In Search of Safe
The Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals has cared for more than a thousand animals since the late 1970s.
What happens to abused and neglected horses in Maine? If they are fortunate, they end up on a farm in South Windham run by the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals. The largest equine rescue and rehabilitation center in New England, the facility has cared for more than a thousand animals since the late 1970s. But as the woman who co-founded the farm will tell you, the successes have been hard-won and each day brings a new challenge.
They named her Candy, her caretakers explain, because she’s affectionate and sweet. Standing in the breezy sunshine of her stall, the Appaloosa does her part to demonstrate. She sniffs and nuzzles, presents her hindquarters to be scratched. “She’d crawl into your pocket if she could,” says barn manager Becky Jones. In every aspect, Candy gives the appearance of a happy horse. Her eyes are soft. Her coat gleams.
It was not always like this. Until she arrived at the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals (MSSPA) in 1993, Candy led a very different life. She was kept alone outside in a patch of woods. Her drinking water came from a puddle, and she was near death from starvation. She weighed five hundred pounds — four hundred less than what she weighs now — and infection from an embedded nail had consumed much of her right hind foot. In veterinary parlance, she was “death struck.” It took round-the-clock care and eighteen months of antibiotics to bring her back.
Candy is not the only horse who was death struck when she got here. At the southern end of the barn is Delilah, a nine-month-old Belgian filly recently removed with her mother from a farm in western Maine. Delilah had been kicked by a stallion, and her mother, a maiden mare who was bred when she was only two, was malnourished and had stopped producing milk. A few stalls up is Fuego, who for two years was kept tied to a tree and beaten. When Jones calls to him, Fuego turns from his window view of the pasture to regard her gravely.
As the largest equine rescue and rehabilitation center in New England and the second-oldest animal welfare agency in the country, the MSSPA has cared for more than a thousand abused and neglected animals since the mid-1970s. Some of the horses were seized by state agents; others have been relinquished by their owners to avoid court proceedings. Because of physical or psychological infirmities, most of the horses are not considered adoptable and will live here until they die. It’s a peaceful, well-kept existence, and one that clearly suits the animals. In addition to the healthy mares and geldings in the facility’s two barns, scores of “before” and “after” photos — which depict the transformations of horse after horse — give testament to the MSSPA’s work. So do the comments of people involved in equine care across New England.
“[The MSSPA] takes in the worst cases that you can imagine,” says Michael Davis, senior veterinarian at the New England Equine Medical and Surgical Center in Dover, New Hampshire. “The whole organization is keenly devoted. Through their care, they’re able to save these horses and return them to health. They do a fantastic job.”
Although the primary focus of the MSSPA is horses — fifty-two currently live at the 124-acre Windham facility while another twenty-five are housed elsewhere — the place provides sanctuary to other animals as well. Goats nap on bales of hay in the barn and, inside the small house that serves as the MSSPA’s onsite headquarters, dogs sprawl on child-sized cots and cats recline on the dining room table. When lunch is served, the cats are shooed from the room, only to stand forlornly at the French doors, awaiting their chance to get back in.
At the heart of the privately funded, nonprofit organization is its director, Marilyn Goodreau, who has been involved in the MSSPA for more than thirty years. A handsome woman with warm blue eyes in a weathered face, Goodreau is quick with a hug and easily moved to tears. But to view her merely as softhearted would be to underestimate her considerably. She can be fierce, and notably so. “God forbid anyone’s standing between her and an animal who needs help. She is relentless,” says Jones.
About 80 percent of the MSSPA’s horses arrive here through litigation — Delilah and her mother, Diana, are currently part of an ongoing case, for instance — and Goodreau once tried to expedite the process by showing up in person where an allegedly maltreated horse was being kept. Her message, in essence, was, “Either turn that horse over to me now, or I’ll sue you myself [in civil court].” Even with the law squarely behind her, after a court case has concluded, Goodreau’s work is not easy. She’s been shot at while removing a stallion from its owner’s barn and is often berated when she arrives on a property with the MSSPA trailer.
