These are some of the 18 horses that survived a horrific tractor trailer crash in Tennessee as they were being shipped to slaughter. Credit Kelly Smith.
On a Saturday evening last month four mares – two paints, a quarter horse and a Tennessee Walker - quietly munched hay in a comfortable barn in Honey Brook, PA. They were still wearing the yellow auction tags slapped on their backs.
Had it not been for the horrific wreck they survived in Tennessee a few weeks earlier they would likely have been on a dinner plate in France.
The mares were among 21 surviving horses pulled from a high-speed crash that left dead and injured horses scattered on Interstate 40 outside of Knoxville after a tractor trailer carrying 31 horses bound for slaughter in Canada smashed into the back of a flatbed truck as it tried to merge into traffic.
When first responder and veteran horsewoman Amy Neary arrived at the scene of the wreck around 9 p.m., Oct. 23 she was stunned at the scale of the disaster.
A 911 dispatcher who also does emergency horse hauling and competes her Morgans in combined driving events, Neary had brought a four-horse trailer to the scene, thinking the accident involved a few horses in a small trailer.
But there in front of her were the remains of a huge livestock rig, carrying horses purchased a day earlier by Pennsylvania dealer Bruce Rotz from Knoxville’s twice-monthly horse auction. Several horses were ejected from the wreck, their bodies strewn among the crushed metal.
Neary’s eyes landed on a dead horse in the road, another was caught under the back wheels and yet a third had crawled out of the mash of metal and was standing on the flat bed of the other truck, perched five feet above the ground.
She clambered on the flatbed to try to figure out how to get the stranded paint mare down. “We had to bring in another truck with a bed that lowered, pulled it up next to the disabled truck, led her on and lowered it down,” Neary said.
She put the paint on her trailer for safety while they worked on the other horses.
More than two dozen others, shocked, injured and dead were inside. A veterinarian at the scene had to euthanize three horses because of their injuries. Neary said they were unable to untangle the dead and living horses safely so rescuers had to tow the whole trailer back to the stockyard.
“I get choked up talking about it,” said Neary. “I gave every horse a name and said a prayer for them. What else could I do?”
The living horses were then hauled to Rotz’s farm in Shippensburg, PA to await their final trip – to a slaughterhouse in Canada.
Enter Kelly Smith of Omega Horse Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Airville, Pa., who heard about the wreck on social media and called Rotz, whom she knows from the New Holland auction in Lancaster.
“It was very hard to see the accident pictures,” said Smith, who has been involved in horse rescue for 26 years. “It was hard to imagine they would have to go through another trailer ride to be tagged and weighed for slaughter and endure yet another trailer ride to Canada.”
Rotz, a former USDA-licensed “random source” dog dealer who sold dogs for research, has in more recent years become one of the biggest “kill buyers” of horses in the east.
It was not the first time Rotz’s slaughter-bound horses were victims of a deadly mishap. In 2013, 30 of his horses perished when the tractor-trailer hauling them to Canada caught fire on an interstate in upstate New York.
After initially balking at the sale of the latest wreck survivors, Smith eventually convinced him to sell the doomed horses for $13,000.
Like all large-scale equine rescues, the hard part comes next. Finding foster homes, training, and of course, forever homes for horses who not only were likely neglected by their pre-auction owners, but who also suffered the terrible trauma of the trailer accident.
Smith, after consulting a veterinarian, had to euthanize one badly injured horse and another that was deemed too feral to rehabilitate. A third died of her injuries.
Of the remaining 18, three were turned over to a thoroughbred rescue, Life Horse, in Maryland. Several have been adopted. A few are in foster care and at Smith’s barn. Omega is paying for others to board elsewhere.
The horses, mainly paint mares and quarter horses, are mostly between three and 10 years old, appeared to have been used as broodmares and had little handling or training, said Nikki Dalesandro Scherrer, a veterinarian at New Bolton Center, who volunteers as a trainer for Omega.
“The paints are the most psychologically damaged because they were in front of the truck, which took most of the impact,” she said. “There was less turmoil in the back.”
But physically the survivors are in good shape, said Dalesandro Scherrer, giving a visitor a tour of the barn where four of the horses are stabled. “Except for some leg wounds and neglect-related issues like respiratory infections, otherwise they are doing well.”
Dalesandro Scherrer said Omega will be investing $2,000 to $3,000 in each horse’s care and training before they are ready to be adopted.
They are adjusting to life with care, she said, putting out her hand to encourage one of the mares, “Mo”, a striking paint/Friesian cross, to come to her. As the tentative mare moved closer, Dalesandro Scherrer said. “They want to be friendly.”
Neither driver was charged in the incident, the Knoxville police said.
When asked if such livestock trailers ought to face stricter regulations, Smith said, “There need to be regulations on breeding.”
She said the indiscriminate backyard breeders, like whomever dumped the paint mares at auction, are fueling the slaughter pipeline.
Smith said she was surprised with all the publicity following the accident that no one called her to inquire about whether any of the horses on the trailer had been theirs at one time.
“These kind of horses are expendable to the people who owned them,” said Dalesandro Scherrer. “But they will make good riding horses after training.”
And what became of the paint mare that Neary helped rescue from the flatbed truck?
Her new name is Thistle Farm’s Second Chance or “Hope” for short. She’s happily ensconced at Neary’s farm near Knoxville, still in quarantine and recovering from leg wounds, but safe. Sometime next year she will be delivering a foal.
Omega welcomes donations for the care and training of the survivors of the wreck. To donate or to inquire about foster care or adoption visit Omega’s website at http://omegahorserescue.com/tractortrailerfund.html