June 2013 | FBI Raids Berks County Horse Rescue
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FBI Raids Berks County Horse Rescue
June 2013 - Suzanne Bush

After an April 30 raid at the offices of Another Chance 4 Horses, a Bernville, PA equine rescue organization, questions and controversy have fed on each other. It has not been pretty. News of the raid seemed to open an enormous vein of antipathy--on equine-related blogs, on Facebook and across the internet; anonymous posters have called Another Chance 4 Horses a scam, evil, immoral and worse. Christy Sheidy, the owner of Another Chance 4 Horses, has said little. The day of the raid, Sheidy told a reporter from WFMZ that the FBI’s chief interest was related to health certificates for the horses under her care.

The FBI is not releasing any information. But it is clear that they were not looking for health certificates. According to their website, the FBI focuses on eight primary areas of criminal activity: terrorism, counterintelligence, cyber-crime, public corruption, civil rights, organized crime, white collar crime, violent crime and major thefts. There are no categories consistent with a dispute about health certificates.

The FBI’s actions—still unexplained—have succeeded in focusing attention once again on the plight of horses that are no longer wanted by or useful to their owners. Horses are transferred from one person to another. They resurface at auctions such as the one in New Holland, and wind up on trucks headed for abattoirs in Canada or Mexico, with virtually no paper trail.

Sheidy’s organization, in filings with the IRS and on her website, is described as an equine rescue, rehabilitation and placement operation with headquarters in Pennsylvania, but with an international network. Similar to other equine rescue groups, Another Chance 4 Horses buys horses from the New Holland auctions, accepts horses surrendered by their owners, and saves horses that are endangered by neglect, abuse or abandonment.

In addition, Sheidy’s group promotes horses for brokers, trying to place the horses by “providing the horses with a larger viewing audience and additional time versus the short time they get through the auction ring, holding lot, feed lot or kill pen, if they get that opportunity at all.” In the Another Chance 4 Horses Broker Program, which Sheidy calls “an alternative to auctions/slaughter,” photos and descriptions of horses are shown on Sheidy’s website, along with a price for each horse. The organization accepts donations for the horses from people, presumably to provide for the horses’ care.

Broker Programs Controversial
The Broker Program outlines several avenues by which horses are saved from slaughter. Through listings on the website, Another Chance 4 Horses raises money from donations to pay for an individual horse’s care at a foster home or at Another Chance 4 Horses. They sell an individual horse for a fixed price via the website, and hold the horse for pickup. They find another rescue organization to take the horse, and raise money via the Another Chance 4 Horses website to help pay for the horse’s care.

For example, Another Chance 4 Horses listed a number of broker-owned horses for sale on May 13, 2013. One of the horses, a chestnut Dutch harness horse, had acquired enough donor support to meet the fixed price of $575. One gift of $218 was made through YouCaring.com, a free fund-raising website on which the Dutch harness horse was also listed. Additional donations were made by individuals directly to Another Chance 4 Horses.  The horse was shown as “sponsored needs approved home before Saturday 9 p.m.”

Since the horse is not owned or controlled by Another Chance 4 Horses, but is in the custody of the broker, it’s unclear what happens if an “approved home” is not found by the deadline. Sheidy’s website states that all donations to her organization are not refunded.  Sponsorships are refunded if the horse is not available.  For instance, a horse that has received donations  from a sponsor may be purchased by another customer and thus would not be available.  But if the horse does not achieve enough donor support to meet the fixed price, or if the horse does not get sold, where does it go? The horse belongs to the broker, not Another Chance 4 Horses. If, as Sheidy’s Broker Program indicates, this program is meant to save these horses from slaughter, does the horse that didn’t achieve the required funding level go to the abattoir?

Another horse listed the same day in Sheidy’s Broker Program was an American Suffolk yearling. The fixed price for the horse was $1200, and a notation indicated that the yearling was a resale, “not scheduled to ship to slaughter.” Additional notes on the horse stated that, if the horse was not sold, Another Chance 4 Horses would take it, provided enough money was raised.

The documentation Another Chance 4 Horses requires prospective owners to provide states that “brokers buy and sell horses to earn a living. Kill buyers make a living by sending a horse to a slaughter plant.” Although Sheidy calls this a Broker Program, the distinction between broker and kill buyer is not clear, given that certain horses are listed as “not scheduled to ship to slaughter.” Presumably other horses will be shipped to the abattoirs.

Critics of programs such as this one contend that they are essentially subterfuges intended to raise money from prospective donors through highly-charged emotional stories about what might happen to the horses if donors don’t come through.

A Lovely, Lovely Horse
Matthew Clarke, a thoroughbred trainer in Massachusetts, had claimed a horse named Munition for one of his clients in 2010. “Post-race, it became apparent to me that the horse had some significant physical issues,” he says. He contacted his client and said “you’ve blown your $5,000. This horse really needs to be retired.” Clarke’s client agreed to retire Munition. Shortly thereafter, the client identified a friend, a woman named Mara Feld, who was willing to buy the horse, for just $1. “We kept the horse free for a month,” he says, while the buyer found a place to board Munition. What happened next is an all-too-common tragic story.

