On a rocky Florida roadside where nothing nutritious grows stood a horse whose body had sunken from starvation.
With no walls to confine him, he stood rooted to the roadside and to his fate, with no spirit to escape. The fight, says his rescuer, had gone right out of him. He seemed to accept whatever life held for him.
But on Feb 17, instead of death, came four angels in the form of three officers from the Hialeah, Fla. police department, along with Laurie Waggoner, director of ranch operations for the South Florida SPCA. Together they eased the horse away from that barren place, and onto a trailer heading to safety.
Sire: Out of Place
Dam: River Love
Foal date: April 6, 1999“He was a little hesitant to get on the trailer, but I told him it was the last trailer ride he’d have to take, and that he’d be okay,” Waggoner says.
The skeletal, chestnut Thoroughbred named Defense Team didn’t wobble or fall as he shuffled onto the trailer. But as soon as arrived at the SPCA farm nearby, the exhausted animal went down. Too feeble to hoist himself back up on his feet, he remained down until four volunteers lifted him back to his feet.
“He didn’t have any muscle anymore. All the muscle had started to metabolize and he didn’t have the strength to get up once he went down,” says Waggoner. “It took two of us pulling at his head, and two men, who had to get a rope under his hind quarters, to get him back up.”
Defense Team teetered on the edge of death.
After 22 years of rescuing horses abandoned on the back roads of Florida, Waggoner gave Defense Team no better than 50-50 odds of surviving.
“I honestly didn’t think he was going to make it,” she says. “So we kept him outdoors, and when he would lie down in the afternoon, I’d make sure I had friends I could call on to help get him back up again on his feet.”
It was hard to leave the emaciated animal outside in a paddock overnight, wanting of course to tuck him into a stall in the barn. But, for those first four days, when Defense Team seemed half-dead already, Waggoner had to think in terms of carcass removal. “It was much easier to get equipment to the paddock, and I wasn’t going to have people take down walls of a barn” to remove him, she explains.
She adds, “When we had him in a stall, he would make an attempt to get up, but couldn’t.”
From Feb. 17 to 21, Defense Team ate, drank his water, and lied in the dirt until volunteers picked him up again.
Then, on the fourth day of his rehabilitation, Waggoner and a crew of volunteers arrived at the paddock to help the resting horse back to his feet and beheld a small miracle: He was standing!
“Earlier in the day I’d looked out and saw he was lying down again, so I’d gone around to some friends and made arrangements for them to come help get him to his feet again, later,” she says, noting that seeing the starved, emaciated survivor standing upright was a sight that gave her hope.
Though he wasn’t out of the woods, his returning strength was a sign that the careful re-feeding regimen was working to rebuilt fat stores around vital organs and bone marrow.
“When a horse is that starved, as you start re-feeding them, you don’t see the results right away. The first thing that happens is the bone marrow gets rebuilt, followed by the internal organs,” she explains. “It takes about six weeks before you really start to see a difference.”
Though his ribs and hips still jutted out, and patchy hair loss gave him the appearance of a discarded rag doll, Defense Team felt better than he looked. And on day 10 he trotted! And Waggoner, who gets a little choked up to describe this moment, knew then that another discarded horse would see his next birthday.
Yesterday, a sheet carrot cake was presented to Defense Team on his 15th birthday.
He barely made it. But he did. He is a sound animal whose personality is beginning to emerge, and who will be placed on the SPCA’s adoption list down the road, after he has had much more time to recover and regain his foothold on life.
He may have been plucked from the roadside but he’s on the right road now.