Chicken Houses And Horse Rescue: A Complicated Tale

by | 04.11.2018 | 2:16pm
A screengrab from one video Alborano tweeted to her followers, depicting horses in need of financial support

Several days after New Year's, New Jersey resident Dina Alborano posted a video on social media of a crowd of horses jogging down a livestock chute somewhere in Louisiana, imploring her followers on Twitter to donate money to prevent the horses from shipping to a slaughterhouse in Mexico. The cost to purchase 11 horses and pay for their quarantine and transport, she later told Horse Racing Nation, would run $32,000. She pleaded with casual fans, horse rescue keyboard warriors, and top racing journalists, owners, and jockeys to give something – anything — toward the horses' rescue and rehoming.

Days after her initial call to action, Alborano tweeted through her @icareihelp account that she had received all the necessary funds to secure the horses. It isn't clear whether or not the donations were channeled through Alborano's I Care I Help Thoroughbred Rescue, whose website claims it is a “100% non profit organization.”

The effort to remove those horses from the Thompson Horse Lot in Pitkin, La., was not the first nor the last crowdsourced rescue effort Alborano took on between January and March. In the first 90 days of 2018, Alborano's website and social media accounts claim she has rescued approximately 90 horses. Conservative math based on Alborano's pubic fundraising goals shows the price of her bulk kill pen bails totaled more than $92,000 in that time period, apparently sourced from donors to Alborano's PayPal account.

But rescue advocates have raised questions about Alborano's operation and what impact it's having on the rescue world at large. Depending upon where you sit, I Care I Help may be an example of modern problem-solving, or a cautionary tale of donor beware.

The bail business

The world of horse rescue has evolved with the growing popularity of social media and defunding of inspections for horse slaughter facilities in the United States. As the slaughter business shifted to Canada and Mexico, rescue advocates have become more aware of feed lots in the northern and southern border states, where horses are gathered before export. They have also used Facebook and Twitter to bring awareness to regional auctions frequented by kill buyers.

Feed lots have in turn discovered a new cottage industry for themselves: giving horses “one last chance” to escape a truck to the border by posting them for sale at escalated prices on social media. Many offer followers the chance to contribute part of a horse's “bail” without having to take possession of the horse themselves, routing the payments through PayPal and eventually declaring that the horse is “safe” or “free” when the bail price has been reached. Some feed lots claim to offer only a portion of the horses on their property to the public in this manner, while they say others are marked for direct shipping to the border, either due to their physical condition or at the request of the horse's last owner.

Individuals and rescue organizations unassociated with feed lots are also known to acquire horses this way, gathering money from concerned followers, paying the feed lot, and taking the horse for rehabilitation and adoption. Critics of the practice say it serves only to drive up prices and pad the pockets of horse traders, who then return to auctions with the chance to buy more horses than before. Some of those new purchases are doubtlessly selected for their marketability online, raising questions about how likely they were to actually go to slaughter.

A screenshot from the I Care I Help website

Since January, Alborano has purchased horses directly from auction and intercepted a handful before they entered the auction house, but the majority of her rescues have come from six group purchases from the Thompson Horse Lot in Pitkin, La. Sources tell the Paulick Report Thompson's buys Thoroughbreds at public auction, sometimes days before offering them to Alborano at a significant mark-up. On March 16, Alborano posted video and pleas to crowdsource bail for a group of 11 horses from Thompson's, all of which went through an Opelousas auction March 13 for prices ranging from $405 to $750. Their price when Thompson's offered them to Alborano and her followers: an average of $900 each.

According to a price list from the Colby Livestock Auction in Kansas, the average 1,000-pound horse would bring about 40 cents per pound ($400) at the border.

Alborano has publicly pushed back – hard – against the characterization that she is part of the problem, often countering that rescues who refuse to bail horses from feed lots (even at escalated prices) are much more problematic.

