Surviving a wild ride

They come here from the Wild West to find homes. It doesn't always work out.

By JOHN BARRY, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2007

Diane DeLano met the three horses - 4106, 3878 and 4137 - the day after they tumbled out of trucks from Oklahoma with a hundred other mustangs. They were like the rest of the herd - mostly babies less than 2 years old, all legs, all wildness, all scared. - The mustangs belonged to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. They had been shipped from Oklahoma for adoption in Ocala on May 13. DeLano hardly gave them a look. She was only there to help a friend adopt a horse. She already had more mustangs than she knew what to do with. - DeLano didn't pay any attention to 4106, 3878 and 4137 until four months later, when they showed up at her ranch, half-starved, one half-dead. - Then she named them:

Faith. Hope. Promise.

Promise was the filly most terrified of being touched. DeLano's promise was that these mustangs, unwanted relics of the Old West, would never be harmed again.

George Hale says he really didn't want more mustangs. He already had one. When he brought mustangs 4106, 3878 and 4137 to Largo in May, he was doing a favor for friends and maybe turning a buck for himself.

He's just a West Virginia boy who drives a tow truck. He never bargained on criminal charges, the SPCA calling him cruel, his face on TV.

He was an adoptive mustang owner in good standing with the Bureau of Land Management. Since Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the bureau has adopted out more than 200,000 mustangs and wild burros. Almost 5,000 have been shipped to Florida.

The purpose of the law was to stop the wholesale slaughter of wild horses for dog food, a practice notoriously dramatized in the 1961 movie, The Misfits. But even the West wasn't big enough to accommodate the mustang herds that proliferated under federal protection.

What the Bureau of Land Management characterized as "excess animals" had to go somewhere - many to big cattle states like Florida, some to places where cowboys ride into the sunset only on late-night cable TV.

Florida gets about 200 wild horses every year from vast public rangelands, identifiable as mustangs by the freeze marks the government brands on their necks.

People like Hale fill out applications promising they have the proper space, fencing and food. It's pretty much an honor system. After a year's tryout, the bureau sends them titles to the horses.

Hale got his first mustang in 2003. He paid $175 for a 2-year-old he named Aflac. He used insurance money he got when he broke his foot falling off a flatbed trailer. He taught her to pull a cart. She was friendly, and a lot of people petted her nose - either at last year's Largo Christmas parade or Kenneth City's Fourth of July parade. Hale also took her to adoption auctions, to let others see how mustangs make good pets.

DeLano first met them at an adoption in Okeechobee in February. Hale stood out in a red Buccaneer windbreaker and a white 10-gallon hat with a silver braid. DeLano's girlfriend took his picture. He posed with a cigarette and a jug of Gatorade in his right hand, his left arm wrapped around Aflac's neck. DeLano took a dislike to him - the way he held the cigarette close to his horse.

- - -

When DeLano saw Hale three months later at the May auction in Ocala, she avoided him. She didn't know he was looking at more mustangs.

Hale wasn't trying to adopt this time. Instead, he had offered his services as a foster-care agent. People who have previously adopted wild horses often serve as middlemen between the government and people willing to adopt. Hale said he knew people who wanted horses back in Pinellas County. The bureau promised to pay him for his trouble.

He signed agreements, loaded fillies 4106, 3878 and 4137 into his trailer, and drove home.

Three months later, when the SPCA Tampa Bay called DeLano about three starved mustangs in Largo, she remembered the guy with the white 10-gallon hat.

- - -

In August, someone anonymously called the Largo Police Department to report animal abuse at a place called the Rosebud Ranch, near Ulmerton Road. Largo passed the call to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which asked the SPCA Tampa Bay to send someone out. It sent abuse investigator Jill Purl.

When she got there, she found a mustang filly down. It lay on the ground in a makeshift pen boarded up on all sides. Most of the planks had been eaten away. The filly looked skeletal, covered with sores, barely alive.

She found two more mustangs in nearby stalls. The planks also had been gnawed away. The horses were standing, but looked emaciated.

Hale came right out to talk to Purl. He told her that these weren't ordinary horses. They were wild. He said mustangs always come bony; in fact, these horses came half-starved from the auction in Ocala. The horse inside the box of gnawed planks was so wild he couldn't get near her. He was still taming them, getting them used to a new diet. He showed Purl two bags of Omolene 100 Active Pleasure sweet feed for horses and a bale of hay.

The owner of Rosebud Ranch backed him up. The raid was a big mistake, Mike Lowe said. He had four big Belgians on the property doing fine. There was no abuse here. Hale was trying to find someone to adopt the horses. Some people had backed out. Hale fed the mustangs twice a day. But the mustangs weren't yet used to rich feed. If Purl knew anything about mustangs she would know that.

