Frank Mackay abandoned 2 horses on Mount Renshaw McBride, British Columbia, Canada December 18, 2008

Two starving horses that had been trapped on the side of a B.C. mountain are now safe and recovering at a farm near the province's border with Alberta.

1.2.    3.   

1. Two starving horses are rescued

2.  Lester Blouin leading the gelding down the trench

3.  Birgit Stutz & Gord Jeck leading the horses down a logging road 

(Photo's courtesy of Birgit Stutz of the Falling Star Ranch)

Snowmobilers first discovered the horses on the side of Mount Renshaw, near McBride, B.C., one week ago. But they couldn't bring the animals off the mountain because of deep snow.

"A decision had to be made whether the horses should be put down or if it was possible to get them out. Were they well enough? My brother made the decision that he was going to get them out," Gordon Jeck told CTV.ca on Wednesday from his B.C. farm.

For the past week, Jeck, his family, and other volunteers have been digging a kilometre-long trench to the nearest trail to get the animals out.

Late on 12/23/08 the horses finally made it out of their snow-bound prison and were put on a trailer and taken to a farm.

Gordon Jeck's nephew, Logan, and a friend first discovered the horses and initially thought the most humane thing to do was to shoot the starving horses.

Instead, Logan returned with his sister, Toni, who said the horses were fighters because of what they endured.

The next day, Gordon's brother Dave returned to the mountain with a shovel and began digging. As word of the trapped horses spread, volunteers began showing up to help shovel.

Jeck says he doesn't understand how anyone could leave them behind.  "That's a bit of mystery," Jeck said. "There were apparently three of them. One of them was never found ... They were doing just fine until the heavy snow hit. There was grass up there. But then the snow came and they couldn't get anything to eat."

The horses have frostbite, are missing hair because of rain scald, and are severely underweight.  "They look rough. They've been standing around that snow for a couple of weeks. Obviously they had enough heart that we thought we could bring them out," Jeck said.

CTV News spoke to the horses' owner who requested his name not be used. He said he and the horses were delivering supplies to hikers on the mountain in September (9/12/08) when he became separated from the animals.

The owner says he went back to the mountain three times to find the horses. The first two times he got stuck in the snow and even rolled his truck and trailer and the third time he was able to locate the animals, but couldn't get them out of the snow.

"It was sort of a hopeless situation, we couldn't even see the bottom of the mountain, we didn't know which way out was out," said the owner.

The owner was expecting to bring Sundance and Belle back to this Edmonton home, but the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has seized the animals while they conduct their investigation.

They are investigating to determine whether the owner took the necessary precautions to ensure the horses wouldn't suffer.  "Once our investigation is completed, if the elements of an offence have been met, which by all accounts at this point looks like it has been, charges would be forwarded to Crown," chief animal protection officer Shawn Eccles told CP.

Update 12/22/08:  Volunteers are working day and night to dig a kilometre-long trench to a remote B.C. mountainside in order to free two horses trapped by snow.

    

Volunteers digging trenches and melting snow to create a path of the mountain.

(Photo's courtesy of Birgit Stutz of the Falling Star Ranch)

The horses were located a week ago by snowmobilers on Mount Renshaw and the local volunteers are cutting through the snow and ice to create a clear path to the nearest trail in order to walk them out.

The volunteers have been providing food and water to the horses, which are suffering from frostbite.

"We can't get equipment there because it would get stuck. We can't get a helicopter into them because we're risking them if we have to tranquilize them, so the only option seems to be to dig them out by hand," said volunteer Lisa Levasseur.

Nearby residents say the animals were left behind by an Edmonton lawyer and hunter this past fall on the mountain near McBride, but SPCA officials won't confirm who is being investigated.

"They've obviously starved....they're missing quite a bit of hair from rain scold (and) they have a little bit of frostbite," said Levasseur.

Update 12/25/08:  It was just a week before Christmas when two starving horses were discovered in the rugged mountains of the B.C. Interior - hip bones protruding, backs blanketed in ice, weakened bodies teetering between life and death.

Logan Jeck, 21, came upon the pair while retrieving two tourists' snowmobiles in the snow-covered terrain. He went home and told his father, David.

David Jeck, a horse owner, sent his daughter back the next day with two things: a .44 Magnum rifle and a bale of hay.

