She hates to do it, but Grace Foundation Director Beth DeCaprio is asking for help. Her El Dorado Hills-based animal rescue and rehab organization has accepted 56 starving and abused horses from the derelict Whispering Pines Ranch of Susanville. At least 18 of the recovering horses are pregnant.
“This case has truly haunted us,” DeCaprio wrote in an urgent e-mail plea last week. “It’s not only about the 56 horses that are now residing at Grace, but it also involves over 25 confirmed dead horses and there are many other burial pits that may have more.”
Whispering Pines owner Dwight Bennett has been in a long-running battle with local authorities and, by his telling, unnamed enemies are to blame for the misfortune that has befallen his ranch and the horses in his care.
In a powerful and disturbingly graphic YouTube video, DeCaprio explains that Lassen County authorities asked the Grace Foundation to help with an animal cruelty case in April. The video depicts a horse lover’s nightmare. County officials asked her to take just the four most critical cases that day. She picked up 16 more a few weeks later, one of which is shown in the video covered in dried feces.
Lassen County authorities and banks foreclosing on the property asked the Grace Foundation to return and take the remaining 37 horses in August.
Bank of America and Wells Fargo generously funded the initial cost of caring for the animals at the Grace Foundation. Lassen County helped with medical costs.
But the horses stand to create an overwhelming drain on the foundation. Volunteers quickly started trying to find homes for them.
That’s when things went awry. The state awarded the ownership of the horses to the bank as part of the foreclosure proceedings, but Bennett filed for bankruptcy at the last minute, returning legal ownership of the horses to him and leaving the Grace Foundation unable to put them up for adoption, and on the hook for the cost of their care while the case is litigated.
Because Lassen County never filed charges against Bennett, he was allowed to include the animals in his frozen assets.
Foundation veterinarians confirmed that 18 of the 36 horses are definitely pregnant and 11 more may be in foal. Due to the lack of care and nutrition at Whispering Pines, these mares and foals will be prone to medical problems, said DeCaprio.
“Since the stallions were running free with the all of the mares, we also have young horses under 3 years of age that are pregnant,” said DeCaprio, who added that the problem of young pregnant animals is common with neglect and abuse cases. Normally, early pregnancies are terminated for the good of the mother, she explained.
The horses are now in protective custody as Bennett’s assets, leaving the Grace Foundation vets no options for gelding the stallions or terminating any early pregnancies in mares too young to safely foal.
DeCaprio is committed to nursing them all back to health, seeing the foals born safely and finding good homes for them all.
“We’re also trying to pressure the government agencies in question to hold Bennett accountable for these crimes,” said DeCaprio, who said she’s recently heard from Lassen County DA Robert Burns that a pending animal cruelty case against Bennett is still a distinct possibility, and that he’s still gathering evidence. She suggested he watch her video.
In a June 13 response to several fervently negative reviews of Whispering Pines stables on Yahoo Local, the popular local business review website, Bennett defended himself and the ranch, explaining that he’s been the victim of robberies, multiple “horse poisonings” and an attempted arson going back to 2009, when 18 horses were “lost.” Ten more horses have since been killed, he claims.
Bennett states that Lassen County Animal Control received complaints just before poisonings occurred. He accused local authorities of being unresponsive to his complaints and claims he encouraged his boarders to remove their horses after the problems began. He indicates that he filed a restraining order against unnamed parties, and that the matter is tied up in court.
“Under law, he had an obligation to report those poisonings as a crime,” said DeCaprio. “He didn’t do that. We see a lot of these abuse cases, and mysterious poisonings are often blamed, but rarely proven.
“The reality is that we have expert testimony that the horses on his property were severely malnourished,” she added. “We also saw that in the fresh carcasses.”
An Oct. 18 Lassen County Times article reported that court documents filed by Bennett in 2009 allege his horses were poisoned, newborn foals were smothered and fencing was cut, resulting in a stallion escaping and subsequently becoming crippled.
In the story, Bennett questioned the Grace Foundation’s assertion that 23 horse corpses were found during their first visit. He also alleged that photos of dead horses taken by the receiver in July are only five dead animals taken from different angles, and that alleged mounds of rotting feces are actually wood chips and compost piles.
“We’ve got expert witnesses and evidence that proves at least 25 dead horses on that property,” countered DeCaprio. “And we know that the fresh carcasses were malnourished.”
Undaunted by the situation, DeCaprio wrote in her e-mail, “We can and will save the lives of these horses, and by doing so we’ll send notice to other agencies and animal abusers that animals are not voiceless.”
To help the “Susanville 70,” send a donation of $7 to help pay for medical care and equipment. A $70 donation — just $1 for each horse — helps pay for hay and feed.
Donations can be made at the Grace Foundation website, thegracefoundationofnorcal.org.
The best way to visit the horses is during the new volunteer orientation on the first Saturday of the month at 9:30 a.m.
Editor’s note: More details about Whispering Pines Ranch and why Lassen County officials (which didn’t return our calls) didn’t react sooner are being released as we go to press. Check the Grace Foundation website for the latest developments.