None of this fazes her, nor do charges that she can be particular about how things at the farm are done. To Goodreau, it couldn’t be simpler. “The horses come first,” she says, in her direct but gentle way. “I’m not going to give these animals who have suffered so terribly anything second-rate. They get the best food and the best vets. That’s all there is to it.”
In many ways, the history of the MSSPA is a multilayered love story — that of the love between a man and a woman, between that couple and horses, and, most broadly, between humankind and animals in general. It began in 1872, when the MSSPA was founded to care for streetcar horses in Portland. After electricity replaced horse-drawn transportation, the society gradually shifted to general animal welfare work. It returned to its roots in the 1970s, when a questionnaire sent statewide to those involved in the field revealed a need for a large-animal facility.
By then the organization was under the leadership of Lawrence J. Keddy, a multimillionaire industrialist who owned mills, manufacturing plants, and hydroelectric stations around the state. If Goodreau is one main reason for the institutional might of the MSSPA today, then Keddy is the other. The two lived together for almost forty years, until Keddy’s death in 2000, and although Goodreau is reticent to speak about her personal life, her love for Keddy is tangible. They met when he was in his forties and she was in her thirties, living in Falmouth in the house where she’d grown up.
“Lawrence had the most beautiful smile that God ever gave any human being,” Goodreau says. Her face lights up as she continues to describe him: good-hearted and unassuming, a man who didn’t care much about clothes or fancy cars in spite of his wealth. And smart. “A genius,” Goodreau says, so gifted in engineering that he once solved a major design problem on the back of a napkin, casually, for an acquaintance who stopped by his table at a restaurant. As a young man, Keddy had redesigned the noses of World War II bombs for the Defense Department, and his success grew from there. He was also “exacting and demanding,” says Goodreau. “Lawrence expected a lot of himself and of others.”
As does Goodreau. “They were definitely soul mates,” says Nancy Proctor, vice-president of the board of directors. In the close-knit environment of the MSSPA — seventeen full- and part-time employees, many of whom have worked here for decades — the relationship between Goodreau and Keddy, and their allegiance to animals, has formed a philosophical climate as central to the place as the rolling fields and the horses themselves.
Together Keddy and Goodreau set up the Windham facility in 1978, on land leased from the Maine Correctional Center, which sits just across the road. The place soon filled to overflowing. In 1991, after purchasing the Windham property, the MSSPA added a second barn. The design of that new building, called the “Big Barn,” with oversized stalls for twenty-four horses, was executed, predictably enough, with precision and care. “We tried to think like a horse,” says Goodreau. Light is important to horses, so each stall includes a large window. Keddy also installed individual sinks with warm running water (because Goodreau believes cold water can trigger serious gastrointestinal illness) and removable wood floors over a cement surface with drains. They also brought in a winch to help animals unable to stand remain upright.
Whether Keddy and Goodreau instilled passion in those who came to work for the MSSPA, or whether the place draws equine lovers in the first place, the staff, to a person, seems engaged in a cause. “It’s a way of life,” says Meris Bickford, vice-president of external affairs and a former president of the Maine State Bar Association who currently represents the MSSPA in court. Bickford was working in trust and investment services at Merrill Bank in Bangor when one day she happened to watch a video about the MSSPA at a meeting. The clip showed many of the “before” and “after” photos, and it also depicted Goodreau sleeping in the barn with a sick horse. Bickford was profoundly moved. “That was it,” she says. “That was in June [of 2005]. In August I made a visit.” Now a full-time employee of the MSSPA, Bickford carries a business card that reads “May the Horse be with you.”
Jones, the barn manager, also marvels at her fortune. “I am so all set,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m here, I step back and think, ‘Wow. I get paid to do this.’ ”
The horses, of course, are the most immediate beneficiaries of this collective commitment, and fortunately so, because equine rehabilitation — especially of animals as infirm as those under MSSPA care — is a difficult thing. Upon arrival each horse receives an individualized medical and feeding plan based “99 percent on intuition,” according to Goodreau. Almost always malnourished, the animals start out eating small amounts of hay before being introduced to a richer diet of pelletized grain mixed with vitamins, minerals, and molasses. There are repeated veterinary calls, which involve wound repair, surgery, and the administration of de-wormers and other medications. All of this is expensive, and the organization’s annual million-dollar operating budget, which largely relies on bequests, private donations, and membership fees, is often strained. Yet, the care remains uncompromised and, slowly, animals who were not ambulatory regain the ability to stand, and those who cowered in the backs of their stalls, out of reach of human hands, begin to come forward.
