Under guise of nonprofit caring for rescued horses, allegations of animal cruelty arose.
By Aaron Kunkler and Ashley Hiruko
Friday, September 6, 2019 8:30am
No one really knows how many horses Sharon Hunter has. Hunter, who owns and operates the Hunters Wind Wild Horse Rescue, had as many as 120 horses in two separate herds at one time. She stowed them on properties in Puget Sound counties.
Hunter’s Redmond-based nonprofit was founded in 2015, with just more than a dozen rescued horses from the Yakama Nation reservation in Eastern Washington. Since then, several of her horses have been seized by authorities alleging neglect in three counties, and in two counties horses have been euthanized. Horse advocates believe she may have more.
The nonprofit’s impact can be felt beyond the mossy pastures of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. It stretches across the country to horse rescues in the Louisiana flatlands and in the dusty kill pens of Texas — the last stop for unwanted horses before slaughter.
Whether Hunter’s nonprofit is a net positive depends on who you ask.
(When contacted by phone for this story, Hunter hung up. She did not answer a follow-up phone call and an email received no reply. The civil attorney representing Hunter has not returned a request for comment as of the Reporter’s deadline.)
A good start
Hunter originally appeared in pages of the Redmond Reporter in 2015, when she started rescuing horses with her daughter Brandelyn and her son-in-law Joe Tafoya. Hunter’s family had been rescuing horses for about two decades and in 2015, Hunter took in 13 wild horses from the Yakama Nation reservation.
Before they were rescued, the horses were slated to be shipped abroad — either to Canada or Mexico — and slaughtered for their meat, Hunter said. And the conditions the horses faced in the industry’s kill pens were horrific. While Hunter was originally planning to take in two horses, she ended up rescuing 13.
The horses arrived in generally poor shape, and the family said they provided medical care. Two mares arrived pregnant, but one of the colts didn’t survive. It had been born with too many health problems, Hunter said.
“He had lots of love,” she said in 2015. “We named him Black Beauty.”
Hunter’s plan at the time was to rescue, rehabilitate and release the horses. She said she was working on securing a 14,000-acre plot of land in Oregon for a horse sanctuary. Joe Tafoya was trying to get Washington state to permenantly end horse slaughter and close the kill pen industry pipelines.
But at some point in the last four years, the relationship between the Tafoyas and Hunter soured and the herd multiplied. Joe Tafoya said he and his wife no longer have regular contact with Hunter.
“My wife and I continue to rescue horses on our own privately. When [the Reporter published] the article, Sharon had actually just brought those 13 horses on my property and we were trying to get involved to help. Shortly after, we figured out that we wouldn’t be able to help or work with her,” Joe Tafoya said in an email.
By 2019, Hunter’s herd had swelled in size to at least 120, with known herds at a spot in Snohomish County and one in Auburn. Another was in Fall City this summer, before being relocated to Enumclaw. At least one cluster was in Pierce County. Court documents from King and Snohomish counties indicate that several of the horses also were purchased from kill pens before they could be slaughtered abroad.
Far from the Pacific Northwest, Angels Grove Ranch sits in the wooded southeast of Louisiana — about an hour’s drive north of New Orleans, across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. Court documents show that Hunter had boarded 10 horses with Lisa Massimini’s Angels Grove Ranch and Horse Rescue.
Massimini said horses she boarded, belonging to Hunter, were brought over by someone previously boarding them in Texas.
An investigation report from King County stated that a detective contacted Massimini, who said Hunter had made a down payment for boarding and care of the horses in August 2017. Between that time and the end of January 2018, she said she hadn’t received any additional payments during the five months of care. Eventually, Hunter paid the boarding fees and the horses were picked up by a hauler from her Louisiana ranch.
“I don’t really know where they went after me,” Massimini said.
Several of Hunter’s horses originally came from the south, and in particular Louisiana and Texas. Both states have notable horse kill pens that funnel horses to be slaughtered abroad. The U.S. essentially outlawed the practice of slaughtering horses about 12 years ago when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual funding to inspect domestic horse slaughter facilities was cut. The soft ban requires annual approval from Congress, which has been renewed each year except two.
The soft ban basically prohibits the USDA from inspecting horse processing plants, and meat can’t cross state lines without the inspections. But instead of ending horse slaughter, it simply created an industry known as kill buying — where buyers pick up unwanted horses and ship them to either Canada or Mexico. Across the border, they are slaughtered for meat.
