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February 29, 2012

Home Is Where the Herd Is

Jennifer Kunz's career at Duchess started with a promise to five old mares who had been exploited for years

The Humane Society of the United States / The Fund for Animals

  • Ruby and Annie at Duchess. Jennifer Kunz/The HSUS

  • Jennifer Kunz can still see Marlo (above) from her kitchen window. Jennifer Kunz/The HSUS

  • Annie, one of the original "old ladies". Jennifer Kunz/The HSUS

  • Members of the herd roaming the grassy hills of Duchess Sanctuary. Jennifer Kunz/The HSUS

by Jennifer Kunz

As manager of The Humane Society of the United States/The Fund for Animals Duchess Sanctuary in Oakland, Ore., it’s one of my pleasures to greet visitors and take them on tours. People often ask how Duchess became a sanctuary, and then they ask how I got such a terrific job. Here’s the long answer:

My career at Duchess started with a promise to five old ladies—five mares who had spent years exploited by the pharmaceutical industry and received nothing but endless days of misery in return.

"Everyone needs a name"

In February 2005, I stood in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, in total awe at a huge herd of enormous and colorful mares—89 in all—made up of spotted drafts and draft crosses, former PMU mares from the Canadian province of Manitoba. The horses had been rescued in Canada by Celine Myers , founder of the Ark Watch Foundation, about 15 minutes before the mares were to be loaded into trailers to head across the border to a meat horse sale in the United States. She rerouted them to Alberta, to what would soon be known as Knightsbridge Farm. I was in the yard at Knightsbridge when the first trucks and trailers arrived. When the last mare was unloaded and the herd stood as one, it was truly spectacular.

I was in college at the time, just finishing up my final term. I’d be managing that Alberta farm by the end of the year, and I worked hard that spring; since more than 50 of the mares were pregnant, I spent countless spring days and nights foaling out mares and socializing their babies.

Celine had the daunting task of naming all of the mares, then all of the babies as they were born. Previous to their arrival with us, the mares were identified only by a freeze-branded number on their hip and a dollar sign. But everyone needs a name—horses included—and they were no longer referred to by number.

As the rescued mares continued to foal, other horses in need found a home at Knightsbridge Farm. By 2007, we had a population of about 150 horses. I had been living on the farm for more than two years, spending every day caring for the herd and getting to know each horse’s personality. I was attached to all of them, and the herd had become my extended family. For a horse crazy girl, this was heaven. I had a soft spot for the old mares, five of whom lived in a paddock in the yard where they could receive extra feed and attention. Their paddock was closest to the house and I could look out my kitchen window and see them. Spreckles, our grand matriarch, was a favorite. With an old injury to her hip, she would rest against a poplar tree when she grew tired of standing. Her old lady companions included Tippy, Annie, Sidney and Marlo. I promised the old ladies that I would never leave them, firmly believing that they had earned their retirement and a peaceful, dignified end with someone there to comfort them when the time came.

"I could picture our girls roaming over the grassy hills..."

Along the way, Celine had been investigating purchasing a larger property in the United States for the herd. She was looking for more space and a spot that offered the horses warmer winters, but one that would be close to her California home. She was committed to protect native wildlife, and to ensure the property was managed using the best land management practices that would guarantee the long-term health of the land, wildlife and horses. At the same time, she considered the long-term care plan for the horses and determined that joining with another larger nonprofit organization would be the wisest course of action. Discussions began with The Humane Society of the United States and I made multiple trips to view properties in the Pacific Northwest.

In January 2008, I visited the 1,120 acres that is now Duchess Sanctuary. The combination of rolling hills, trees and ponds was spectacular. Native wildlife included deer, fox, coyote, bobcat, bear and many species of bird. I could picture our girls roaming over the grassy hills with their babies, who stayed with their moms most of the time. About then I realized that I couldn’t imagine life without being part of the herd, and that in order to keep my promise to the old ladies, I was going to have to move more than 1,000 miles away from my family and friends. It was a big decision, but it was not really difficult when it came down to it.

Less than six months later, on June 1, 2008, Duchess Sanctuary was born with a founding donation from The Ark Watch Foundation. The name Duchess was in honor of Celine’s first horse, and was also the name of Black Beauty’s mother in Anna Sewell’s novel, after which another of the HSUS-affiliated care centers is named—The Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Texas

It took about two months to move all of the horses, and then all of the farm equipment. The last load of horses included Spreckles, who traveled in style in her own spacious box stall at the back of the trailer. I followed the hauler in my own truck and catered to Spreckles’ every need, including 3 a.m. water bucket refills.

In Fall 2008, our Duchess herd grew with the addition of a group of mustangs from Return to Freedom in California. Celine had rescued and supported these particular horses for many years, and it was exciting to bring them together with the horses from Canada.

"The herd is happy and healthy, and home."

Other rescued equine additions from Oregon have also become part of the family here, and our population sits at just over 180. And yes, I know all of their names!

Sadly, Spreckles and Tippy are no longer with us, but my three remaining old ladies are enjoying a life of luxury. Annie and Marlo live with a small group of mares in one of our front pastures, and once again I can see them from my kitchen window. Sidney and her gelding companion share a paddock with beautiful tree cover and supervise all of the comings and goings at the sanctuary. I am grateful every single day for the opportunity to be here, to see these horses relaxed, cared for and safe.

It’s now 2012, and we’ve passed our three-year anniversary in Oregon. One of five animal care centers operated by The Humane Society of the United States in partnership with The Fund for Animals, the sanctuary is truly amazing. In 2010, we earned accreditation from the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. In 2011, we launched and continue to develop a new volunteer program. This year will bring more new and exciting developments, I’m sure. Most importantly, the herd is happy and healthy, and home.

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