attorney] cannot be expected to know that; they don’t have the training to know that.”
The handbook aims to answer those questions. Designed for law enforcement officers and district attorneys, it focuses on five categories of equine care: water, food, shelter, transportation, and veterinary care. Using current law as a launching pad, Miller and his coauthors go a step further, providing detailed language in each category. Since the authors often serve as expert witnesses in California, Miller says, “We decided it would be a good idea to write down what our opinion is for the minimum amount of water a horse needs. We tried to be very descriptive—so it’s not just one amount of water, but that it depends on the horse’s weight, ambient temperature; it depends on their exercise level; whether they are pregnant or not. We put in all sorts of parameters to make it as specific as possible.”
In fact, The HSUS wrote a letter supporting Miller’s new handbook. “Your handbook provides the prospect of a science-based, even-handed, best practices application of the law,” wrote Jennifer Fearing, HSUS’s California senior state director.
The efforts to develop the guide were groundbreaking, Fearing says. “To take peer-reviewed science and apply it to California law in such a practical way is unique and incredibly helpful to enforcement officers trying to help owners take proper care of their animals and to hold those who fail to do so accountable.”
This year, CHANGE will offer an equine care training program for animal control, highway patrol, and fire department employees. The training will focus on how to safely extract horses from emergency situations—such as an overturned trailer, or getting stuck in a ditch. And next year, because Sonoma County has a large Latino community, CHANGE will offer a Spanish-language program on horse care, with veterinarians and equine experts.
Sadly, the organization is now caring for more horses than ever before—and Miller thinks this upward trend will continue. This is due to what he calls a “perfect storm” for horse neglect. “Horses are funded by discretionary income— they are the fun money. And the fun money has run out in this country. Jobs are disappearing. People aren’t getting raises anymore. Gasoline has tripled in cost. Maybe taxes are going up. Houses are being foreclosed—and horses are being left behind.”
He believes, though, that CHANGE will be able to handle the influx in its area. “We are here. We have good funding. We have a good support network. We have a good relationship with the county. The horses in my area … there is a net to catch them.” He worries about other areas, though, and says that CHANGE will of fer its bylaws and poli - cies—in essence, the organization’s template—to anyone who requests them, “so that everyone can help.”
Beyond wor k ing a t CHANGE gratis, Miller also works at a private veterinary clinic and is the director of regulatory affairs at the California Veterinary Medical Association. Essentially, his entire professional life is dedicated to the well-being of horses. “A lot of people ask me how I can bear to do this and see the abuse every day. One thing I’ve learned is that it is more painful to stand by and see an animal suffering than do something about it.”
Miller pauses, “I asked myself early on [about doing this work], and said to myself, Why not me? I’m a veterinarian and I have an oath. And, yes, it is hard. But it would be a lot harder to do nothing.”