“I know a lot of people say we're lining the pockets of the kill buyers. We know that. The kill buyers' prices are higher,” said Alborano, who pointed out she is not available to travel to auctions in Louisiana to bid for herself and said her Louisiana contact, Hal Parker, is not able to be at the auctions, either.

Alborano pointed to the $750 paid for Colt's Secret, a striking gray horse she said Thompson charged her $850 to rescue.

A gray identified as Colt's Secret was shown in a video posted by Alborano during fundraising efforts in March

“A hundred-dollar mark-up for a Thoroughbred that's beautiful and just raced, I don't think that's much of a mark-up. Had I been down there, I don't know, I might have bid up to $1,200 before I would have stopped. I would use my own money and bid them up but I don't know how that would have went,” she said. “I don't have anything against any Thoroughbred groups … I know they've been standing their ground for years to try to shut down the lots, but face it – it hasn't been working.”

Alborano has made no secret of her opinion that industry-based rescues should be willing to help bail horses from kill pens – or her belief that other organizations have not done enough to help her.

“The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance is aware of the situation in Louisiana and has been in contact with racetrack officials, national and local HBPA, and nearby TAA-accredited aftercare groups,” read a statement from TAA spokeswoman Erin Shea. “The TAA is also working with unaccredited aftercare organizations to encourage them to become accredited. As the leading Thoroughbred aftercare nonprofit in North America, the TAA encourages racetracks and horsemen's groups to work with and develop accredited aftercare organizations in their area to establish a safe first-exit from racing for horses.” 

Cross the t's

Alborano's organization, I Care I Help, is purported on her website to be a non-profit but apparently does not carry 501c3 status with the IRS and is not registered as a corporation or LLC in the state of New Jersey, where Alborano resides – a prerequisite to applying for 501c3 status.

Alborano told the Paulick Report April 4 she had turned in her application for federal tax exemption approximately two months earlier. Claudia Neal, one of five board members for I Care I Help, said the organization has not yet registered with the state or turned in a 501c3 application to the IRS. Neal expected the paperwork for both to be completed in May.

For now, this means Alborano is not subject to any laws requiring disclosure of financial records from her fledgling organization. While she publicly thanks individual donors, screenshots posted from Alborano's PayPal showing lists of incoming donations are cropped so as to remove the amounts given. A pair of screenshots posted March 28 appearing to show figures (as well as one outgoing payment from Alborano's account) was deleted within seconds of publication.

What's the long-term plan for horses?

Included in Alborano's fundraising goals for both kill pen rescues and horses intercepted out of neglect situation is a fee to put the horses in quarantine. Alborano mandates 30 days of quarantine for her rescues with a Louisiana horseman named Hal Parker for $350 per horse per month.

Assuming Parker has been paid one month's quarantine for each horse rescued, that adds up to $31,500 in three months. (Note: this figure may run slightly high, as Parker has occasionally offered to donate a horse's quarantine fee in the midst of fundraising.)

Parker is familiar with the kill pen sales business, having at one time sold horses for mark-up in a similar manner as Thompson Horse Lot on social media for the Bastrop Ship Pen, according to a website affiliated with the facility. In fact, through his business Parker Training Facility, Parker still lists horses for sale (including their estimated weight), with such warnings as, “The owners sent her to me to give me a chance to find her a Forever Home before they sent her to auction or worse. [She] will be here a few days then sent somewhere.”

Alborano is aware of Parker's association with the Bastrop pen, and says that relationship is long dead. She says Parker was fired after the Bastrop owners found out he was aiding horse rescues.

“A lot of people try to associate him with the Stanleys [owners of the Bastrop pen] but believe it or not [there's] a lot of hatred between the two of them. It's awful, because they knew what he was doing for rescue,” she said.

There is no legal requirement that horses in the slaughter or auction pipeline be quarantined for 30 days before leaving the state of Louisiana.

“Generally, there is no requirement to be quarantined here in Louisiana unless there is a health problem,” confirmed Veronica Mosgrove, press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.

