LANTRY | Grossly emaciated wild horses are dropping dead of starvation and other causes on a South Dakota ranch that is supposed to protect them, according to a former ranch employee.
Colleen Burns took her allegations public Thursday by posting 16 pages of written documentation and photographs on a website, and by linking to the material from her Facebook page.
The photographs show severely thin horses, some of them dead, with their ribs and hip-bones protruding. Some have grotesque wounds and injuries or wildly overgrown, untrimmed hooves. A few had been eviscerated, presumably by wild animals.
Burns estimated the death toll to be more than 30 since June. The Dewey County sheriff confirmed he is investigating the situation.
“I find it hard to breathe when I think back on what's happened here,” Burns said in a Journal interview.
Burns was the senior project manager for the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, which cares for hundreds of wild horses on a rural Lantry ranch within the boundaries of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in north-central South Dakota. Burns said she was fired Thursday after publicizing her allegations, and she posted her termination letter on Facebook.
The letter was from Karen Sussman, the president and longtime leader of the society. The Journal reached Sussman by phone Thursday.
“I just fired her, so I’m sure that she’s a disgruntled employee,” Sussman said. “She was in charge of managing the horses.”
Sussman then said she was too busy to continue talking, but she promised to call back. That call did not come prior to deadline, and a follow-up phone message and email from the Journal both went unanswered.
Burns, who began working for the society in April 2015, said the society moved to South Dakota from Arizona 16 years ago. Since then, according to Burns, the number of horses on the ranch has grown from 260 to 650, all of them rescued from various places in the West. The animals have been allowed to breed freely, Burns said, with no management plan to keep the numbers in line with available grazing or winter hay.
According to Burns, the horses are split into four groups, including three wild herds in pastures and a fourth group consisting mainly of orphaned foals in smaller enclosures.
Since the birth of dozens of foals earlier this year, Burns said, there has been insufficient grass in the pastures to support all the horses. That factor, coupled with the society’s financial inability to acquire sufficient hay, led to a dire situation in which some horses went without feed for up to three days at a time and began dying in mid-June.
Burns said she tried to spur Sussman into action, only to suffer a breakdown in their relationship. Burns then took her complaints to society board members, one of whom tried to help but met resistance and resigned. Another board member rejected Burns’ claims and scolded her, Burns said.
All the while, according to Burns, the horses received no veterinary care and were looked after only by herself, Sussman and two ranch hands. Burns said she finally contacted the South Dakota state veterinarian, who visited the ranch earlier this month with Dewey County Sheriff Les Mayer.
Mayer, reached Thursday by phone, said the society’s pastures are devoid of grass and are overrun by prairie dog mounds.
“It’s basically bare ground,” Mayer said.
Mayer said he ordered Sussman to feed the horses daily or risk a citation or arrest. Since then, Mayer said, his office has visited the ranch every day and has confirmed that Sussman is complying with the order.
The ranch is in Dewey and Ziebach counties, about 110 miles northeast of Rapid City. Mayer said he has turned over the information he has gathered to both counties’ prosecutors. One of them, Dewey County State’s Attorney Steven Aberle, said in a Journal phone interview that he has received reports about the matter, but he declined to comment further on what he called an “ongoing potentially criminal investigation.”
Sussman is separately facing a felony grand theft charge in nearby Perkins County stemming from an alleged bad check she wrote for $9,394 while buying hay. She applied for a court-appointed attorney and was assigned one on the day of her initial court appearance Tuesday. If convicted on that charge, she faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
The nonprofit society’s financial difficulties, meanwhile, are reflected in its publicly available IRS forms. In recent years, the organization reported raising around $700,000 in contributions and grants annually, but it routinely operated at a loss, including the 2012 tax year when expenses exceeded revenue by $166,794.