Stories of life on our farm in Northwest Georgia where every day is an adventure in this beautiful spot that God has entrusted to our stewardship.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Our Experience with an Animal Hoarder

While we were living in France several of my lifelong dreams came true.  Our girls had begun taking riding lessons at a local club, and I decided to treat myself to lessons, too.  My previous riding experiences had been more of the "get on and go" type, but I wanted to learn how to really ride.  That was the first dream.

The second dream came true when Herb bought me my very own horse, Tsar ( above and below left).  He was a 13 year old Camargue who was ridden Camargue-style with a bicycle chain noseband (for quick stops), usually going from standing or walking to an all-out gallop after the black bulls of the Camargue.  I converted him to English tack, and Kara got him to trot.  Two years later we bought Vanille (below right), Kara's favorite pony from the club.  She was always skinny and seemed too old to be a lesson pony, so we redeemed her from the daily grind of lessons and brought her home as company for Tsar.

I had three wonderful years with Tsar, the last one with Vanille for a riding buddy with one of my girls.  When we decided to leave France, Herb agreed I could take Tsar back to the U.S.  (It was much more complicated with a mare than a gelding because of the possibility of equine STDs.)  Then I found out that Tsar was positive for piroplasmosis and ineligible for importation into the States.  I was heart-broken.

I was also faced with the dilemma of what to do with two older horses (16 and who knew?) in a country where people would buy older horses cheap and sell them to the butcher for a profit.  Internet research convinced me the only safe option for our horses was to give them to someone we knew and trusted to keep them forever--exactly what I had planned to do until life and piroplasmosis got in the way.

Our son Jim had a dear high school friend who wanted a companion for her retired Thoroughbred mare, and she was thrilled to take Tsar to join Fabulade at her bastide in the country, in sight of the same view of Ste. Victoire Mountain that Tsar and I had enjoyed on our rides.

A woman named Fabienne had given us our Belgian Shepherd dog, Alizée, and had often boarded Alizée's two puppies that we kept after she died.  Fabienne lived out in the country and had acreage, and when she heard we had to find a home for Vanille, she said she would love to take her.  She told us she had even enrolled her two children in riding lessons so they would know how to care for a pony.  We gave her Vanille's bridle and saddle and the last three bales of hay we had to get them started.

On a heart-rending day in June, we saw Tsar and Vanille disappear in a rented truck belonging to a friend of Fabienne.  Fabienne told us later that when they dropped Vanille at her house and prepared to leave with Tsar, she thought he would neigh his heart out of his chest calling for his friend.  That was an image I would have rather not had to haunt my dreams!  She also told me something else, the significance of which escaped me then, but chills me now that I understand:  "The male is beautiful.  If I had known how beautiful the male was, I would have taken him, too."  I thank God she didn't!

We left for the States.  Life went on.  I found my Angel and Kara found her Romeo.  Ten months later we went back to France to visit friends.  Before Kara and I returned to the States (leaving Herb for a month as a visiting professor), we all went to visit our dear old horses.  Our first stop was at Fabienne's to see Vanille.

We were horror-struck to find Vanille in a bare wooded lot, despite a yard full of green grass just on the other side of the fence.  Vanille's front shoes had fallen off, but her back ones had not, and her rear hooves had grown so long that her rump was up in the air.  When we petted and scratched her, her hair fell out in clumps.  This wasn't shedding--the hair fell right out leaving bare patches of dry skin.  Vanille was always thin, but the muscles along her backbone had atrophied to the point that her sunken flesh left a ridge of bone down her back.  Her rump was equally caved in, and the only thing covering her ribs was skin.

I pointed out the green grass to Fabienne and said Vanille was hungry so why not let her have some grass?  Fabienne told me her husband had recently seeded and would be angry if the pony got on the grass.  I told her I wouldn't let Vanille hurt the new grass and led her over there, anyway!  We let Vanille eat as much as we could before we had to leave.  Driving away down that road and leaving Vanille there was far harder than telling her goodbye the first time.  We felt as if we were leaving her in hell.   We could hardly contain our tears as we left, agonizing the whole drive home about what we could do.

