Massive Animal Rescue in Montana

by Karen E. Lange

More than 800 llamas, horses, donkeys, cows, emus, bison, camels, and other animals have been rescued, with the help of The HSUS, after a huge sanctuary in western Montana suddenly failed this winter.

The HSUS provided much-needed expertise and $20,000 for veterinary care and transport during one of the biggest and most complicated rescues ever, involving a coalition of animal welfare groups coordinated by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

The failure of the 15-year-old Montana Large Animal Sanctuary and Rescue in rural Sanders County underscores the importance of adopting and meeting GFAS standards for sanctuaries, experts say.

In late November, when the sanctuary had just three days worth of hay and no way to buy more—it owed a supplier $40,000—its managers finally told GFAS they needed help.

“Dying day by day”

Rescuers arrived to find a spectacle of despair: baby llamas dying from the cold, underweight adult llamas, downed cows lying in the ice and snow, and donkeys and horses who could barely walk on hooves so overgrown they curled in on themselves. Staff from Animeals, a Missoula pet food bank that also acts as a pet adoption center, moved onto the property in December to provide food.

Dozens of animals were too sick or malnourished to be saved and had to be euthanized, including llamas whose thick fur had hidden their emaciated conditions. “They were just so far gone and nobody knew it because of their coats,” said The HSUS’s Montana office director Wendy Hergenraeder. “They were dying day by day by day.”

Fast-forward two months

By the end of January, most of the animals, including the nearly 600 surviving llamas, were either in foster care or adopted. As of Thursday, the only animals still on the premises were four cows that local ranchers were trying to round up on the 400-acre property.

The HSUS arranged for 33 donkeys and miniature donkeys to receive veterinary care and placed four wild species—cavies (South American rodents), emus, bison, and camels—in new homes.

The challenge of placing bison and camels

It was difficult to place the two bison. “They’re big, strong animals who really are tough to keep in a fence. It was down to only two places, but both of them require a substantial amount of testing [for disease],” says David Pauli, HSUS senior director for wildlife response. Finally ZooMontana said it would take them for the prairie exhibit it is developing.

The two camels were a challenge as well. One had “Camel Aggressive Male Syndrome” and was prone to attacking people. Pauli called in a veterinarian and a breeder, and they decided to geld the camel. After the surgery, both animals were adopted by a Montana camel ranch.

It didn’t have to happen

If the sanctuary had gone through GFAS’s accreditation process, it might not have failed, says Patty Finch, executive director of GFAS. The sanctuary had several major problems that would have been easy to identify and address:

  • Llamas and cavies were being allowed to breed
  • There were only four people to look after all of the animals and just two of those were caregivers (the other two were managers)
  • There was only one major donor and no reserves

Things fell apart after one of the caregivers was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007, and the major donor took a lower-paying job and could no longer provide funding.

Bringing in the authorities

The HSUS and other groups are giving the Sanders County sheriff’s office photos and other documentation of conditions at the sanctuary. Hergenraeder brought officials from the sheriff’s office and the Montana Department of Livestock out to the property so they could see for themselves.

No way to run a sanctuary

It could have been worse, Pauli says. “This was a highly concentrated population of many different species. When they’re not fed enough, their resistance is lowered. Then you don’t keep up with the vaccinations—it [was] a time bomb.”

“But it didn’t have to be—not if they had asked for intervention one year earlier. Because they didn’t,” Pauli continued, “it took the efforts of many groups—The HSUS and our Montana office, GFAS, Animeals, Habitat for Horses, Montana Animal Care Association, Farm Sanctuary, the Montana Horse Sanctuary, Best Friends, Southeast Llama Rescue, and contributions from several national organizations—to help these poor animals. That’s no way to run a sanctuary.”

Karen E. Lange is a senior writer for All Animals magazine, a publication of The HSUS.

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