Many of Hunter’s horses may have been bought with the intention of saving them from kill buyers, including the ones Hunter seemed to have purchased and then boarded at Massimini’s rescue. Snohomish County court documents list some of Hunter’s horses as coming from Bastrop, Louisiana, home to what Massimini called a notable kill lot.
“Really if you want to dig deep … It’s people like Sharon that are trying to get horses so they don’t cross the border and they don’t die,’” Massimini said.
However, Massimini said she was unaware of what Hunter did with the horses in Washington state, or how the herd Massimini boarded was treated when they left her care.
Craig Downer runs The Wild Horse Conspiracy, a Nevada-based organization focused on preserving wild American horse lineages. Downer wrote a message in support of Hunters Wind Wild Horse Rescue on Facebook, which was shared by the rescue.
When contacted by the Reporter, Downer said he hadn’t seen the herd in person, but was particularly interested in the Yakima horse lineage. Proper breeding, he said, was essential to preserve the herd’s genetics. Downer said he learned of Hunter’s rescue after she reached out to him on social media some years ago.
“I don’t claim to really know for sure,” Downer said. “Her heart seemed to be really for the horses… that was like No. 1, and (she was) willing to sacrifice her own comforts and money and everything to help these horses. I do believe that.”
The Humane Society tracks horses that pass through kill pens to be slaughtered abroad. In 2018, about 80,000 horses met that fate, with most heading to Mexico, said spokesperson Keith Dane. A horse can fetch some money, but mostly nets less than $1,000 a head from a slaughterhouse.
Kill pen operators often market the horses to concerned horse owners and rescues before shipping them off. Kill pen operators give people an ultimatum: buy the horse or let it get packed onto a crowded truck and slaughtered abroad for a profit.
While the low price for a horse sent to slaughter means it’s not a terribly lucrative industry, about a dozen large operations exist, Dane said. Smaller operators are working across the country too.
“The Midwest is sort of like the epicenter of where these kill pens are located,” he said.
The Humane Society supports the Safeguard American Food Exports Act, which if passed by Congress, would permanently outlaw horse slaughter in the United States and prohibit shipping horses abroad to be slaughtered. Dane argued that horses currently slated for slaughter could find homes in the United States. Dane points to the fact that in 2012, about 160,000 horses were being shipped to slaughter, twice as many as last year. If the United States could handle those 80,000 horses, it could provide for the other half, he said.
Other groups, such as the Animal Welfare Council, have penned opinion pieces questioning whether laws like the Safeguard American Food Exports Act would help.
“Surely swift humane euthanasia at a [government] regulated and inspected processing plant is a kinder end than starving to death,” the council wrote on its website.
It’s worth noting, however, that both Massimini and Downer said they were unaware of the felony animal cruelty charges Hunter is facing in King and Snohomish counties (as many as 10 charges). Pierce County also has an active investigation looking into Hunter.
On Feb. 5, 2018, Snohomish County Animal Services received a complaint about six troubled horses located on a property off of 153rd Avenue Southeast, about halfway between Maltby and Duvall. The report was made by the daughter of landowners who said they were approached by Hunter to board and lease at their pasture and barn. At first, two miniature horses and two full-size horses were brought to the property in January 2018.
The landowner had concerns about the animals’ health and asked Hunter to have a veterinarian visit. Court documents allege Hunter failed to do so. Animal control services obtained a search warrant, which allowed a veterinarian to examine the then six horses alongside law enforcement.
One pony named Lil Patches was found lying in his own feces and urine, unable to stand. The black-and-white pony was severely underweight and had chronic, untreated laminitis (an inflammation of the foot). The pony only stood on his own after receiving pain medicine.
Snohomish County seized Lil Patches, along with Miracle, a quarter horse mare with an untreated old wound that developed excessive tissue and blood vessels. Authorities also took Goldie, a palomino mare who was also severely underweight. It appeared Goldie was anemic and had a skin infection covering her entire body. These horses needed immediate medical attention, according to Snohomish County District Court documents.
The other three horses — Warrior, Willow and Princess — were in somewhat better shape and stayed on the property.
Snohomish County Animal Services manager Debby Zins said one horse was euthanized because of her condition. Another of the seized horses was initially rehabilitated and adopted out, but wound up being euthanized too. Only the third seized horse is still alive.
After the Snohomish County action, Hunter disappeared with her remaining three horses, moving them off the property to an unknown location, Zins said. The Snohomish County horses were originally moved to the 153rd Avenue site to avoid scrutiny from King County law enforcement, following a civil citation for animal cruelty, she added.
“We encourage anyone who knows where she is keeping horses, or if anyone has any of her horses or is concerned for her horses’ care, to please reach out to their local animal control agency,” Zins wrote in an email.