Still, quarantining a horse is considered good practice any time a new animal is introduced to a facility, particularly if there are concerns it has been exposed to disease. Concerns about disease are heightened for a horse coming from a local auction or a feed lot/kill pen. Epidemiologists say the combination of stressed horses from a variety of management backgrounds, combined in rarely-sanitized communal pens or trailers is a recipe for increased risk of transmissible disease.

“I do worry that it's a population that's under-vaccinated, undernourished, heavily exposed, heavily traveled and is not really up to the challenge of dealing with infectious disease, but they are up to the challenge of spreading it,” said Dr. Angela Pelzel-McCluskey of the United States Department of Agriculture/Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Alborano told the Paulick Report nearly every group of horses bailed so far has come in with some of them suffering from mucus and persistent coughs requiring antibiotic treatment.

An image from Parker's Facebook page gives an up-close look at the grain provided to I Care I Help rescues

Many horses found in kill pens, including several of Alborano's rescues, show signs of malnourishment and are further stressed by the auction process. Photos from January and March show the horses in Parker's care being fed a powdery, pale substance rather than a traditional sweet feed or pelleted horse formula. When questioned about the feed on social media, Parker stated it was a high-fat mill mix purchased from a local farm supply store. Parker stated he buys six tons of feed per week and more than 100 bales of hay.

Then there's the question of finding housing for 90 horses in the short turnaround between Alborano's fundraising and pick-up. While Parker rented a facility in Farmerville, La., in January and February, sources tell the Paulick Report he left abruptly in early March. Around that time, Parker moved the horses in his care, many of them Alborano's social media purchases, to a pair of abandoned commercial poultry barns in Farmerville, La.

Mike Whitler, independent contractor and inspector for the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association, saw the horses there in late March. Whitler had been asked by authorities to help identify horses from a mass bail of two dozen Thoroughbreds earlier in the month. According to his observations on the property, the horses were without turnout or access to pasture and were mostly kept loose in the chicken houses.

This image, taken in March, shows rescued horses inside an abandoned poultry facility

“I will say they are doing the best with the situation. The horses appear to be being fed. Are they crowded? In my opinion, yes,” said Whitler. “After what they've gone through, these horses should feel like they're in heaven.”

Alborano denies there is an issue with keeping horses in poultry barns, stating each of the 68 horses remaining on the property is walked daily.

Whitler expressed concern to Alborano about the horses' living situation and offered to find a better facility to house them. Initially, Alborano accepted Whitler's offer, but stalled when he came up with a list of facilities willing to take on the rescued horses – even one facility that would take them under Parker's direction for the same $350/month rate.

“I listened to what you said on the phone yesterday and after about two minutes, I could tell you were plotting something,” Alborano emailed Whitler the next day. “Mike, in due respect, a person of your position and age should not try to go into the realms and authority of avenues that could hurt you. As a friend, and someone who would tell my own father the same thing, you should stay within the parameters of your own job title because when you move away into a realm where you think you have authority and genuinely do not, it can hurt you legally.”

Days after Whitler expressed his concerns to Alborano, she led a fundraising campaign for 11 more horses from Thompson Horse Lot, tweeting she had reached her goal of over $13,000 on March 30.

Who are these horses, really?

Alborano has pulled no punches when it comes to her criticism of the racing industry in Louisiana, particularly Delta Downs in Vinton, La. In one Facebook post March 10, she blames this group of homeless horses on the recent conclusion of the Delta Downs meet.

In fact, the majority of Alborano's fundraising efforts have begun with a declaration that the loose horses shown in her video are “all straight off the track” and/or “still have racing plates.” Several of the horses were subsequently identified by their tattoos as having run or worked out (often at Delta) days or weeks prior to their bail, but others hadn't stepped foot on a racetrack in years. According to a March 14 tweet from Alborano, one turned out to be Michelle's Crown, a 20-year-old broodmare who left the track in 2002. Images show many horses with shaggy coats, little muscle tone, and long, sunburnt manes uncharacteristic of horses recently in racing fitness. Whitler said five of the 23 horses he examined in March (down from the 24 Alborano pulled since one died soon after Parker took possession) had not been tattooed yet, indicating they hadn't started in a race. Another eight had illegible tattoos – meaning of course, there's no way of knowing how recently they left the track.