The next day we went to see Tsar, and that was the story with the happy ending.  If Vanille was in hell, Tsar was in horse heaven!  Although he was eager to get back to his new girl and their hay, he deigned to accept some caresses and to pose for a photo.

On the advice of Tsar's new owner, Herb went to Fabienne's house with a 50 lb. bag of rolled barley to provide some nutrition for Vanille.  No one was there, but the neighbor flagged Herb down and asked if he was there about the pony.  When he said yes, the floodgates opened.

She proceeded to tell Herb that Fabienne regularly got animals and then starved them to death.  She had called the gendarmes repeatedly, but they refused to do anything.  She had just helped Fabienne bury two Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs that starved to death, and a third was near death.  The dozen or so dogs (which Fabienne told us she put in crates for our visit because some weren't friendly) lived in the crates, the woman said.  She told Herb that the pony had three bales of hay for the past winter (from us), and when they were gone, she survived by stripping bark off the trees in the wooded lot where she was kept.  In ten months, Vanille had eaten nothing but 3 bales of hay, dry leaves, twigs and tree bark!

We had never heard the term "animal hoarder," but we had encountered one.  Worse than that, in our ignorance we had condemned a beloved animal to death at the hands of one.

As soon as I got home, I called our former vet, Dr. R.  I explained the problem and said we wanted to provide medical care to save Vanille.  He said his wife would take a trailer to collect Vanille if I would clear it with Fabienne.  I called Fabienne and told her, "We feel terrible that we gave you an unhealthy pony, and we want to have our vet give her medications and build her up for the winter so she won't be a burden on you."  (That much was true as we knew Vanille could not survive another winter in her condition.)  Fabienne agreed, although when Mme. R. went to collect her, Fabienne refused to give her the paperwork required by the government.  "She's my pony and I want her back," Fabienne declared.

Dr. R. told me later that he and his wife had never seen an animal as close to death as Vanille was.  His wife was so furious at such mistreatment that she took photos of Vanille.  They both agreed that if Fabienne ever called, they would tell her Vanille had died.  But Fabienne never called.  It took six months of attentive vet care, excellent food, medication and supplements before Dr. R. felt safe to send Vanille to a new home.  At that point, God sent Vanille's guardian angel in the form of Sandra, my former riding instructor.  When she learned that Vanille was available for adoption, she was thrilled because Vanille had been one of her favorite ponies at the club.  It was tricky without the papers Fabienne had refused to part with, but Sandra was able to take Vanille with her to central France where she had moved to live on a farm.

Even better, Sandra started a riding school and entered Vanille in competitions where she was in her element.  She had always loved to jump (one reason Kara loved her), and now she shone.  It turned out that Vanille wasn't old at all!  She was only about 6 years old, and Sandra planned to breed her because of her jumping ability.

In 2005, we received this picture of Tsar from France, just one more proof that his guardian angel had been watching out for him all along.   He was 20 when this picture was taken, and the last I heard he was still doing fine.  He'll be 28 now, and with Camargues often living into their 30's, he's barely entering his senior years.  Blessings on you, dear young woman who took him in!

Who would ever believe that this pony was at death's door two years earlier?

Blessings on you, Dr. and Mme. R. and blessings on you, Sandra!  


  1. Que de souvenirs me reviennent en mémoire en lisant l'histoire de Tsar et Vanille et entre autre ce fameux matin de juin où je vous regardais dire au revoir à Tsar, Kara sur son dos vous autour et j'avais le cœur serré moi aussi...

  2. Merci, Kathleen, tu es adorable! Ce sont des moments assez difficile comme souvenirs, mais grâce à Dieu, tout est bien fini. Je me dis de temps en temps combien Tsar aurait aimé cette ferme, surtout quand le près est inondé comme la Camargue! Il se sentirait bien chez lui avec Sara, noire et cornée!

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