Saturday, May 2, 2009

Texas group fears spread of disease from 3-Strikes ranch

By KERRI REMPP, Record staff writer Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Another wild horse organization is looking into the situation at the 3 Strikes Ranch near Alliance after over 200 horses and burros were removed from the ranch because of allegations of abuse and neglect.

More than 100 emaciated horses found at Morrill County 3-Strikes Ranch were legally surrendered last week to horse rescue groups Habitat for Horses and Lifesavers Foundation. The agreement to sign over the animals was coordinated by the Morrill County Sheriff’s office, which earlier in the week arrested the owner, Jason Meduna, 42, on one count of animal cruelty. He posted 10 percent of a $20,000 bond and was released from jail.

Jerry Finch of Texas-based Habitat for Horses found that Meduna’s ranch had pastures devoid of grass with little or no edible grazing. On Sunday, Finch accompanied a sheriff’s deputy in a flyover of the property and discovered the bodies of more than 60 dead horses. Nearly all of the animals on the ranch were malnourished; their back, ribs and hip bones were very pronounced.

The horses were quickly moved to the Bridgeport Rodeo Grounds where veterinarians and volunteers will examine and treat each horse as needed. Finch estimates that more than 30 stallions were comingled in herds, indicating that many of the mares may be pregnant. According to Jill Starr of Lifesavers Foundation, “the ultimate goal is to place these animals in homes and facilities capable of addressing their needs and where they will have the opportunity to thrive.”

Now, Ray Fields, the founder of the Wild Horse Foundation in Texas, says transporting the horses to other locations may have been premature and could have aided the spread of contagious diseases. Fields, who also works as NBC televion’s horse expert, said blood work and nasal swabs should have been conducted on the animals before they were moved. According to him, the failure to do so could possibly mean the spread of salmonella and rhinovirus.

Fields said he has talked to Meduna since his arrest and believes he may have inadvertently adopted horses that had recently recovered from salmonella at the Palomino Valley Adoption Center in Nevada. In August and September of 2007, the Bureau of Land Management gathered over 1,000 horses off of the Jackson Mountain Horse Management Area. Many of the wild horses were in poor condition due to inadequate grazing opportunities and lack of water because of an extended drought.

Over 900 horses were then taken to the Palomino Valley facility for adoption, sale or long-term holding. However, under the stress of malnutrition, dehydration and the changes in their environment and diet, some of the horses contracted salmonella, which complicated recovery efforts. Eventually 159 horses died, though others recovered from the sickness, and some never contracted the illness at all.

The Palomino Valley center was shut down for nearly two months to limit the spread of the disease, and horses that were already in the facility were kept separate from the Jackson Mountain animals. Salmonella can be spread through air, water and direct contact. It can be transmitted to humans.

Upon reopening the center in November 2007, the Nevada BLM issued a press release stating, “The 805 Jackson Mountains wild horses remaining at the facility are improving in body condition, but will be held at the facility a few more months before they are considered strong enough for movement to other facilities or to be adopted.”

Fields claims Meduna adopted horses from Palomino Valley in January 2008, and says there is at least the possibility that some of the infected horses were sent to Nebraska. Then, when the horses became stressed out again, due either to harsh storms with fluctuating temperatures that the area experienced, inadequate feed or a combination of both, the salmonella may have presented itself again.

“All it takes is one to break out with salmonella or rhino and everybody’s got it,” Fields said. “(Salmonella) is extremely detrimental to animals.” The disease can cause weight loss, dehydration and diarrhea and can live in the soil for more than 300 days.

Fields said he isn’t trying to get Meduna off the hook for any alleged neglect, but rather is concerned about making sure if the horses are diseased that they are stopped from spreading those diseases. Moving the horses before they were given a complete examination, including blood work-ups and nasal swabs, was a mistake, he said. Officials should have put at least considered the possibility of disease once they knew some of the animals came from Palomino Valley.

If salmonella is a contributing factor to the horses’ poor condition, moving them has spread the disease to every trailer used to haul them as well as to the fairgrounds, which means more ranches and more horses could become infected. Adoptions of the animals or moving them to the Texas and California-based rescue operations that have agreed to take them will further complicate the problem, Fields said.

He called for every horse to be tested immediately.

“This is about education. This is about prevention,” he said. “How bad do they want this disease to be spread?”

Nebraska does not require salmonella tests in order for horses to enter the state from other states. Veterinarian Dr. John Gamby, who is not working on the 3 Strikes incident, said to his knowledge no state requires that. Nebraska law says horses entering the state from anywhere except South Dakota must have had a Coggins test within the last year. That test checks for equine infectious anemia. A vet must also see the horse and verify on its health certificate that it appeared to be in good health and free from infectious disease.

However, particularly at large horse sales, the inspection is “pretty quick,” Gamby said. Vets generally don’t have time to put their hands on every single horse and take temperatures or do additional blood work. They check to make sure the horse is alert, is close to the proper weight and does not have any obvious abnormalities.

“It could be argued that we don’t take enough time, but we also can’t do every medical test available either.. It’s a compromise.” Gamby said. With no specific requirement to test for salmonella, it is possible horses with the disease could enter the state.

“Things sometimes do slip by,” Gamby said.

The ranch first came to the attention of law enforcement when Meduna contacted media and police last month regarding a mustang he believed to have been stolen. He also said someone had been poisoning his horses. Court documents indicate law enforcement interviewed neighbors who produced photos of horse carcasses allegedly left on Meduna’s property, as well as pictures of overgrazed grass and of horses reaching across fences in an effort to find food.

The court records also say the Morrill County Sheriff’s Department flew over the property April 9 and discovered a horse that appeared to have been down for days and a large number of horses in a corral with no evidence of feed. Earlier that week, the Bureau of Land Management visited the ranch to inspect five horses under BLM jurisdiction that were being boarded at 3-Strikes. Meduna told the BLM four of the horses had already died. The fifth horse, found in poor condition, was removed from the ranch.

An arrest affidavit cites BLM officials as saying that 175 horses were boarded at the 1,900-acre ranch.

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