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Hard choices: With drought, large animals harder to sustain

How to help

Here is a selection of Sonoma County farm animal and horse rescues and sanctuaries that take care of abandoned or neglected large animals.

Flat Broke Farm Sanctuary

P.O. Box 750266, Petaluma 94975

www.flatbrokefarm.org

Goatlandia Farm Animal Sanctuary

2336 Olivet Lane, Santa Rosa 95401

goatlandia.org

Sonoma Action For Equine Rescue (SAFER)

9825 Mill Station Road, Sebastopol 95472

www.facebook.com/SAFERHORSE/

Sadie’s Horse Haven Rescue & Sanctuary

P.O. Box 2562, Sebastopol 95473

https://sadieshaven.org/about-us

Lost Hearts and Souls Horse Rescue

616 Hunter Lane, Santa Rosa 95404

www.lostheartsandsouls.org

With water under ration, wells running dry and fields so parched even weeds have trouble growing, many who keep large farm animals in Sonoma County are facing excruciating, desperate choices.

“You haven’t known pain until you’ve seen an 84-year-old farmer crying about his cows and his land growing dry,” said Erica Gregory, founder and director of Flat Broke Farm Animal Rescue in Cotati, one of the county’s oldest animal rescues.

Tales of tough decisions are mounting as summer enters its hottest, driest phase. Hoping to save the livestock he couldn’t afford to feed and water, one Sonoma County farmer recently took the desperate measure of cutting another landowner’s fence, putting four cows inside to graze, and closing the fence.

“We heard about the cows being placed at somebody’s pasture,” said Jennie Stevens, whose family owns the Rivera Farm in Sebastopol, which has about 40 animals. “The owners were located — the cows still had their ear tags on.”

Neither farmer wanted to be identified or to answer questions, Stevens said.

“It’s very early in the year to have such dry land. We are paying 10% to 15% more per hay bale right now, and it’s expected to go much higher,” she said. “It’s really difficult for farmers used to having a certain amount of natural grass to feed their livestock.”

It has always been hard for some people in rural Sonoma County to hang on to large animals like horses, goats and even cows for financial and other reasons.

But with this year’s unprecedented drought, calls to rescues and sanctuaries that specialize in such animals have substantially increased. Small farmers and large ranchers alike also are having to cull more of their herds earlier. Green pastureland for grazing is drying up sooner, and the cost of hay has risen so much that some can’t afford to stockpile hay for the winter the way they normally do this time of year.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, Gregory said.

“Dumping” of large animals has been a consistent problem in rural areas here for years, she said, but it’s gotten worse with the most recent drought, as it does with every emergency situation such as fires and floods.

“They sneak them into a neighbor’s field or onto a country road,” Gregory said. “They are hoping someone else can take them on. We have thousands of animals dumped here (in the county) every year.”

She estimates that so far this year, Flat Broke Farm has personally found and taken in 120 to 125 abandoned large animals. Some, she said, could have wandered off in search of water unbeknownst to their owners.

It’s an excruciating choice for animal owners, Gregory said.

But with Sonoma County in a state-declared drought emergency as a result of scant rainfall this year, primary water sources are drying up. Several cities are requiring 20% to 40% mandatory reductions for water users.

Hay is more expensive because there is less of it: Where hay growers might have had three cuttings in a normal rainfall year, this year they may have gotten only one.

With wells and springs running dry, people with pet farm animals are calling Gregory, saying they’re “willing to sacrifice their ‘children’” by surrendering them, she said. Some have to choose between selling their animals or their farms.

Kate Sullivan, owner and founder of Sonoma Action For Equine Rescue, or SAFER, has run a feed-assistance program for horses for 13 years. She coordinates fostering of horses and other large animals that owners need to rehome in three different counties. For example, she said at the moment she has a rescued mustang, a gelding and “a little mare that needs a home.” These are “companion horses” that can’t be ridden.

“It’s pretty dire,” Sullivan said. “You can’t be judgmental. If you don’t have water, you don’t have a lot of choices.”

The program operates through feed stores where customers can donate at the point of purchase to SAFER, and those in need can pick up bales of hay.

One resource for animal owners dried up last year starting with the outbreak of the pandemic, Sullivan said. Many large animal auctions in Northern California have closed.

Without a place to sell their animals, people are stuck. Large animal euthanasia “costs a fortune,” she said — about $275 for a veterinarian’s house call and another $250 to pick up the animal and take it to a rendering plant. There isn’t one in Sonoma County, and that adds to the costs.

“If they can’t afford to feed it, they can’t afford to euthanize it,” Sullivan said.