For the casual observer, it is also next to impossible to track the progress of any individual horse from fundraising to quarantine and beyond. A handful of horses, typically those with the most recent starts, were identified quickly and advertised by their Jockey Club names. The remainder are sometimes referenced by the groups they came from (“the Louisiana 11” was her reference for the first group of horses from Thompson's in January), although Alborano has only sporadically provided the public with whole-body and headshots of individuals from any given group. Even in photos and videos advertising horses for adoption, they are identified by height and age only and yet according to Parker's postings, are frequently adopted within hours of being advertised.

No members of the group of 11 horses pulled from Thompson in January has ever been identified by name, even after Alborano stated two made their way to Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue in Maryland for retraining and adoption.

Alborano told the Paulick Report in early April there are 68 horses remaining at Parker's facility, with 38 unadopted. Twelve have been adopted and removed from the facility.

A series of posts made by Parker on his business Facebook page on March 29 showed videos of several horses from Alborano's rescue efforts, including some ready for adoption and others still in the quarantine process. Parker read off the horses' tattoo numbers at the start of each video, but a quick check with the Jockey Club's online registry service shows some discrepancies. One horse, which according to the tattoo provided by Parker would have been 22 years old, was advertised as a mare even though the tattoo (Z25008) belongs to a gelding named Leme At Em. Another horse's tattoo is read as O36140, which Tattoo Identification Services shows as having no matching horse. Another, a bay mare whose number is allegedly J45868, has a tattoo number corresponding to a 12-year-old chestnut named Bambino's Line.

There are also horses from her efforts which seem to vanish from the public eye altogether. A pregnant Quarter Horse mare nicknamed Alice was purchased by Alborano in mid-January and said to be ready to foal sometime in late February. Alborano has not responded publicly to questions about where the mare is or whether she has delivered her foal. In early April, she revealed the mare had been hospitalized after she failed to “bag up” – a sign of early labor.

“It doesn't look good,” she said.

People interested in adopting one of the horses from Alborano's rescue efforts are promised they will be treated to tough screening procedures. Alborano said she is suspicious of other rescues' ability to track a horse through its lifetime and maintain a chain of custody even with return clauses in their adoption contracts. I Care I Help horses leave with a return clause in their adoption contracts according to Alborano, and require adopters to promise they will give their horses forever homes.

Three of the horses from January rescue efforts have gone to the Maker's Mark Secretariat Center and Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue (both TAA-accredited facilities), where they will be retrained and placed up for adoption under the organizations' own contracts.

The personality behind the keyboard

Before her rescues of Thoroughbreds in Louisiana kill lots began going viral, Alborano had been active at the New Holland auction in Pennsylvania, focusing on the rescue of Standardbreds. Alborano and her family has been active harness owners, and she estimates her family has more than 60 rescue horses in total. She has also grabbed headlines as a competitive runner, having been nationally ranked since the age of nine years old and remaining ranked internationally even in her late 40s.

Alborano credits her improvement in her own athletic performance to hypoxic training, which simulates a high altitude environment to increase fitness without the aid of medications. According to press coverage, she and husband Don Carmody were so taken with the method's impact on her performance they founded Equine Altitude International, a company that manufactures stalls simulating a hypoxic environment for racehorses. Alborano told the Paulick Report that most of her clients require her to sign a non-disclosure before purchase so she is unable to reveal their identities, but did mention that Dr. Kendall Hansen uses the stalls on his horses.

