Rescuing Pepper: Authorities find neglected horse sought by distraught previous owner
GRAND FORKS – Pepper is alive, she appears to be OK despite dropping about 200 pounds in weight, and she’s going home.
And Madi George, the 6-year-old New York girl who sent her “life savings” to help ailing North Dakota horses like Pepper, is going to get a special tribute from Pepper’s grateful owner.
The 8-year-old quarter horse mare, one of about 150 sick, malnourished and injured horses seized last week by Burleigh and Morton county authorities, was sold last year by Gary Bernhardt of Milnor, N.D., to Bill Kiefer, owner of the ranches where the horses were seized.
Authorities found nearly 100 horses dead on the two properties on Jan. 28.
A Morton County assistant state’s attorney said today that his office is in court seeking ownership of the surviving horses and will put them up for adoption, while the investigation into possible criminal charges continues.
Bernhardt, who raises, competes with and sells registered quarter horses, told the Herald on Monday that he hoped to reclaim the mare.
He provided a picture, which Morton County authorities used Tuesday to identify Pepper as one of 38 surviving horses at the Burleigh County site.
“Tuesday afternoon, they called me and said they had found her,” Bernhardt said. “I tell you, it was a good thing I was sitting still, because the tears came — tears of joy.
“They said she was the first one they saw when they went to the Burleigh County property. They said she was fine, she looked good.”
And they had more news.
“She’s still pregnant,” Bernhardt said.
The mare had been bred with one of his stallions before she was sold, Bernhardt said. He said Kiefer told him he planned to abort the foal.
If Pepper has a healthy colt in the spring, Bernhardt said he will put it up for sale and donate the proceeds to a cancer fund in Madi Georgia’s name.
“That would be fabulous!” Rachelle Frost, Madi’s mother, said today. “She will be thrilled, and especially that the money would go to cancer … because I have leukemia myself.”
Frost said she has been through 14 rounds of chemotherapy and continues to fight the disease.
“She’s a really neat kid,” she said of Madi. “She’s very much her own person, very kind and free-spirited. When she thinks something is right or wrong, she has a strong opinion on it.”
Madi was “very, very serious about buying an elephant or a dolphin” with her savings, $177, which her mom said reflects how keenly the first-grader felt about helping the horses in North Dakota.
“I don’t think she ever spent a penny since she started saving,” her mother said. “Even if I gave her 12 cents or something at the grocery store, it went into the savings for her elephant.
“When I read to her some of the responses people have written, praising what she did, she was confused. She said, ‘Mommy, that’s just what you’re supposed to do.’ ”
Frost said that Madi and her brother Cole, who is 8, “have taken from all this that they really can do something that makes a difference, so it’s been good for them.”
She said the children are busy now making Valentines for the staff and volunteers at Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue.
Bernhardt said he may adopt two or three other horses when he reclaims Pepper. “I have the hay, and I have the facility,” he said. But getting Pepper home and healthy is his first objective.
“As soon as they tell me I can get her, I’ll hitch my trailer up and head over there,” he said.
“She’s going to need a lot of vitamins and minerals. She’s about 200 pounds lighter than the 1,200 or so I remember her at. And in the picture they sent me, her eyes look sad. But we’ll fix that. I have a vet lined up, and we’re going to give her a 100 percent look-over.”
Jackson Lofgren, assistant state’s attorney for Morton County, said he overheard the telephone conversation with Bernhardt when he was told Pepper was alive. “He was pretty excited,” Lofgren said.
He said many people have called to volunteer time, resources or funds to help the surviving horses, including some who said they might be willing to take a horse.
“We’ve been pretty busy filing all the civil paperwork,” he said. “The animal neglect statutes give us very tight deadlines. We’re trying to get title to the horses so we can start adopting these animals out.”
Sheriff’s deputies have taken control of about 120 horses and mules on the Morton County property and 38 horses and mules in Burleigh County, Lofgren said. Veterinarians from New Salem, N.D., have been inspecting and treating the animals.
“We’ve only got so much hay, maybe enough for two weeks,” he said. “We’re hoping to find homes for all of them.”
He said Kiefer has been cooperating with authorities, but he had no additional information on the criminal investigation. “Our concern No. 1 is to take care of the animals we still have alive and do all the investigating we need to do on the criminal side,” he said.
Alison Smith, of Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue, said that her facility took in four more animals from the surviving herds over the weekend, bringing the total there to 27. She said she hoped to start some of the animals on grain soon and do worming and pregnancy testing.
“There hasn’t been a lot of change, but we are starting to see some of the hollowness and emptiness leave their eyes,” she said.