Betsy Bueno of Lost Hearts & Souls Horse Rescue grabs some hay for her horses during feeding time at her home in Santa Rosa, on Thursday, July 1, 2021. (Erik Castro / For The Press Democrat)
Betsy Bueno of Lost Hearts & Souls Horse Rescue grabs some hay for her horses during feeding time at her home in Santa Rosa, on Thursday, July 1, 2021. (Erik Castro / For The Press Democrat)

Betsy Bueno, a retired police officer who operates Lost Hearts and Souls Horse Rescue in Santa Rosa, said the need to place large animals began in earnest with the wildfires of 2017 when people lost their property. Then people lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it’s the drought and fire season, she said.

How to help

Here is a selection of Sonoma County farm animal and horse rescues and sanctuaries that take care of abandoned or neglected large animals.

Flat Broke Farm Sanctuary

P.O. Box 750266, Petaluma 94975

www.flatbrokefarm.org

Goatlandia Farm Animal Sanctuary

2336 Olivet Lane, Santa Rosa 95401

goatlandia.org

Sonoma Action For Equine Rescue (SAFER)

9825 Mill Station Road, Sebastopol 95472

www.facebook.com/SAFERHORSE/

Sadie’s Horse Haven Rescue & Sanctuary

P.O. Box 2562, Sebastopol 95473

https://sadieshaven.org/about-us

Lost Hearts and Souls Horse Rescue

616 Hunter Lane, Santa Rosa 95404

www.lostheartsandsouls.org

“I’m getting more calls than last year, and it’s literally the beginning of this, with the hay prices going up. I’m getting a lot of people crying, sobbing on the phone to me,” she said. “They can’t feed their horses, they can’t afford to board them. We’ve been buying hay and grain and paid one person’s board.

“Right now, I’m juggling four horses. I can’t take in any more,” Bueno said. “I tell them, ‘If you can hold on for a while, I will help you with vet bills and feed.’”

One of the horses she took in was abandoned by someone who had three horses on rented land, took two and left town, she said.

The rescues themselves that take in the animals are in trouble, both Sullivan and Bueno said, because with the pandemic, volunteers and some money sources dried up. Somehow they get by on donations, and Bueno works as a FedEx delivery person to help fund the rescue.

“Everyone is jockeying for resources,” Sullivan said.

Goatlandia Animal Sanctuary founder Deborah Blum, left, and assistant Alana Eckhart say hello to their herd of rescued dairy goats at the farm outside of Santa Rosa. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Goatlandia Animal Sanctuary founder Deborah Blum, left, and assistant Alana Eckhart say hello to their herd of rescued dairy goats at the farm outside of Santa Rosa. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Sanctuaries like Goatlandia sometimes deal with abandoned animals, said founder Deborah Blum.

“Sometimes we find animals wandering the neighborhood,” she said. “We found a goat that had a broken leg. We think someone just abandoned him. He was definitely bottle fed.”

Her organization rescues, adopts out and educates the public about animals of all types. Right now there are goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, two horses, geese and six dogs at the sanctuary. All are rescues, she said.

Operators of large agricultural and grazing operations are also feeling the pinch. Commercial farmers have had to sell off part of their herd to be butchered earlier because of reduced water and the cost of hay, said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

“A lot of farmers and ranchers who would normally keep their lambs or steers for a little longer are selling them,” she said.

Loren Ponzia, co-owner of Stemple Creek Ranch, typically has to move cattle to other parts of the state for pastureland during the summer. But because the drought this year is “way worse,” for example, he could only move three loads of cattle to Shasta County where the grass is normally green longer, rather than the usual 10 loads, and for a much shorter period of time. As a result he will be harvesting those animals sooner “and putting the meat in the freezer and selling it later in the year,” he said.

Gregory, of Flat Broke Farms, which keeps about 120 animals on her property at any one time and works with a network of vetted foster properties around the county to place animals and eventually get them adopted, said she is looking at using pop-up shelters for animals. The shelters have been used previously during flood and fire emergencies. They are also thinking of taking a water truck around to help out.

She emphasized that there are resources that farmers and pet farm animal owners can go to around the county, dozens of animal rescues and sanctuaries, “and we are literally here for you for free.” She also thinks local government should be doing more to help small farmers.

Bueno of Lost Hearts and Souls Horse Rescue, who was featured in a recent Press Democrat article, said she has received about $30,000 in donations from people who read that story.

As a result she was able to buy a large amount of hay and pay for emergency veterinary treatment for two horses, one of which had to be euthanized. The vet and hauling expenses alone were $4,000, she said. She also was able to pay transport fees for three horses losing their homes.

“I’m writing personal thank-you notes to every person,” Bueno said.

Blum, of Goatlandia, suggested one solution to the problem: cutting back animal agriculture operations that use large amounts of water. Goatlandia promotes plant-based eating and animal ethics.

“Water is going to be a precious commodity in the future. ... One of the biggest tools we have is our fork,” she said. “If more people make choices that are less water intensive, that’s going to make a difference. You have to adapt or die.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at kathleen.coates@pressdemocrat.com.

Editor’s note: A website address for Sade’s Horse Haven and Rescue has been corrected.

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