          

Volunteers bringing the horses hay and blankets 

(Photo's courtesy of Birgit Stutz of the Falling Star Ranch)

"If they look like they're in distress, put them down," Mr. Jeck instructed his daughter, Toni. "If they look like they're able to survive, feed them."

The horses got the hay.  And the village of McBride got down to a made-in-Canada tale of animal rescue.

Fighting snow, freezing cold and winter's early darkness, dozens of volunteers from around McBride pulled together to save the enfeebled, snow-trapped horses.

They spent a week digging a kilometre-long passageway through towering snowdrifts and spirited out the three-year-old mare and older gelding. And on Tuesday night, two days before Christmas, the horses and their rescuers trekked seven hours down a Canadian mountain to safety.

The residents of McBride, a village hit hard by mill closings and job losses, gave time and sweat - and in several cases, suffered frostbite in the process - to save two animals abandoned in the snow. The horses, Sundance and Belle, were placed in foster care by the SPCA and are expected to recover.

"This was probably one of the most heartwarming displays of compassion we've ever seen," Jamie Wiltse, a special constable for the B.C. SPCA, said yesterday from Kamloops.

"The people of the town of McBride are heroes. They saved the horses. They've been struggling lately, but they weren't thinking of themselves when they were digging out those horses.

"It just makes me choke up. It's a beautiful story, right before Christmas. It was totally selfless."

It began when Logan Jeck happened upon the animals, clinging to a mountainside in a tiny snowed-in space on Mount Renshaw in northeastern B.C., near the Alberta border. They are believed to have been left there since September by their owner, an Albertan.

At first, Mr. Jeck thought they were moose. Then he saw white markings on the forehead of one of the horses. "They were sick, disgusting-looking, starving horses," he recalled yesterday.

The SPCA went in with a veterinarian a few days later to assess the animals' health. On a scale in which zero is death and the ideal measure is five or six, the animals' health was evaluated at two.

Not only had they lost a third to half their body weight, but the gelding was covered in sores and was missing patches of hair. Urine had encrusted what remained of their tails.

Word of the trapped animals spread through the Robson Valley, and soon volunteers began to organize, hauling in blankets and hay, and melting snow over open fires to provide water. Donations began to pour in for the volunteers to cover fuel and other costs, some from as far as Vancouver and Edmonton.

People such as horse trainer Birgit Stutz, traveled morning and night to reach the animals, venturing out even when the temperature dived to -40.

"They didn't deserve to be left up there with no chance of getting out," Ms. Stutz said. "I wanted them out and that's all I thought about, and that's all that kept me going."

Rescuers considered several alternatives to free the horses from their snowy prison: Harnessing them up to a helicopter, pulling them out on sleds, even putting them on horse "snowshoes" so they could walk out.

In the end, they realized the only viable option was to dig a corridor through the snow. So they got down to what Canadians do at this time of year: Shoveling. It took nearly a week.

Constable Wiltse said the SPCA is investigating to determine if charges may be brought against the owner of the horses under provincial animal-cruelty laws.

An Edmonton lawyer who told CTV News that he was the owner said the horses were delivering supplies to hikers on the mountain in September when he got separated from them. He said he returned three times to get the animals, twice getting stuck in the snow and finally, when he located them, unable to get them out of the snow.

But the SPCA says there is a duty to at least alert authorities. "Even to humanely euthanize them would have been better than to let them starve or freeze to death," Constable Wiltse said.

Residents of the Robson Valley, meanwhile, who sacrificed their own Christmas preparations to rescue the animals, say they are relieved they freed the horses in time. Ms. Stutz has been so busy she didn't have time to put up a Christmas tree or buy presents this year.

"But this still seems like the best Christmas ever," she said from her home in Dunster, B.C. "You realize these are the most important things in life - to help something that needs help."

Update 12/29/08:  McBride area residents who dug two stranded and starving horses out of certain death in the Renshaw region near McBride, say they will not return the horses to their owners without being paid for digging a trench more than one and third kilometres by hand to rescue the animals.

    

The rescued horses

(Photo's courtesy of Birgit Stutz of the Falling Star Ranch)

Birgit Stutz, one of the people who spearheaded the efforts to rescue the horses, says her group is in the process of compiling a bill to be submitted to the owner of the horses who lives in Edmonton.

Birgit says, “If the Crown does not proceed with a charge dealing with the matter of leaving the animals to starve, we will submit a bill to the owner for our work”. Birgit says the owner did not come to the scene of the digging at any time to assist in rescuing the horses "So now if the SPCA doesn’t charge him; we will want payment for the work that we put in rescuing those horses. That bill is very High."

