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Horse groups clash

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Last week, when county commissioners debated what to do with Able, Casino and Diamond, there were plenty of tears. Wednesday, when commissioners took up the question again, tears were replaced by jabs and accusations.

Commissioners on Wednesday declined to take any action to amend their March 17 resolution to grant care and custody of the three abused horses to Willing Servants. The nearly two hours of debate that led up to the decision, however, showed a wide gulf of discontent separating Willing Servants with the Bitter Root Humane Association.

Commissioners Jim Rokosch and J.R. Iman said they still believed that Willing Servants was better situated to provide care for the homes. Rokosch, in an extended speech, said that while the humane association has done a good job of providing animal care for the county, he wanted to see a broader array of assistance organizations play a role in public-private care partnerships.

Commission Chairman Greg Chilcott, who was not at the meeting last week, agreed that Willing Servants ought to be the group to provide care.

Commissioner Kathleen Driscoll, who was not at last week's meeting either, said she felt, however, that since it was the humane association which has provided care for the animals for some 20 months, it was they who ought to continue with that care.

In the end, there was no motion to rescind last week's order. Willing Servants' president Theresa Manzella agreed that the humane association members currently providing foster care for the horses could adopt them permanently if they wish, and that she would limit to a maximum of four the number of events Able would be taken to.

Commissioners said despite the division between the two groups the care of the animals should come first.

"We have to work together," Rokosch said. "The animals deserve that."

Iman said animals should be treated differently through their lifespan, and that Able, at 5, has a lot of life to live.

"I am not in favor of putting all three horses out to pasture," he said. "In my opinion the humane shelter is not a place we should be keeping horses."

Chilcott said he was disconcerted when he started seeing angry emails flying back and forth between the two groups.

"It seems like it became a turf war," he said. "These were two groups on the same side of the same issue."

This week and last Driscoll said she spent hours with both groups, listening to all the arguments. There's emotions to the debate, she said, but also a need for pragmatic decision-making.

"There is a 35-year pattern of working with the humane society," she said, "and we should follow that."

The county became the guardians of the three horses after a court order in the wake of the guilty verdict of two Georgia men -- Curtis and Craig Heydon -- who nearly worked the three to death in a 2008 wilderness expedition gone awry.

The county attorney's office two weeks ago drafted a resolution which granted guardianship of the horses to the Bitter Root Humane Association. Commissioners met last week to discuss the resolution; about a dozen Willing Servants members were at the meeting, but no one from the humane association was there. Commissioners said horse-centric Willing Servants was better suited to offer care to the horses than was the humane association, which they said was better oriented to provide care for smaller animals like dogs and cats. Willing Servants said not only would they like to care for the horses but would like to take Able to up to four events a year to show how love and care can bring a horse back to health.

The decision sparked fury among humane association members, who peppered commissioners with angry calls.

Humane association members, in testimony before commissioners yesterday, questioned Willing Servants' ability to provide care for the horses and painted the organization's president, Theresa Manzella, as an attention-hungry, judgemental competitor.

"It's a one-person organization," said Clair Cabal.

"These horses will be basically used again like they were used by the Heydons," said Cathee Watson-Smith, who sits on the humane association's board of directors. "The BRHA will let them live out their lives in comfort."

Willing Servants has had questionable success, said Kathy Goode, the humane association's president, and so far has provided no support for the three horses.

"Willing Servants has good intentions," she told commissioners. "So may have the Heydons."

Goode and others said they were shocked at the commission's decision, how it disregarded the county attorney's recommendation and how it was made without input from or, they said, consideration of the work already performed by the humane association.

"We lived this life," said Dawn Merrill, who has provided foster care for Able. Manzella "just watched it unfold through the eyes of the media."

Merrill and another woman found Able after the horse was abandoned on Big Creek Trail by Curtis Heydon. She and a Missoula man rescued the animal. Merrill has expressed an interest in adopting Able.

The horses suffered the equine equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder, said Tanya Drayton.

"Making them a goodwill ambassador for Willing Servants could very well be the tipping point for any one of them," she said.

The anger showed by humane association members, countered Stuart Dobbins, is puzzling.

"I don't quite understand all this, to tell you the truth," he said. "I've only seen the pictures of what happened and it tore all our hearts out. But all I see here today and big hearts and I don't see what all the people with BRHA are seeing."

His wife, Linda Dobbins, said political head-butting was getting in the way of care for the animals.

"I am so tired of politics," she said. "We need to work together. These two organizations have accomplished something the Bitterroot should be proud of."

Iman agreed.

"It's a very awesome thing," he said, "that there is this many people who care so much about these horses."

Reach reporter Jeff Schmerker at 363-3300 or at

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