Posted by: thewideblueyonder | December 26, 2008

Dashing through the snow: Town unites to rescue trapped horses

In a corner of B.C. hit hard by mill closings, residents dig through snow for a week in a ‘totally selfless’ effort.

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.

“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, travelled 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: Shovelling. 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.”

Digging out the HorsesDigging out the Horses

Rescuers Lead Horses to SafetyRescuers Lead Horses to SafetyRescuers Lead Horses to Safety

The HorsesOne of the HorsesThe HorsesThe Horses

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