Later that month, Hunter was charged with six counts of second-degree animal cruelty in Snohomish County. If convicted, the felony counts would bar her from owning horses for a length of time determined by a judge. Her trial is scheduled for this month, but a continuance is possible.
Zins said she believes Hunter’s horse-centered nonprofit doesn’t function like others, in which horses are rehabilitated and then adopted out. Zins is only aware of Hunter collecting horses.
“Sharon Hunter is horse hoarding. Hoarding cases are complex and it is very difficult to break that cycle. She appears to be dedicated to her purpose, but is ill equipped to care for the animals and as a result many horses are neglected and suffering,” Zins wrote.
King and Pierce county horses
Tim Anderson, lead animal control sergeant for Regional Animal Services of King County (RASKC), has been investigating Hunter’s Auburn herd of about 80 animals. The herd is in addition to another, known as the Fall City 40, which was moved to Enumclaw, and the Snohomish herd.
On Aug. 2, King County investigators moved in to inspect the Auburn herd, housed on a roughly 17-acre property. Four horses were ultimately seized.
Following that, Anderson said four civil notices of violation were issued on Aug. 17 for $500 each. The citations acted as the basis of four counts of second-degree animal cruelty charges recommended to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office on Sept. 1, Anderson said. However, the Reporter was not able to confirm those charges at the time of publication with the county prosecutor. If the charges are confirmed, it would bring the total number of felony charges Hunter is facing to 10.
In addition, Anderson said, a separate notice King County served Hunter on Aug. 17 would bar her from possessing horses within county lines for four years. She has about a month to comply or appeal. If not, Hunter could be fined $1,000 per day, per horse that is found in King County.
“She certainly has a lot of horses, more horses than she appears to be able to care for,” Anderson said.
The Auburn herd has dwindled to 65 from its peak of 80 after RASKC seized several horses and others were relocated to other properties. One of the horses was euthanized.
The pastures of the Auburn property have turned to dirt, due to the 65 horses housed on about 17 acres. Horses generally require between one to two acres per animal, according to Stable Management, an equine professional resource.
At the Auburn site, the horses are separated by sex and type, and within the last few weeks the property owner has begun supplementing and eventually fully feeding the horses. Many of the horses have cracked or chipped hooves and are in need of farrier services, dental work, de-worming and general vet care.
The Auburn property owner, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears of compromising ongoing legal matters, said Hunter had originally asked to pay rent and board for 12 horses on the property during spring 2018, a number that steadily ballooned to more than 80 by earlier this year. She said Hunter has intermittently provided the horses with food, but not enough to fully feed the large herd. Little headway has been made on relocating the horses, the property owner added.
“She has not adopted one horse out during the whole time,” she said. “When she starts getting in trouble she starts moving them around.”
Bonnie Hammond, executive director of the Redmond-based nonprofit Save A Forgotten Equine (SAFE), said they were willing to step in if the horses were declared abandoned, following a 15-day waiting period. However, on Sept. 3, the property owner said that Hunter was planning on removing the horses over the following days. During a phone interview with the property owner on Sept. 3, more King County animal control officers were onsite inspecting another horse that appeared malnourished.
While they can inspect, there’s little animal control can do under existing state or local laws to prevent someone from owning an abundance of horses. Law enforcement can only get involved when there are reports of animal cruelty or neglect, as animal control agencies in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties allege is the case with Hunter.
Owning too many horses comes with financial and time burdens. For example, SAFE’s program only accepts 30 horses at a time. And to care for that many horses the nonprofit requires 140 volunteers, five paid staff and a budget of about $650,000 each year, Hammond said.
SAFE has been involved in stepping in to care for several of Hunter’s herds, including the one in Auburn.
“Horses are hard to take care of and you need a lot of people, a lot of money, a lot of resources to properly take care of large groups of horses,” Hammond said.
In Pierce County, Animal Control supervisor Brian Boman said four horses were seized. Details are scarce during the ongoing investigation, but they are also Hunter’s horses.
Fall City 40
The Fall City 40 herd grew from the group of 13 wild horses previously housed just east of Redmond in 2015. At some point afterward, the horses relocated to the Johann family property in Fall City, a small town west of Snoqualmie. Jamie Johann-Barney is the daughter of the aging property owners, and said Hunter initially approached them by walking up their driveway and asking if they could board horses there.
Johann-Barney said the horses weren’t properly cared for and says her parents lost significant amounts of money boarding the horses. In June, she and others staged what Johann-Barney called an intervention, asking her father to get rid of the horses.