Feld had second thoughts, and reportedly worried that she wouldn’t be able to afford to keep him properly. She gave the horse to a man named Spud Noone, who had allegedly promised her that Munition would be safe.

At the time, Clarke told the Telegram and Gazette, in Worcester MA that he was horrified by what happened to Munition. He said that Noone, who has since died, was well-known in the horse world. “He gets horses together and ships them to an auction in New Holland, PA—one of the premier auctions for kill buyers. We turned up a day too late and found out he was sold.” They never found out what happened to Munition.  “We put up a reward for the horse, $2,000 for any information related to the horse. Nothing ever turned up. Their documentation of these horses is very poor.”

Feld pressed charges against Noone, and continued to search for Munition. Noone was eventually acquitted.

Clarke says that during his search for Munition’s trail, he was contacted by Deborah Jones, who works on identification, protection and rescue of thoroughbreds. “She was the one who actually called me and told me that Munition had gone through the New Holland auction,” he says. Although the connection between Munition and Another Chance 4 Horses has never been proved, Clarke says that Feld always believed Sheidy’s organization was somehow involved in whatever happened to Munition.

“It’s no secret what she was doing,” he says. “She was working with a kill buyer.” The brokers involved in programs such as Sheidy’s are often buyers for the abattoirs in Canada or Mexico. They purchase the horses at auction, hold them for a period of time to try to re-sell them, or, as in the Broker Program operated by Another Chance 4 Horses, the rescue organization tries to find donors willing to either adopt or support the horses.

Even though Munition was swallowed up by this hazy network of buyers and sellers nearly three years ago, it still hurts Clarke to think about the loss. “It’s just really, really tragic. He was a lovely horse.”

Double the Love Nearly Lost
Larry Ensor, who owns Gum Tree Stables in Pennsylvania, breeds Thoroughbreds. He has been surrounded by horses and the equine industry his whole life. One day in 2011 he got an email from a woman who had seen a young mare “sitting in a kill pen in New Holland,” and listed in Another Chance 4 Horses’ Broker Program. The woman checked the mare’s tattoo, and was able to locate Ensor, who had bred the mare. He paid Another Chance 4 Horses $550 for the mare, but was stunned by her condition. “I wish I had had my phone with me when I went up to get her,” he says. “I was crushed. Driving back I felt so guilty.”  The mare was severely underweight, had sores all over, and a very large, painful abscess.

He questioned Sheidy about how she acquired the mare, but got few answers. “I’ve been around the block a lot,” he says. “Nobody was going to be shipping this horse to Canada. This (her condition) was deliberately done.” Sheidy told him that anyone could run a horse through an auction, without any paperwork at all; thus she had no documentation about where the mare came from. “My question to her is ‘why are you protecting this person?’” She said that the mare was getting food, water and shelter at the place they saw her, Ensor said.

Ensor believes that horses like Double the Love are pictured on websites for a cynical purpose. On his farm’s website, he recounts the events that led to the mare’s rescue from New Holland, and the frustrating lack of answers to his questions about how she wound up there. “A pitiful looking horse has a far better chance of being adopted for money then a fat and happy looking one. My research seems to show that there are many ‘rescue, adoption’ people out there utilizing this method. I would like to believe that many are worthy but I have a feeling many are not. And if you do the math they can make a very good living at this.

“I have not passed judgment on this organization. But my communications with its co-founder and the numerous derogatory information that can be found has made me highly suspicious. So, the question is; are these sort of organizations really doing “good” in the end or are they just “enablers” for those who did this to this filly in only 4 months? Conversely are we doing the same by paying “blood” money?”

Horses as Commodities
Another Chance 4 Horses seems to have been unaffected by the FBI raid. On the organization’s Facebook page, Sheidy mentions the raid only briefly. “Another Chance 4 Horses, Inc. continues without restriction to rescue and save the lives of horses.” The controversy stirred up by news of the FBI’s actions, though, will likely continue. Ensor believes that the horse industry needs to get in front of this issue. “As a breeder, are we contributing to this?” he asks. As conscientious as he believes most people are, there are still far too many horses bred every year. “You can’t save them all. I’ve never looked at them as a commodity, but in fact they are.”

Years ago there may have been far more horrific incidents of abuse and neglect of horses. And there may have been far more organizations operating in the margins between unethical and forthright. But two things have changed. As Ensor and Clarke point out, there’s a lot of money to be made in this arena, and there is no shortage of people eager to get into it. And, the relentless, boundary-free spotlight of social media makes it nearly impossible to hide anything. “The industry never really grasped the power of social media,” Ensor says. But if the industry wants to be part of the solution, and not get driven to the sidelines by the conversation, responsible industry groups, breeders and owners need to become savvier when it comes to the internet’s capability. “Social media has put it in people’s faces.”