The footprints of countless volunteers and ebullient voices of children are all but gone though 127 horses and more than 80 other four-legged friends still live at The Grace Foundation, a 600-acre animal rescue and equine therapy ranch off Latrobe Road.
Things are hardly back to normal since the foundation briefly closed and then reopened last winter amid escalating legal battles all because a good deed became “a nightmare of nightmares,” according to founder and executive director Beth DeCaprio. “I feel like Erin Brokovich relived,” she said.
In 2011 when The Grace Foundation offered to take in abused and neglected horses from the Whispering Pines ranch in Susanville. While the ranch faced foreclosure, DeCaprio told Lassen County officials she’d take in 20 of Whispering Pines’ sickest horses that April. “You should have seen them,” said The Grace Foundation’s ranch manager Lisa Dowling. “On a nine-point scale those horses were a one or two. Emaciated doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
The remaining 36 horses came to The Grace Foundation in August 2011, but that number soared once they discovered multiple mares were pregnant. “Before then, The Grace Foundation was used to rescuing one or two horses at a time, never that many,” said Dowling. “But we did what we had to do.”
Ownership of the second group of horses wasn’t transferred as promised, so The Grace Foundation wasn’t recognized as the rightful owners and couldn’t adopt them out once rehabilitated. Meanwhile the costs of rehabilitating, feeding and caring for the horses amounted to $1.13 million, according to DeCaprio, and continues to rise. They spend hundreds of dollars to purchase 2,000 pounds of feed each day.
DeCaprio approached Bank of America and Wells Fargo, the banks who foreclosed Whispering Pines, for help, asking to be deemed rightful owners as well as for financial assistance. Bank officials denied the request, she said, stating they are not the owners of the horses and so are not obligated to help fund their care.
DeCaprio was told her only option was to return the horses, where certain death was their fate, she said. “Our mission has and always will be to rescue and rehabilitate horses,” she said. “I cannot allow those 42 horses to go back to be discarded. All they are is a financial liability to a billion dollar company. The horses are the innocent victims in this.”
In the 29 months since the real-life drama began, there have been late night raids, threats, stand offs and charges stemming from corruption, grand theft and fraud. Last week DeCaprio filed suit against the banks.
Seventy-one felony counts were filed and 65 are still pending against the owner of Whispering Pines, Dwight Bennett. “There were 28 dead horses on his property when they went in to do the search warrant,” said DeCaprio. “We thought that’s where the felony counts came from. Yet now a Lassen County official testified at a deposition three weeks ago the animals weren’t in imminent danger and said that wasn’t the reason for the removal of the horses.”
DeCaprio said she’s become a potential conspirator in a crime. “If they weren’t removed because of abuse, why are they with us? Now we’re looking at charges of stolen property and even grand theft against us,” she said.
Lassen County nor its DA are helping, said DeCaprio. “That’s why we’re now asking for a third-party agency to step in and investigate,” she said. “The saddest part is we were partners with Lassen County. We took those horses to help them out. All I want to do is get this resolved.”
Who is most affected?
Since 2004 The Grace Foundation has offered therapeutic programs for youth with the purpose “to protect, care for, and heal these two important groups — children with special emotional and/or physical needs and abused and neglected animals.”
“We’re reopened but things are tight,” said DeCaprio. “The hardest part has been we’re the only game in town for free, therapeutic programs for children. Imagine as a parent if this is the only thing your child has. How do you turn her away?”
The foundation still operates a very limited amount of these programs. Except for a group of core volunteers, they have to turn other high school students or interested volunteers who could keep these programs staffed away because of insurance costs.
Through it all the horses aren’t going anywhere, said DeCaprio. “We’re going to ask a government agency to step in and help provide the care if we have to.”
DeCaprio said to anyone who may question her motivations or thinks she’s seeking financial gain, “If you can only imagine all that goes into the feeding and care of these animals, the easiest thing would have been to let the horses go. We cannot let them die. And unless the country stands up and says to the banks, ‘You can’t be too big,’ it might not only be horses, but your elderly parents next. It’s really scary.”
Keeping the foundation afloat
DeCaprio alternates between anger and sadness, but her obligation to the community, her devotion to the animals and her gratitude to her core group of volunteers are what still offer her glimmers of hope. “Amazing people have carried the weight of the ranch duties and provided the animals the care and love that they need and deserve,” she said, including ranch manager Dowling and veterinarian Jennifer Galuppo, who defers much of her fees. “Dr. Jen has provided all of the emergency and non-emergency care to our 200-plus animals and she has done it with the patience of a saint and the kindness of an angel.”
“We see the mission of Grace,” said Dowling when asked about her commitment as well as the other volunteers. “The hardest part is we’re still getting calls every day to rescue horses and we just can’t.”
How to help
“The most pressing need is money to buy feed for the animals,” said DeCaprio of the million pounds of hay and pellet feed they went through last year and the “hay crisis” that’s going to drive costs up even further. She’s also urging residents to adopt any of the non-Susanville horses (42 of 127 may not be adopted at this time). Make calls and send emails to Lassen County government and animal welfare agencies demanding transparency and action.
For more information visit The Grace Foundation of Northern California on Pay Pal or thegracefoundationofnorcal.org.