Law enforcement wouldn’t intervene, she said. Officers told them that since the family initially agreed to board the horses without a contract, it was a civil matter. SAFE, which later got involved, said the horses were allowed to breed freely, were not being fed, not receiving veterinarian or farrier care and not being adopted out.
“It was horrible,” Johann-Barney said.
According to SAFE’s website, the Johanns wanted the horses gone, but Hunter wouldn’t remove them. The Johanns sent a notice to Hunter in June saying she had 15 days to remove the horses or they would be considered abandoned. When the horses weren’t removed, the Johanns contacted SAFE, which helped get the horses healthy and assisted in their adoption.
The nonprofit provided hay, photographed and cataloged the herd, and tried to attract adopters, according to a post on the organization’s website that was also confirmed by Hammond.
Of the 40 horses, 15 were adopted out to new owners. But then an attorney representing Hunter served the Johanns with a cease and desist letter, demanding they stop trying to adopt out the horses. Hunter was also seeking to reclaim the horses in the letter. In the face of a possible lawsuit, the property owners decided to let Hunter remove the remaining 25 horses. Hunter also sent SAFE a similar letter demanding the 15 horses back that had been adopted. SAFE declined.
The remaining 25 from the herd were moved to another location, likely in Enumclaw, Hammond said.
“The truth is that she’s got groups of horses that she’s just shuffling from one place to another. Either she gets thrown off a property, or law enforcement’s getting too close or what have you,” Hammond said. “She’ll tell stories about saving America’s wild horses and all this really romantic stuff. But in truth, she’s just stockpiling them and they sit and they fight with each other and the stallions breed with the mares.”
Hammond was clear in what she would like to see happen.
“I would like her to stop acquiring horses,” Hammond said. “She needs to stop doing this and the scary thing is, there’s still plenty of horses out there. She could get them from the auctions by the truckload.”
A hard question
The situation presents a complex question: Is it better to let a horse bound for slaughter to die, or be adopted by individuals or organizations that are not fully equipped to care for the animals?
On the Auction Horses website, a plea is made. The message stands out from the rest of the content. Written in a bold font, in red letters at the top of the website, it reads: “Please NO fundraising for the purchase of horses.”
For Auction Horses, a Washington- and Oregon-based network of people who work to prevent the auction and slaughter of the animals, the message is an important one for the betterment of the animals, advocates say.
“People think, ‘Oh I’d like to give $20 to this good cause’…but if they don’t know where the horse is going and don’t know the person or their resources available to take care of the horses, they have no idea of the kind of situation they’re contributing to,” said Tash Johnson with Auction Horses.
Caring for a horse is a heavy endeavor. Costs are typically in the hundreds per month, and if the animals aren’t fed enough and their feet trimmed every six to eight weeks, horse health can decline.
“If you have 120 horses and you’re trying to feed them and take care of them, it’s an incredibly difficult task,” Johnson said. “Even taking care of them with staff.”
And things can get much worse in the winter, she said, when horses need extra food in order to stay warm and rain turns their pastures into mud pits. Attempting to move large bales of hay — generally 50 and 100 pounds each — becomes difficult in the rain, and hooves not properly cared for can become infected from feces on the ground.
“That’s what happens to neglected horses in Western Washington,” Johnson said.
She learned of Hunter when she relocated some of her horses to Redmond. Johnson’s horses stayed on a property nearby. Johnson said seeing a herd of horses with intact stallions and no separation from mares raised red flags.
When the man whose property Hunter’s horses were staying on started asking for help on the Auction Horses website, the red flags turned into “full-scale alarm,” Johnson said.
But she said having animals shipped off to slaughter is an “absolute failure.”
Johnson has seen every kind of horse end up on feedlots, the final stop before the slaughter: Champion horses sold when the summer ends by owners avoiding financial support during the winter; trail horses; best-of-the-best show horses; brut mares that could no longer get pregnant; ponies and draft horses and even young, healthy horses that went untrained.
She said the best practice for those concerned about the animals’ well being is to prevent them from getting to pens in the first place. Once there, the horses can become injured as they are mingling with dozens of other animals. And illness is brought in from different places. Johnson described the transportation of horses to slaughter, the way they’re handled, loaded into crowded vehicles and the slaughter pipeline as “horrific.”
“Rescue horses from Craigslist or posted on feed boards,” she said. “Save them before the kill pens. Once they’re in the kill pen, if there’s a good home for them, by all means save them. But if there isn’t, honestly, I would rather see them go to slaughter than suffer.”