Eventually, almost all of the animals recover enough to spend at least part of each day outdoors in the pastures. “We ask nothing of them,” Goodreau says.
“We’re not preparing them for the racetrack or the ring. All we want is for them to be able to get out there and buck and run and just be horses.”
If the horses are viewed with absolute tenderness, their former owners are not. No matter how mistreated or neglected a horse has been (neglect is more common than outright abuse), its owner invariably puts up a fight before relinquishing it. The animal, it seems, suddenly takes on value when the prospect of losing it arises, and this turn of events is viewed with no small degree of cynicism at the Windham facility. The owner’s attitude generally is, “It’s property, and no one’s going to take my property,” says Goodreau. Yet, in more than thirty years the MSSPA, which typically partners with the district attorney assigned to the litigation, has never lost a case. If the strength of conviction is a factor, it’s easy to see why. Neither Goodreau, Bickford, nor Jones minces words when it comes to those whose animals have been seized. Descriptions of the owner of Delilah and Diana, for instance, include “a horrible man,” “a son-of-a-gun,” (and worse), and the place where he kept them “a hellhole.”
In that particular case, actions being sought include the confiscation of all of the owner’s animals as well as a lifetime ban on owning future ones. Bickford will also seek enforcement of a lien that requires him to pay the costs incurred in caring for the horse before the trial, which for a healthy animal run about five thousand dollars a year in food and veterinary bills and in this case are considerably higher. Already there is a waiting list of people interested in adopting Delilah and Diana, both of whom are now considered sound enough to be successfully placed. If they are adopted, the MSSPA will follow them very, very closely. In all cases, boarding is not allowed, and the organization is permitted to inspect the animals’ new premises twice a year. “You’d better believe we do those visits,” says Jones. The MSSPA also holds the right to regain custody of animals if it deems them improperly cared for.
In the end, the staffers say, after all the months spent nursing a death-struck horse back to health, after the days and sleepless nights and a thousand precisely prepared meals, the hardest part by far is letting go and handing the lead line to someone new.
In the Big Barn, all the horses have been fed and watered. Most are settling in for the night, but Luke, the palomino, is still awake. He sniffs the edges of his stall, turns around, sticks his head out, and looks at the other horses. It’s as if he’s taking stock of his surroundings: fresh-smelling, airy, and calm — vastly different from the dirty ten-by-ten-foot pen he shared with four other horses. Luke has come a long way since he arrived at the MSSPA two years ago, says Jones, but he still has far to go. Trust is the key. “He’s got his horse relationships down,” Jones says, “but he’s still figuring out his human ones.”
At the end of the barn, Diana nuzzles Delilah, who will soon be asleep. Sometimes the filly sleeps standing up, other times she lies down. Often she snores. Their case will be heard next month, and the MSSPA is ready. Indeed, after watching decades of court proceedings, almost everyone on the staff understands the fundamental legal arguments that Bickford will put forth. But they also see things through a broader, perhaps more powerful, lens — one of earthly stewardship and love. Maybe it is this, more than money or expertise, which imbues the MSSPA with power.
“Horses are the animals closest to God,” says Goodreau, the woman who once wanted to be a nun but instead gave her life to one man and a thousand animals in need. “Just look into their eyes.” She recounts the story of Thomas, a Haflinger pony carried into the facility on a blanket, semi-conscious and near death from starvation. A vet called in that first night to consult urged Goodreau to let Thomas die. She refused, instead banking him in hay and pounding his chest every time he tried to lie flat. Around dawn, he lifted his head and took a single bite of food. “I could tell then that he wanted to live,” Goodreau says. “In spite of everything he’d gone through, that horse wanted to live.”
- By: Cynthia Anderson