EL DORADO HILLS — She hates to do it, but Grace Foundation Director Beth DeCaprio is asking for help. Her El Dorado Hills-based animal rescue and rehab organization has accepted 56 starving and abused horses from the derelict Whispering Pines Ranch of Susanville. At least 18 of the recovering horses are pregnant.
“This case has truly haunted us,” DeCaprio wrote in an urgent e-mail plea two weeks ago. “It’s not only about the 56 horses that are now residing at Grace, but it also involves over 25 confirmed dead horses and there are many other burial pits that may have more.”
Whispering Pines owner Dwight Bennett, 57, has been in a long-running battle with Lassen County authorities and, by his telling, unnamed enemies who are to blame for the misfortune that has befallen his 54-acre ranch and the horses in his care.
Lassen County officials relented to pressure from the Grace Foundation two weeks ago. Sheriff’s deputies searched the ranch and uncovered the remains of 28 horses and three dogs. They also reportedly discovered a small amount of methamphetamine, drug paraphanalia and some marijuana. Bennett was arrested last week and charged with 30 counts of animal cruelty.
In a powerful and disturbingly graphic YouTube video, DeCaprio explains that Lassen County authorities first asked the Grace Foundation to help in April. The video depicts a horse lover’s nightmare. County officials asked her to take just the four most critical cases that day. She picked up 16 more a few weeks later, one of which is shown in the video covered in dried feces.
Lassen County authorities and banks foreclosing on the property asked the Grace Foundation to return and take the remaining 37 horses in August.
Bank of America and Wells Fargo generously funded the initial cost of caring for the animals at the Grace Foundation. Lassen County helped with medical costs.
But the horses stand to create an overwhelming drain on the foundation. Volunteers quickly started trying to find homes for them.
That’s when things went awry. The state awarded the ownership of the horses to the bank as part of the foreclosure proceedings, but Bennett filed for bankruptcy at the last minute, returning legal ownership of the horses to him and leaving the Grace Foundation unable to put them up for adoption, and on the hook for the cost of their care while the case is litigated.
Now that Lassen County has filed charges against Bennett, he will no longer be allowed to include the animals in his frozen assets.
Foundation veterinarians confirmed that 18 of the 36 horses are definitely pregnant and 11 more may be in foal. Due to the lack of care and nutrition at Whispering Pines, these mares and foals will be prone to medical problems, said DeCaprio.
“Since the stallions were running free with the all of the mares, we also have young horses under 3 years of age that are pregnant,” said DeCaprio, who added that the problem of young pregnant animals is common with neglect and abuse cases. Normally, early pregnancies are terminated for the good of the mother, she explained.
The horses are now in protective custody as Bennett’s assets, leaving the Grace Foundation vets no options for gelding the stallions or terminating any early pregnancies in mares too young to safely foal.
DeCaprio is committed to nursing them all back to health, seeing the foals born safely and finding them good homes.
“We’re also trying to pressure the government agencies in question to hold Bennett accountable for these crimes,” said DeCaprio before the raid on the ranch last week.
In a June 13 response to several fervently negative reviews of Whispering Pines stables on Yahoo Local, the popular local business review Website, Bennett defended himself and the ranch, explaining that he’s been the victim of robberies, multiple “horse poisonings” and an attempted arson going back to 2009, when 18 horses were “lost.” Ten more horses have since been killed, he claims.
Bennett states that Lassen County Animal Control received complaints just before poisonings occurred. He accused local authorities of being unresponsive to his complaints and claims he encouraged his boarders to remove their horses after the problems began. He indicates that he filed a restraining order against unnamed parties, and that the matter is tied up in court.
“Under law, he had an obligation to report those poisonings as a crime,” said DeCaprio. “He didn’t do that. We see a lot of these abuse cases, and mysterious poisonings are often blamed, but rarely proven.
“The reality is that we have expert testimony that the horses on his property were severely malnourished,” she added. “We also saw that in the fresh carcasses.”
An Oct. 18 Lassen County Times article reported that court documents filed by Bennett in 2009 allege his horses were poisoned, newborn foals were smothered and fencing was cut, resulting in a stallion escaping and subsequently becoming crippled.
In the story, Bennett questioned the Grace Foundation’s assertion that 23 horse corpses were found during their first visit. He also alleged that photos of dead horses taken by the receiver in July are only five dead animals taken from different angles, and that alleged mounds of rotting feces are actually wood chips and compost piles.
“We’ve got expert witnesses and evidence that proves at least 25 dead horses on that property,” countered DeCaprio. “And we know that the fresh carcasses were malnourished.”
Undaunted by the situation, DeCaprio wrote in her e-mail, “We can and will save the lives of these horses, and by doing so we’ll send notice to other agencies and animal abusers that animals are not voiceless.”
To catch up on the latest developments in the case, or help the “Susanville 70,” go to the Grace Foundation Website, thegracefoundationofnorcal.org.