International Society for the Protection of Mustangs & Burros and Friends of Animals were leading foes of PZP for wild horses
LANTRY, South Dakota––The International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, a leading opponent of contracepting wild horses, has surrendered custody of about 810 allegedly neglected horses, some apparently at imminent risk of death, to the sheriff’s departments of Dewey and Ziebech counties, in north-central South Dakota.
As many as 30 horses had already died of starvation, charged former employee Colleen Marie Burns. Burns’ 16-page affidavit and the September 14, 2016 discovery by South Dakota Animal Industry Board veterinarian Marc Hammrich of the remains of about 25 dead horses preceded the mass impoundment.
Vet: “Animal neglect is present”
Reported Hammrich, “Ownership does not appear to have the means, money, labor, and facilities to support and manage a population of animals this size, and does not appear to have adequate plans to assure the future of this herd. It is my determination that animal neglect is present at this facility.”
ISPMB director Karen Sussman “ran a breeding operation based on a theory that she needed to preserve some rare [wild horse] bloodlines – not sure how rare they are myself, and that the horses would self-regulate [their population] so that they wouldn’t exceed available resources,” Willis Lamm of KBR Horse Rescue told ANIMALS 24-7.
“Starvation is how horses self-regulate”
“It now appears that starvation is how horses self-regulate in a closed environment,” Lamm said. “We’ve seen many times, usually in hoarding cases, where the more aggressive horses get what limited feed is available while the less dominant ones go hungry, and in some cases, eventually die.
“Clearly this debacle didn’t manifest itself overnight. We have a critical care crew from our nonprofit that left for South Dakota earlier this week,” said Lamm.
The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, of Hot Springs, South Dakota, had already sent two truckloads of hay to ISPMB, bought with help from the California wild horse sanctuaries Return to Freedom and Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue. But in view of the number of horses at ISPMB, the emergency hay delivery was expected to last just three days.
“Wild Horse Annie”
The first and oldest wild horse advocacy organization in the U.S., and perhaps the world, the ISPMB occupies a 680-acre ranch overlapping the Dewey and Ziebach county lines, within the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, between the towns of Dupree and Lantry, South Dakota.
Founded in Reno, Nevada, by Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston in 1960, incorporated by her longtime assistants John and Helen Reilly in 1968, the ISPMB was instrumental in winning passage of a variety of local, state, and federal legislation to protect wild horses, culminating in the Wild Free-Ranging Horse & Burro Protection Act of 1971.
The ISPMB was headed by Helen Reilly for twelve years after Johnston’s death in 1977, then passed to present director Karen Sussman in 1989. Sussman, a registered nurse who had been involved with the ISPMB and wild horses since 1981, relocated the ISPMB to South Dakota, and has occupied the the current location since 1999.
“Counties now responsible”
“Dewey and Ziebach Counties are now responsible for the feeding and care of the horses,” confirmed the Dewey County Sheriff’s Office on October 10, 2016. “The plan is for the South Dakota State Vet to inspect the horses on October 13, 2016 and, if needed, a sort will be completed on Friday to separate off the special needs horses for special care.
The ISPMB “will have until the 21st of October to present a plan for the long-term care of the horses,” the Dewey County Sheriff’s Office statement continued. “Then a financial plan [must be presented] by the 11th of November.
“If this plan receives the approval of the State Vet and the States Attorneys of Dewey and Ziebach Counties, then ISPMB will take the horses back. If that does not happen, then the counties will take control of the horses and will be responsible for the horses after that time,” the Dewey County Sheriff’s Office statement finished.
Sanctuary “will likely see at least a reduction in horses”
“The terms of the impounding give the sanctuary near Lantry an opportunity to regain some horses,” explained Seth Tupper of the Rapid City Journal, “but the terms also allow for the adoption or sale of healthier horses and the euthanization of any horses deemed too weak to survive the winter.
“Dewey County State’s Attorney Steven Aberle told Circuit Court Judge Jerome Eckrich during Tuesday’s hearing at the Ziebach County Courthouse that the sanctuary will likely see at least a reduction in the number of horses under its care,” Tupper said.
“Aberle jointly requested the impounding with Ziebach County State’s Attorney Cheryl Laurenz-Bogue,” Tupper continued. “The horses will be impounded at the ISPMB ranch, where the organization and its president, Karen Sussman, will be relieved of feeding and caring for the animals. Those responsibilities will fall to the sheriffs of the two counties, and the costs will be borne by each county government.”
Satellite photos show bare pastures
ANIMALS 24-7 extensively examined satellite photos of the ISPMB facilities, comparing the condition of the barren pastures to nearby habitat grazed by cattle.
“The overgrazed pastures at the ranch are devoid of grass and the ISPMB does not produce a hay crop or have enough money to buy hay for the winter,” Tupper wrote. “The organization has estimated that the cost to buy hay for all the horses is $10,000 per week. Reimbursement of the costs by the ISPMB is listed as one of several conditions for the return of any horses.”
For the ISPMB to reclaim any horses, said Tupper, “the ISPMB would have to prove by November 11 that it has adequate funds, feed or both on hand for 18 months of operations.”
