In September 2003, in what is now deemed the largest animal abuse case ever, some 167 wild horses were removed from a private ranch in Buellton, CA after County investigators found the animals nearly starved to death. The County seized the horses, and 125 of the most critical cases were taken in by Return to Freedom, American Wild Horse Sanctuary, where they were rehabilitated and held as criminal evidence.

The horses that arrived at Return to Freedom were severely mal-nourished and suffered various health problems. Already at full capacity on their 300 acre ranch, the sanctuary struggled to meet their needs for food and veterinary care. Over the past 2 years Return to Freedom has secured a safe and permanent home for all of the horses and now the final 27 are on their way to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota.

“I knew that we would eventually need to find a permanent home for these horses — our limited acreage simply cannot sustain the number of horses that we currently have at our sanctuary. Still, it is a little sad for me to let these horses go. I have watched them become strong and healthy again here and we have a special bond of trust and friendship. But they will stay together and will be going to an 11,000 acre sanctuary in South Dakota, where they will remain forever. These horses have been through a lot and I know that they will be happy and well cared for there,” commented Neda DeMayo, founder of Return to Freedom.

Dayton Hyde of Black Hills commented that “We are excited that we can offer a permanent sanctuary to theses horses and we will work hard to find funding to make sure that they live out their lives here. Recently 52 wild mustangs were saved from slaughter and brought to our Sanctuary by Ford Motor Company. Despite the fact that no monetary contributions were made for the support of these animals, we welcomed the truckloads of weary and confused wild horses into our corrals and their new home. Funding always comes second when the call comes in that horses’ lives are on the line. Sometimes our efforts bring gifts far beyond our expectations or monetary rewards, and help us to understand why we have devoted our lives to giving wild horses a place to run free.”

“I am happy that we were able to help these horses and that they will have a happy ending. But until the Bureau of Land management changes its aggressive wild horse removal policy, horses will continue to be threatened. Once they are privatized, there is nothing we can do to prevent situations like what happened in Buellton in 2003. What’s worse, we now have the added threat of wild horses being slaughtered, thanks to legislation introduced by Senator Conrad Burns last fall amending the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act,” DeMayo notes.

By the end of the criminal investigation, more than 400 wild horses were seized from the private ranch in CA. The individual who owned the horses and the ranch is now serving an 8 month sentence under house arrest.