Although the company (then called Advanced Altitude 365) claimed credit for the use of hypoxic therapy on Group 1 Cox Plate winner Shamus Award, the horse's connections dispute that. A post on the website RipOffReport, purportedly from a connection of Shamus Award owner Ultra Racing, claims the chambers didn't work and the ownership group was not provided a refund. Alborano told the Thoroughbred Daily News Ultra Racing did not want to provide credit to hypoxic therapy because the horse's improved performance had made him a potential breeding interest.

Not long after the dispute surfaced online, a series of blogs appeared showing photoshopped images of male Ultra Racing connections with their faces pasted onto cartoon female bodies. One blog, https://thetruthaboutrodcedaro.wordpress.com/ was presented as if written by Rod Cedaro, an exercise physiologist employed by Ultra Thoroughbreds owner Sean Buckley, but was clearly intended to embarrass Cedaro. Another, https://thetruthaboutaa365.wordpress.com/ had Alborano credited as the author but had at least one entry copy and pasted from The Truth About Rod Cedaro and also appeared to be satire.

Alborano's horse rescue efforts have also attracted fake accounts intent on trolling her detractors. Thoroughbred owner and attorney Maggi Moss raised questions about Alborano's operation on social media and found herself the target of a Twitter account called @Andyinthepooper (featuring a profile picture of CNN's Anderson Cooper).

An individual who reported @Andyinthepooper to Twitter for violation of the site's policies forwarded a response purportedly received from Twitter identifying Alborano's account, @icareihelp, as “violating our rules against managing multiple Twitter accounts for abusive purposes.” The @Andyinthepooper account was subsequently suspended.

 

Alborano, for her part, told Paulick Report she believes the notification of violation of terms from Twitter was Photoshopped by her critics, who she also said created troll accounts targeting her.

“That's absolutely false. There is no possible way,” she said of the suggestion that she was behind @Andyinthepooper. “I don't believe that's true. That's not me. The only two accounts I have are my radio show, which is Switching Leads, and ICareIHelp.”

Twitter did not respond to inquiries from the Paulick Report about the authenticity of the notification.

ICareIHelp's support

ICareIHelp.com does not list its board of directors on its website, although it does include a list of “supporters” that includes trainer Graham Motion, owners Ahmed Zayat and Rich Papiese, jockey Mike Smith, horseplayers Paul Matties Jr., Brent Sumja, Kevin Cox, and media personalities Jason Blewitt and Zoe Cadman.

Alborano's biggest alliance no doubt is with longtime Blood-Horse senior writer Steve Haskin, with whom she hosts a weekly radio show called Switching Leads interviewing many of the biggest names in the sport. Haskin has profiled Alborano's efforts in his Hangin' With Haskin column at bloodhorse.com.

Haskin and horseplayer Cox sit on the advisory board for the TAA.

What does all this mean?

Fortunately for those looking to donate to horse rescue efforts, the industry has already created an organization responsible for accrediting and fundraising for operations adhering to best practices.

“The purpose of the TAA is to make sure that when money is given to accredited organizations, that the money is spent well,” said TAA operations consultant Stacie Clark. “Then, you know the organizations that are calling themselves nonprofits have been through a rigorous inspection process and they have to have a 501c3 status. They have to be registered as a business for three years. If donors are giving money to other organizations that aren't accredited that's fine, that's their choice. But it's because of insecurity over how money was being invested that the TAA was created in the first place.”

A social media posting from Dominique's Livestock Market on Feb. 14, six weeks after Alborano began her rescue efforts, notified potential customers that there was “a high demand for Thoroughbred horses.” A posting by Thompson's Horse Lot April 5 advertised an off-track Thoroughbred available for bail through the lot for $1,075 — higher than the average price the Thompsons had previously charged Alborano.

In 2017, TAA-accredited organization New Vocations served just over 500 horses. In 2016, its contributions totaled $2.4 million. In the first three months of this year, Alborano has taken in nearly 20 percent of the horses as the multi-facility, multi-breed operation with 3.7 percent of their budget. As temperatures rise in Louisiana, it's hard not to wonder how many more horses the chicken barns will hold.

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