Dewey and Ziebach Counties expect to offer any horses not reclaimed by the ISPMP for adoption between November 11 and December 1, 2016.
“After that,” Tupper summarized, “any remaining impounded horses will be sold at a public auction, with the proceeds dedicated to covering the counties’ impounding costs before any leftover proceeds go to the ISPMB.”
Inasmuch as wild horses are already a glut on the market, with the Bureau of Land Management holding circa 45,000 for whom adopters and other buyers have not materialized, and sanctuary space is unavailable, the bidders are likely to be rescuers able to claim just a small number, and killer buyers who would transport the rest to slaughter in Canada or Mexico.
The nearest horse slaughterhouse appears to be Bouvry Exports, of Fort McLeod, Alberta.
“Animal death is a fact”
“Sussman attended the [impoundment] hearing without an attorney,” Tupper recounted, “and spoke only a few one-word answers to questions from the judge. Afterward, she continued her practice of declining interview requests but gave the Journal a full-page written statement.”
Wrote Sussman, “Animal death is a fact every rancher and farmer in South Dakota as well as throughout the world knows is inevitable. But the circumstances of the animal deaths at the ISPMB Ranch have been wildly misrepresented. They did not die of intentional neglect or the disinterest of ISPMB.”
Sussman, said Tupper, “also accused whistle-blowing former ISPMB employee who exposed the horse deaths, Colleen Burns, of ‘significant falsehoods.’”
Sussman: “Blown out of proportion”
Asked by ANIMALS 24-7 about Burns’ allegations, Sussman responded, “This report is from an employee that I fired. She put it out the day she was fired. We did not have 30 horses that died. Sadly, she and the other employee I fired [believed to be ranch hand Fred Rowley, whom Burns identified as a witness] were in charge of caring for the horses. We have approximately 650 horses,” Sussman said, which turned out to be a significant undercount, “and many of them are in the category of 25-30 years [of age]. Our death loss yearly is about 15-20 and that would include foals and older animals. We just lost a 22-year-old gelding from a rattlesnake bite.
“This has been blown so far out of proportion it is frightening,” Sussman finished. “We have managed this project for 17 years now!”
Sussman did not answer further questions from ANIMALS 24-7.
Who is Colleen Marie Burns?
Colleen Marie Burns’ Facebook page identifies her as having formerly worked in marketing and branding for the Philip Morris tobacco empire, as an e-business specialist for Best Western International Inc., as a former sales and marketing employee for the Miller Brewing Company, and as a technical writer for Insight Enterprises, a computer company in Tempe, Arizona.
While Burns’ resume appears to have qualified her for a position in fundraising and publicity, Sussman hired her, despite her lack of occupational background in animal care and ranch management, as senior project manager.
“She was in charge of managing the horses”
What did that mean?
“She was in charge of managing the horses,” Sussman affirmed to Tupper as well as to ANIMALS 24-7.
Testified Burns, “I began work for and living on the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros ranch in April of 2015.
“Preservation of endangered herds”
“For the past 16 years,” Burns recited, “the ISPMB’s president, Karen A. Sussman, moved the direction of the ISPMB toward ‘preservation of endangered herds’ with the intention of ‘studying their behavior in an effort to change the way the BLM is managing free-roaming wild horses’ by relocating four separate herds of horses onto her property in Lantry, South Dakota.”
Seventy horses came in 1999 from the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. Thirty-six came in 2000 from the Gila Bend area of Arizona. A third herd arrived later from the Catnip Mountains of northern Nevada. The fourth and last herd, acquired in 2007, “originated from the Virginia Range area of Virginia City, Nevada,” Sussman told James Davies of Native Sun News in August 2013. “These were the horses that our first president, Wild Horse Annie, saw from her ranch windows.”
Sussman said she had too many horses at 400
Continued Burns’ affidavit, “The original number of horses [at ISPMB after the acquisitions] was approximately 260.”
Sussman in April 2012 acknowledged to Darla Scarlett of Farm Forum that the 400 horses she then had was already too many. Sussman said then that she hoped to reduce the ISPMB herds to about 200 horses.
“Currently,” Burns said, “it is estimated that over 650 horses are being kept on the ranch. The organization has failed to generate the income needed to adequately feed and maintain these numbers.”
IRS Form 990 filings show that ISPMB had income of $252,770 in 2008, falling to $130,434 during the recession year of 2009, rising to $712,572 by 2012 before tapering down to $633,765 in 2014.
The ISPMB board meanwhile imploded, from nine listed board members in 2012, down to five in 2013 and three in 2014. Neither of the current listed board members, Bobbie Meyzen of Georgetown, Connecticut and Jill Irvin of Chandler, Arizona, was listed on the board as recently as two years ago.
Sussman herself loaned ISPMB $237,721 at some point before 2012, of which only $3,000 had been repaid as of the end of 2014. The ISPMB Form 990 for 2015 is not yet available.
ISPMP hay purchases peaked at $651,588 in 2012, declined to $578,879 in 2013 even as drought sent the price of hay soaring, and fell to $428,721 in 2014.
