About 10 years ago, Cynthia Jacobs was working at the Wolfco Gas Station on Highway 207, pumping gas, when a trailer rolled in carrying Chester, a big brown horse with a wisp of white between the eyes.
The horse was headed nowhere good, claims Jacobs, so she offered to buy Chester herself.
“I got them from a farmer that was taking them to the glue factory to get killed,” Jacobs said.
She had a barn built in her yard in the South Texas area of Kahnawake and ended up with more horses: Macey, brown and white, who later gave birth to muddy-white Lenny by another horse, an older stallion who died.
In 2017, the barn that housed the animals went up in flames, the burning accelerated by 30-40 bales of hay.
After the fire, the horses were housed in a former smoking shelter that was donated to Jacobs and her ex-partner. The horses were fenced in, but they’d sometimes escape – it started with Lenny taking an apple from the window of a car, claims Jacobs. “She knew she had gotten apples from a car, so now she’s going to look for whatever’s outside that fence.”
Around this time, Kahnawake Animal Protection began to receive calls about the animals, which for years have been fed by community members who have been concerned about the horses’ condition. But the department could not intervene without the permission of the owner, they said, especially as the horses were deemed to have received a minimum level of care, even if the authorities felt there was serious cause for concern.
That is, until Monday, when a post about the horses’ overgrown hooves spurred the department to action; they secured the animals the same evening.
Photos that are said to have been taken over a year ago that were posted by Shanny Bélisle, who is now in possession of the horses, show hooves that are already grown out, with Lenny’s mane severely matted. “They’re exhibiting behavioural problems like kicking, biting, and lashing out due to the pain they’re in,” said Kiona Akohseràke Deer, who is a friend of Bélisle and who has been worried about the horses for years.
“At first glance they might look healthy, but if you really know what you’re looking for, it’s clear as day these horses are not healthy,” she said.
Jacobs surrendered the horses and was charged by the Kahnawake Peacekeepers with animal cruelty by way of neglect. The situation has made waves on social media.
“It’s not fair what they’re saying,” said Jacobs. Her farrier – a person who trims horses’ hooves – moved to Akwesasne, she said, and she has struggled to find a replacement.
“Those are my babies. They’re my everything,” she said. She has lately been dealing with problems such as a separation from her ex-partner and heart problems, she said. Kahnawa’kehró:non Val Curotte has been coming regularly to feed the horses and give them water.
Jacobs feels she was misled by the Peacekeeper, whom she claims told her that if she surrendered her animals, it would only be temporary.
“Unfortunately, I can’t speak on what a civilian claims they were told, only what has been documented in the file,” said Peacekeepers’ spokesperson Kyle Zachary.
Jacobs was dispossessed of the horses the moment she surrendered them and has virtually no mechanism to have them returned.
Had she not surrendered the horses, the officer would have sought a warrant to seize the animals under the Health of Animals Act, Zachary said. That law provides legal avenues for owners to seek the return of animals in certain circumstances.
The saga comes in the context of a push to update animal control laws that the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) Public Safety Unit says are outdated, giving local Animal Protection officers little leeway when it comes to enforcement, having to rely instead on the Peacekeepers and the cooperation of owners. A feedback period for a draft of a new law is currently underway.
Yet, while Jacobs endures criminal charges and public outcry, Animal Protection’s version of the horses’ treatment is not so stark, even if the horses had long been a concern for the department.
“Every time I’d go to check up on the horses, they had food, they had water, they had shelter, so my hands were tied,” said animal control officer Brandi Rice.
She acknowledged that the horses also had a veterinarian who periodically checked on them. According to Jacobs, the veterinarian was there last year.
However, the hooves had reached an alarming state in – if not for this, Animal Protection would not have been likely to press the issue, she said. Animal Protection had even tried to assist Jacobs in finding a farrier, without success, lending credence to Jacobs’ claim that it was difficult to find someone.
“Their mane had gotten matted many times, and right as soon as they noticed that they went there and they brushed out their hair. They were taking care of them. They were,” said Rice. “They had a hard time and they struggled, and like I said, everything was minimal. They did their best that they could, but unfortunately the horses do need more.”
Despite this, Rice said there is no doubt the horses are better off in their new situation. Animal Protection had previously wanted to take the horses over a year ago, Rice acknowledged, but the owner and her ex-partner had not cooperated.
Curotte, who has been feeding the horses consistently for three years, had asked that she be given the horses at that time. She has been bringing them upwards of 100 litres of water per day, she said. She is incensed that she has been sidelined despite her willingness to take and provide for the horses.
She also claims that Jacobs agreed to give her the horses days before they were surrendered to Animal Protection.
Curotte is especially concerned that the horses may be separated in the future when they are ready to leave the horse rescue facility where they are being rehabilitated.
“How come I wasn’t allowed to take them when I was the one who’s taking care of them?” said Curotte. According to Rice, Curotte would not have been considered because her property is not conducive to the needs of horses.
Deer believes Animal Protection was hampered by local animal control laws.
“For years now, I’ve been seeing these horses get worse and worse and deteriorating in their field. I’m a horse lover, and it always broke my heart seeing them like that,” said Deer.
“I know they were on their radar for a long time, but personally I feel this should have been done way sooner, before their hooves were allowed to get to this point,” she said.
She also said it was not sufficient for the animals to be cared for by the community because it could mean an inconsistent schedule and unhealthy, even rotten food. “This actually caused their teeth to start deteriorating also,” she said. A reliance on grass can also be problematic, she added.
A GoFundMe for the care of the horses, which raised more than $3,000 this week, claims the horses are in need of x-rays to check for bone deformation, dental care, vaccinations, and deworming, in addition to hoof trims.
It is a relief to know the horses are at a horse rescue, she said.
“People need to realize how bad their conditions actually were. Bare minimum never was and never will be enough, and human pride should never come before an animal’s wellbeing,” she said.
Jacobs disagrees with these assessments.
“Everybody knows how much I love my horses. The main thing was the white one – her hooves are really, really bad,” she said.
According to Deer, the horses have veterinarian and farrier appointments coming up next week. Once the horses are rehabilitated, a new permanent owner, who will be screened and asked to provide references, will be sought.
The feedback period for the draft Animal Control Law runs until August 4.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, July 21, in issue 32.29 of The Eastern Door.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.