4 Investigates: Horse cruelty investigation at Whispers Ranch

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – It’s what happens when good intentions go bad, even criminal. A ranch in southern New Mexico surrendered more than two dozen horses and donkeys last year.

It followed a nine-month cruelty investigation by the New Mexico Livestock Board. 

Now, the owners of Whispers Ranch are facing 20 misdemeanor charges, 19 counts of animal cruelty and one count of illegally operating as an unlicensed rescue.

The state has 10 licensed horse rescues. There are state standards and requirements that go along with that license. It’s an operation that takes a ton of resources, a lot of people, even more love.

“Anybody who has a love of animals, and believe me, horses, they just own your heart, anyone who has a love of animals wants to reach out and help them, but at what cost?” said Larry Smyth, executive director of New Mexico Horse Rescue at Walkin N Circles Ranch. 

Larry Smyth said their mission at Walkin N Circles Ranch is to take in abused or neglected horses and give them the life and the home they deserve.

“It changes not only their physical but their personality,” said Smyth about the rehabilitation and rejuvenation they bring to once abused or neglected animals. “It’s amazing, it’s why we do it.”

Exactly why Walkin N Circles stepped up in October when the state put out a call for help to rescue 31 horses from an owner-surrender in Deming, New Mexico.

“That number is a big number, and it’s not normal for us to come across an issue of that magnitude,” said Shawn Davis, deputy director of the New Mexico Livestock Board.

Davis said the story really starts in March 2022 when a complaint led agents to a so-called horse haven in Luna County.

It started an almost nine-month investigation into dozens of horses and donkeys, many skinny and frail others in desperate need of vet and farrier care.

“The biggest issues was that several of those animals had feet that were in terrible conditions,” said Davis. “It had hooves that were overgrown to the point that those animals couldn’t walk, or it was painful for them to walk. There was a totality of the circumstances going on here in the animals just weren’t meeting the level of care that needed to be met.”

Meet Tom Lopez and Claudia Alvaraz. They operate Whispers Ranch on the same property as their home. Five years ago, they turned their love of horses into a sort-of sanctuary type haven with a specific mission, to save horses from slaughter

“That’s where my focus was, was the horses that was their last stop. someone is going to save them, or they’re gone,” said Claudia Alvarez, with Whispers Ranch.

That last stop is what she calls a kill pen. Horses, she said, no one wants, bound for slaughter in Mexico or Canada. 

Smyth said there aren’t any kill pens in New Mexico. 

Alvarez said she stated working with one out of east Texas.

“I started volunteering for this one kill pen in particular, that was smaller than most of them online and didn’t have a lot of help for their horses. So, the horses were just shipping off to Mexico. So, I decided to help that one on a regular basis,” she said.

The kill pens would advertise the horse, Alvarez would make a social media plea, get the bail money, save the horse, and when it had nowhere to go it would wind up here at her ranch.

The idea of saving a horse from a kill pen is controversial. Not the saving from slaughter part, but the business of it. 

It’s part of the reason the state livestock board requires documentation and bills of health for any livestock crossing state lines. Something Davis said none of the horses at Whispers Ranch had.

“We show up and the horse is in bad shape, and they say ‘I’ve rescued the horse from the kill pen’ the reality is we don’t really know where they got the animal. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s a way to get more money,” said Davis.

At the start of the state’s investigation Whispers Ranch had more than 30 horses by the end of it the couple had 43 horses.

“There’s no one else that would take these horses in. We wouldn’t have taken anymore in but if the horse has no place to go that’s when we and it’s been paid for, and it’s going to get put on a truck,” said Tom Lopez.

“If you can take care of ten horses, comfortably, you can vet them, farrier them, you can take care of them, that’s a good place to be,” said Executive Director for Walkin N Circles Larry Smyth. “But if you have 30 horses and now all of them are under the radar, all of them are not getting enough feed, all of them are not getting enough vet care, then what’s better? To keep them alive, but slowly let them starve to death? Or to have them be euthanized?”

In October, Whispers Ranch voluntarily surrendered 31 horses, the largest ever. Those animals were sent off to the various 10 licensed rescues. Nine of those animals had to be euthanized, one died from old age.

Five of those surrendered animals ended up at Walkin N Circles Ranch. Walker is one of those surrenders. Smyth said in less than a month he’s put on more than 100 pounds.

Smyth said they also got four donkeys. His team of highly skilled trainers are working on socializing them to get them where they need to be.

As for Whispers Ranch the state let them keep 12 horses that were in good condition, a number they say is more manageable.

But there’s nothing in place to keep that happening again. After all, the calls from the kill pens keep coming.

“We haven’t taken any horses in three months in when I’ve tons of opportunity to,” said Alvarez. “We’re not [going to take in more horses] at this point.”

Instead, they said they’re focusing on the future. Doing the work they still want to do, with dreams those good intentions turn into better outcomes. They would like to become more of a sanctuary where animals can live out the remainder of their lives. 

Claudia Alvarez said are hoping to get volunteers from around the community to help in those goals. Here’s a link to their Facebook page.

Alvarez is being charged with 19 counts of animal cruelty and one count of illegally operating as an unlicensed rescue, all misdemeanor offenses.

Alvarez said they do have an attorney. They are inviting the NMLB back out to their property to see the changes they’ve made. She said they do have a more attainable plan for the number of horses they can manage and care for.