When found the horses were in a condition 2 out of 9. In other words, near starvation when they were found by some area snowmobilers. It was this group that launched an effort to dig the trench to rescue the horses after it was deemed that they could not withstand a flight out by helicopter.

It took local residents more than a week to dig the trench by hand into the area where the horses were. In the meantime they began a feeding program to try and get them into shape to be able to walk a further 25 kilometres down a packed trail after the initial rescue.

The owner of the horses never came to the scene to assist in the rescue say local residents and so if there are no charges laid, he will find himself with a hefty bill to pay the people for the rescue should he want the animals back, that figure could be in excess of $30,000 dollars they say.

Local ranchers and others involved in the rescue will not give the location of the horses until such time as the matter is resolved. The horses are reported as doing well as they recover from their ordeal.

Meantime, more than $6,000.00 has been donated to the cause to help pay for feed and whatever was needed to help get the two animals to safety.

Update 12/30/08:  The Edmonton owner of a pair of severely distressed horses rescued last week from the B.C. wilderness says he tried to save the animals and is frustrated people are assuming the worst of him.

"They don't know all the facts, and they don't know the people and horses involved," said Frank Mackay, 63, a lawyer and veteran outdoorsman.

He said he made two attempts to bring out the horses he was forced to abandon on Sept. 12 on Mount Renshaw, near McBride, B.C.

He was unable to locate the animals on the first attempt, while with a friend on horseback in October, said MacKay.

He made a second attempt after he was informed that some young Edson snowmobilers had found the horses on Dec. 3, he said.

Three days later, Mackay and the three young men reached the horses by snowmobile and discovered they were trapped in snow three metres deep, too weak to walk out.

"We made an assessment that we couldn't possibly get them out," said Mackay, who had expected to find the horses healthy. "They were so wasted they couldn't have walked out."

Mackay said he gave the horses eight litres of Gatorade and thirty pounds of oats and alfalfa pellets, then took some time to say goodbye to his animals. He didn't have a gun, he said, adding that he doesn't know if he could have used one if he had. "We fed them as best we could. That's all we could do."

Driving back to Edmonton that day, Mackay said he was in an accident and rolled his truck and trailer. That's what kept him from joining the rescue two weeks later, he said.

A concussion and a deep gash on the top of his head left him unable to work, he said. "I couldn't physically do it. My head's not so good and my legs aren't so good."

The pack horses, a three-year-old mare and a 14-year-old gelding, were brought out on Dec. 23, after a small group of Robson Valley volunteers spent a week digging a one-kilometre-long trench through the snow.

Details about how the horses came to be abandoned didn't come out until after the rescue.

The horses were left on Mount Renshaw on Sept. 12, while Mackay was on a trip packing supplies to a friend walking the Great Divide Trail, a strenuous hiking route from the Montana border to an area north of Jasper National Park.

The pack horses became stuck in difficult terrain about six kilometres from the road.

"It was like pick-up sticks in there, with muskeg in between," Mackay said of the fallen timber and swamp. "This stuff was just muck."

After spending a night in the bush, Mackay abandoned his camping equipment and left the area with his riding horse.

Since it was still warm and there was plenty of grass and water, he thought the horses, free of their loads, would wander to a well-used road nearby.

"I expected them to walk out," said Mackay, who informed the local RCMP of the situation. "I've had them both since they were weaned."

He said the horses had six weeks to leave the area before snowstorms trapped them. "When they decided to come out, it was too late."

Local volunteers say Mackay can't be blamed for losing the horses, but should have made sure the animals didn't starve. "Having no gun is no excuse," said Birgit Stutz, a member of the local team responsible for freeing the horses.

She said she's not sure whether the Robson Valley community will be willing to forgive Mackay, who owns nine other horses.

For his part, Mackay said he's looking forward to personally thanking the volunteers who pulled off an "amazing feat" by saving his horses.

He has volunteered to pay for any equipment they used and any wages lost during the rescue.

Mackay said he will also "absolutely" claim the horses.  "They survived, thank God. I expect to get them back."

Flyer asking for volunteers to help rescue horses  (Courtesy of Terracana)

Reference:

Terracana

The Edmonton Journal

The Canadian Press

The Globe and Mail

Opinion250