Through 2014 the ISPMP had run up a cumulative deficit of -$1,052,034.
Burns notified national groups
Wrote Burns in her affidavit, “When horses began to die and my concerns for their well-being were dismissed out of hand by both the ISPMB president and board of directors, I began documenting their deaths. A complete collection of my photographs and raw video has been made available to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, who will be making this information available to the Humane Society of the United States; the South Dakota State Attorney’s office, the South Dakota State Veterinarian’s office, and the Dewey and Zieback County Sheriff’s departments.”
Burns estimated that in addition to the 30 horses she believed had already “died from starvation-related causes on the ISPMB ranch…another 100 or more of them are in imminent danger of dying.”
Horses often hungry since April 2016
The ISPMB horses had often gone without hay since “the beginning of April 2016,” Burns said, for “anywhere from one to three days.”
Sussman’s online funding appeals had become increasingly urgent for several years.
Now, wrote Rapid City Journal reporter Seth Tupper, “Aside from the impounding proceedings, Sussman also faces a pending grand theft charge in nearby Perkins County regarding a $9,394 check she wrote to a hay supplier which authorities say bounced.”
Claims no wild horse overpopulation
Throughout her years of heading ISPMB, Sussman has contended that contrary to U.S. and state government policy, and as the ISPMB web site emphasizes, “There is NO overpopulation of wild horses and burros. Wild horses and burros are NOT the cause of habitat degradation of public lands. Wild horse and burro populations have been nearly CUT IN HALF since 1971 when Congress declared they were “fast disappearing from the American scene.”
Federal and state agencies other than the Bureau of Land Management have mostly reduced or eliminated wild horses and burros from their holdings since 1971, but the BLM, mandated by the Wild Free-Ranging Horse & Burro Act to accommodate wild horses and burros on grazing land leased to ranchers, is generally believed to be managing numbers at or near record levels on open range, plus even more horses who have been removed from the range to avoid overgrazing.
The numbers of cattle and sheep on BLM grazing land meanwhile have been gradually reduced by about half from peaks reached in the 1950s, and continue to be reduced due to drought conditions prevailing over much of the west.
Alliance with Friends of Animals
Sussman found influential allies in making her case against wild horse fertility control in the national animal advocacy organization Friends of Animals and the FoA subsidiary Friends of Wild Horses.
Selling coupons for discount dog and cat sterilization surgery has been the Friends of Animals focal program and funding source since the organization formed in 1957, but FoA has adamantly opposed non-surgical contraceptive approaches in dogs, cats, and horses for more than 25 years.
Recounted the spring 2015 edition of the FoA membership magazine Action Line, “Sussman used [the horse contraceptive] PZP in 2007 because the ranch did not have the room to sustain the growth rate of the Catnip Herd,” which had increased 36% and 31% in the first two years after the horses arrived, “but stopped when she realized that PZP causes infertility after five years.”
“If they can’t breed, they are not in conservation”
Said Sussman, “We stopped PZP in 2012 because we are a conservation program protecting rare and endangered herds. If they can’t breed, then they are not in conservation. None of the mares that had five years of PZP has had a foal yet.”
Elaborated Sussman in a later statement published on the ISPMB web site, “PZP is treating a symptom and is not getting at the root cause.”
Arguing that dominant wild stallions prevent their harems from overpopulating the range by preventing younger stallions from mating with immature fillies, Sussman contended that “PZP inoculation is as bad as the BLM removing horses permanently because it disrupts the harems.”
But even if Sussman’s contention about dominant stallions protecting immature fillies from early pregnancy holds up, deferring first pregnancies for a year or even two years would not prevent a wild horse herd from increasing at an exponential rate over the 10-to-20-year reproductive lifespan of the average mare.
Sussman’s bottom line argument against contracepting wild horses was simply, “PZP means that we are agreeing that there are too many horses. Why are we falling into this trap? We should be advocating that the herds should be left alone…When we employ PZP we must make the decision who breeds and who does not breed. This is exactly what we DON’T want to do. Nature has a wonderful way of keeping survival of the fittest…Let’s have a buy out for cattle in [BLM] Horse Management Areas and pay ranchers not to run cows. This can be done!”
Friends of Animals’ GoFundMe
Amplified by Friends of Animals, Sussman’s arguments had some donor appeal, but not nearly enough to buy or vote ranchers off of BLM leased grazing land, and ultimately not even enough to avoid nature’s “wonderful way of keeping survival of the fittest” from paring the ISPMB herds through starvation.
Friends of Animals on April 9, 2015 posted a GoFundMe appeal for ISPMB seeking to “raise $20,000 to cover the costs of feeding over 500 wild horses on private lands,” significantly fewer than the 650 Sussman claimed a year later, “who are faced with extinction. The ISPMB’s 15 years of data is the instrumental force needed now to save all of our wild horses on public lands from abusive roundups and invasive and unnecessary PZP birth control administration,” FoA said.
Over the next 18 months a total of just 42 GoFundMe donors had contributed $2,159 of the $20,000 Friends of Animals GoFundMe campaign goal.