Horses' rescuing angel
IN A corral at the slaughterhouse sales, a bony mare stands watch over her foal, an equally skeletal heap, as its protruding ribcage heaves with each breath.
Amanda Vella's horse sanctuary is already full, but the sight of this pair brings her back to the yards with a float in tow later that week.
She is able to buy the mare, but the foal has been killed ahead of transport to another site. Many foals are injured in transit, Ms Vella said, so this practice makes death slightly cleaner.
This is just one of hundreds of cases Ms Vella remembers vividly - this foal, along with the hundreds of horses she can't afford to save, the animals too starved to digest food even if she does take them home, are all evidence of human cruelty.
"Horses usually go for between $50 to $400 at sales, depending on what they'd be worth in meat," Ms Vella said.
"There are a lot of ex-racehorses, horses from farms, and trail riding ponies that people don't know how to care for."
"With pets like dogs and cats there are rules to make sure they're treated humanely, but horses at these sales are mostly emaciated and often injured, and they're often slaughtered in front of each other and die slowly - there's nothing humane about that.
"Horses can be used to ride, race, do work on the farm, and they're pets, too, and then they can also be taken out into the backyard and shot, or sold for met."
Ms Vella said the practice of neglecting and then slaughtering horses was widespread, but not widely prosecuted.
"The RSPCA treats extreme cases of neglect that are reported to them, but if there's more than 10 head of livestock the responsibility goes to the DPI (now the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry), and it seems to be accepted that once the horses are at slaughterhouse yards they're going to die anyway, so what's the point?"
Outrage at this quietly but widely conducted slaughter of horses motivated Ms Vella not only to rescue and rehabilitate the animals, but also to advocate for stronger horse ownership and slaughtering regulations.
Ms Vella does this work under the banner of Save A Horse Australia, a self-funded project she began in 2002 that's since become a registered charity supported by hundreds of people across Australia.
The charity's critical cases are now sent to a newly founded Thagoona sanctuary before being assessed and fostered or adopted.
"Since starting, we've got 503 horses that are in our care or have been adopted out," she said.
"There are too many to rescue all of them though; once, over five days, we turned down 18 horses and accepted one.
"Most of our horses are now surrenders; we don't go to sales as much anymore because we're already full.
"We've also lost 27 horses we've tried to save - we've had to put some down that have severe injuries, and some have died a couple of days after we've got them because their bodies have started to shut down."
Ms Vella said it was heart-rending to accept that only a small number of horses could be saved.
"It drains your energy," she said.
"You have to focus on the ones you save."
The animals recovering at Thagoona help to affirm Ms Vella's mission.
Chyanne, aged 38, and Jet, 33, are the veterans of the sanctuary.
The two old horses won't be adopted out because of their age; instead, they'll live at Thagoona and help to calm down new arrivals.
"Jet's also missing an eye... when we got him he had an eye ulcer that was really, really deep and the vet said it would be best to take the whole eyeball," Ms Vella said.
Most of the other horses will only be here temporarily.
"Promise has been here since October. We paid $180 for her at the Gympie sales," Ms Vella said.
"She's got a deep wound on her leg and bone damage, so it'll take up to a year until she's healed."
Once rehabilitation is complete, horses are adopted out on a welfare contract and checked every three months.
The adoption cost is less than each animal's initial vet check, Ms Vella said.
"It costs about $11,000 a month to feed and treat all the horses in our care," she said.
"Horse ownership isn't cheap and there are lots of different costs, and our costs are even greater because of the extra vet care the animals require."
Find out more about Save a Horse Australia at saveahorseaustralia.blogspot.com.au.
The charity will also host a stall at Riverlink today and tomorrow.