By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Staff Reporter
ANIMAL cruelty claims have unearthed a bitter ownership battle over five horses at a drug rehabilitation facility.
Happy Trails owner Sue Smith told The Tribune that she has been trying to reclaim horses leased by a third party to the Bahamas Association for Social Health for nearly five years.
She has alleged that the animals have been slowly dying due to improper care, and that their condition has rapidly worsened this year. However, her claims have not yet been supported by officials.
BASH president Terry Miller yesterday rejected claims of animal cruelty and challenged Mrs Smith to honour an earlier court order that mandated payment for the period that the horses were in his care.
Mr Miller charged that the horses played a critical therapeutic role in his rehabilitation programme and exposed inner-city children to the experience of horseback riding – a luxury he said they would not otherwise have been able to afford.
“(Mrs Smith) is missing everything in her quest to win,” he said, “I think that’s really what she’s trying to do to win, and I don’t know what it is she will win in the end, but I guess she thinks she will win something.
He said: “She’s overlooking the fact that the horses have been here, they are part of a programme, part of the therapy of BASH which is helping men to get their lives back together. They are part of the horse trails which is helping to generate income for the organisation; she missed that whole part. I invited her to come down and look at the horses, if she wants to come.”
In an interview with The Tribune, Mrs Smith admitted that she was aware of the request for payment in order to reclaim the animals, but she refused.
Mrs Smith said: “I’m calling for the return of the horses to their legal owners, that is Camperdown, Marlon Johnson and myself. I have three and the others have one each. This has been going on for four and a half years, we sent all the paperwork to (Police Commissioner) Greenslade.
“I don’t even know the man, it was leased to Mr Johnson for his little riding school at Earth Village,” she added.
According to both parties, an agreement was made for several horses to be leased to Earth Village, an eco-tourism component of BASH. Since then, Mr Johnson severed ties with the non-profit organisation, but the animals remained at the facility.
Mr Miller said two horses were reclaimed by Mrs Smith. “She has come here, she got two of the horses,” he said, “we stepped back on that.
“I have said to her from the very beginning if she is prepared to pay us for taking care of the horses, she can have them, that’s it. She can come and have them, but this whole attitude, it’s almost elitist, and I’m being gentle with that word.
“It’s probably more than that but this attitude that horses maybe shouldn’t be in this part of town.”
In response to claims that he was not trained to care for the animals, Mr Miller said: “What do you need, a degree to take care of an animal? You work around people who take care of them, you do the same thing that they did.
“It’s a matter of feeding them certain feeds at a certain time, washing them so many times a week, it’s a matter of putting their shoes when they need it, of having their worming.
“We have vets from the Department of Agriculture who come down and donate their time.”
The Tribune understands that a private vet has been working with BASH over health concerns under the direction of the Bahamas Humane Society (BHS). When contacted earlier this month, a BHS representative referred all inquiries to the Department of Agriculture.
Officials within the Department said yesterday that a statement on the matter would be forthcoming.
Ms Smith said: “It costs $1,000 per month to keep a horse in the Bahamas. If people don’t have this wherewithal ... look at carriage drivers, the problem is they can’t make enough to keep up with the horses.
“The logical conclusion is what is happening now, this was inevitable. You can only do horses the right way, there is only one way.”
A person close to the matter, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “Activists mean well, but sometimes get in the way. Donating bales of hay is not the point at all, they’ve just prolonged this. We told them don’t give him (Miller) any food, and this is able to come to head much quicker. By giving them food it’s just dragging it on and (horses) dying slowly.”
Mr Miller told The Tribune that BASH suffered major financial setback last year when it lost a significant maintenance contract with the Bridge Authority. The contract represented 60 per cent of the non-profit organisation’s income, but Mr Miller attributed recent health difficulties to a deviation from feeding schedules during his two-week absence for a training seminar.
Mr Miller said: “We lost the contract in November after 12 years, and went through a hard period, the horses are doing much better now. But for people to discourage others from helping us, a non-profit organisation?
“Things like this speak to insensitivity on the part of people in our communities, our leaders, politicians, because it’s not just business. Here is an organisation that is supporting the social development of this country, that is looking at maintaining young and older men who, if they weren’t in BASH, could be on the streets doing negative things.”
He added: “We’ve turned this whole thing around, some people have donated. BASH depends on donations, and these are people here that depend on donations for our survival. We still depend on the community’s support to donate to us.
“These horses are more than just five horses walking around – they are our pets. We all love these horses, it’s a relationship. It’s therapy, you can feel it just looking at them, watching horses in an environment like this moving about.
Mrs Smith explained that attempts to reclaim the horses have been unsuccessful, despite documentation that proves she is the rightful owner. The Tribune did not see her documents.
She said she believed efforts were thwarted due to Mr Miller’s political connections, adding that he was a brother of Tall Pines MP Leslie Miller.
“We have no resources in the country against this, the police couldn’t do anything or the courts, the Bahamas Humane Society has no powers of seizure.
There’s five left there now, and they’re near death. We expected all of this to happen much sooner. We knew it would come to this because he doesn’t have any knowledge about horses or how to feed them. They’re dying and there’s one there very old that I don’t think we’ll be able to save.”
She added: “If he can’t feed them till now, how is he going to be able to feed them?”
Mr Miller rejected claims that the horses were mortally ill and the assertion that his organisation was protected as a result of political affiliation. He pointed to the spirited nature of the animals and positive temperament, which he said did not indicate mistreatment.
“That’s absolute nonsense,” he said, “that’s the lousiest, lowest kind. The programme here has nothing to do with Leslie Miller. We have survived six administrations so this has nothing to do with Leslie Miller. We have been here before, we started during the first PLP administration of Sir Lynden Pindling, we’ve been here through all the FNM administrations and all of the Perry Christie administrations, and we’re still here.”