Purl had never investigated a mustang abuse case. These were the first wild horses she'd seen up close. "But I've been to quite a few abuse cases," she said. She thought about those dank stalls, the gnawed planks, the sores. "I've never seen anything worse than this."

The SPCA Tampa Bay took all three mustangs. Four men helped the horse in the box stand up.

Elsewhere on the ranch they found Aflac in a stall. They also found a 2-year-old painted gelding named Sammy and a burro named Sweetpea. All belonged to Hale. He bought Sweetpea in Tampa and took her home in the back of a Chevy Suburban, her face poking out the window. All of them looked underfed or abused, the SPCA decided.

They seized those, too.

The next day an SPCA veterinarian evaluated the horses and found the three mustangs starved. On a weight scale of 1 to 10, it rated the half-dead filly a minus 1. The Bureau of Land Management sent veterinary certificates showing that all the horses had been shipped in good condition.

Hale was charged with six counts of animal abuse. TV crews came out and put him on the 6 o'clock news.

- - -

Diane DeLano calls her ranch the Wild Horse Rescue, Education & Rehabilitation Center. It sounds more grand than it is. It's only 21/2 acres, a little garden spot in Mims, near Cape Canaveral. She runs it with her 83-year-old father and supports it with her bartender earnings. There are two geese that act like they're in charge.

The ranch is a refuge. When the Bureau of Land Management recovers mustangs from failed adoptions, it calls on DeLano to provide shelter. One by one, they've come, bedraggled things with exotic names - Nachoci, Armando, Shilo, Sir Gallant, Tank, Sugar Ray, Desert Rose, Whisper, Mezcal, Cherokee. The list grows every week.

She went all the way with one of her first. In 2001, the bureau asked her to look after a 7-year-old white mare named Wyomie that had been rescued. The horse showed up starved, with deep rope scars on her neck. Diane spent 8 months rehabilitating her.

She never tamed her. Even after 8 months, the horse rolled her eyes, shook uncontrollably as she was brushed. She was incurably afraid of people. DeLano believed any type of captivity - even refuge at her ranch - constituted animal abuse.

She loaded the mustang in a trailer, drove her 2,000 miles to the 11,000-acre Black Hills Sanctuary in South Dakota, and turned her loose.

- - -

These days, DeLano has about a dozen just like that, waiting every morning for her in their stalls:

Ms. Mara. Showed up with a fractured skull from whipping her head into the fence post she was tied to.

Cree. Halter straps embedded in her face.

Major. Had four kinds of worms. DeLano put them in a jar to show Girl Scouts who come on field trips.

Connie. Had a belly full of sand.

Wrangler. The latest arrival. Someone tried to cut the 6-inch mustang freeze mark off his neck and pass him off as a Tennessee Walker.

DeLano likes the mustang adoption program, likes the people who run it. She's one of about 20 people in Florida who volunteer to check up on new adoptions, to make sure all's well.

"It's a good program, but there are a lot of problems with followup. I've been doing this since 1997, and 90 percent of the places I've visited were out of compliance.

"The sad thing is the checks are random. I'd go check on every horse, but I'm only called about once a year. People are used to no one checking."

- - -

These are uncertain days at the ranch. The bar where DeLano worked recently closed. She gets by on donations. A couple of months ago, she found a small lump on her thyroid. Now it's bigger. She has surgery on Tuesday. She has to sell belongings at her ranch today to help pay the bills. She depends on public assistance for medical treatment, is better at nursing horses than herself. Another horse is always showing up.

Behind the stables, Faith, Hope and Promise each has a pen, 24 feet by 24 feet - big enough to not feel trapped. DeLano got the trio two months ago. Hope, the horse in the box, had collapsed at least three times, and euthanasia once seemed imminent. The SPCA Tampa Bay spent thousands on veterinary care this summer before they were well enough to be trucked to Diane's. A court hearing for Hale has been set for Dec. 3.

They've fattened up. Their coats shine. Hope's sores are gone. Hope and Faith come to the fence when DeLano passes. She rubs them under the eyes, strokes their forelocks. They shut their eyes in pleasure.

Promise won't come to the fence. She shies away when Diane extends her hand. She backs herself into a corner. Her flanks shiver.

But the bond between horse and human is centuries old. It's in Promise's blood. She's only 2. One day, DeLano says, she'll accept her touch.

"They're babies.

"They heal."

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.




STABLE HOME: Helping horses

The SPCA Tampa Bay in Largo is trying to find good homes for the five horses and one burro in the abuse case. For information about adoptions, call the SPCA at (727) 586-3591, ext. 137. To see them, go to www.spcafl.org.

For more information about Diane DeLano's mustang refuge, call (321) 427-1523 or go to www.mlwhr.com. She's holding a yard sale and giving tours of the ranch, 4970 International Ave., Mims, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. today.