The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office announced today that it will investigate the death of a wild horse at the Salt River Recreational Area as a case of animal cruelty, recanting earlier statements that there was no evidence of foul play.
By the time police responded to tips that Dotty, a 12-year-old mare, was floating dead in the river, her carcass had been decaying for several days. It was difficult to see bullet wounds, according to an MCSO statement. However, a veterinarian who later examined her determined the horse was shot with a small-caliber weapon.
Dotty was spotted trotting on Wednesday. On Thursday, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, a nonprofit that has been tracking the Dotty’s herd of about 100 horses for the past 17 years, alerted police that she had been shot after documenting visible bullet holes in her head. Nobody showed up to investigate until Sunday.
It is still unclear whether Dotty was shot for sport or whether she injured herself and someone decided to “put her out of her misery,” said Simone Netherlands, president of Wild Horse Management Group. However, when the nonprofit examined the body, there was no evidence of Dotty was hurt prior to getting shot.
“Unless someone saw what happened, we might never know,” Netherlands said.
Even if the shooter acted out of mercy, however, Netherlands said a member of the public should never attempt to euthanize a wild horse. If someone finds an injured horse, they should call the group (which has a 24-hour hotline for such emergencies), the MCSO, or the U.S. Forest Service.
“Before a horse is put down, there needs to be an accurate assessment if that’s even necessary,” she said. “A lot of times it’ll be an injury that’s completely healable. Wild horses are very tough. We’ve seen horses with completely broken legs heal 100 percent.”
Under the federal Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, it is illegal to kill a wild horse.
There's been a years-long tussle, however, over whether the horses qualify for protection under the act.
According to the Tonto National Forest Service, which oversees the land where the herd lives, Dotty and her family are abandoned livestock — not wild horses.
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Since August, when the Forest Service announced plans to round up the herd and send the horses to auction, Netherlands has been fighting furiously to prove the horses' lineage, recruiting help from legislators, filing a lawsuit, and organizing rallies.
“Dotty’s death just really drives home the need to get these horses protected,” she said.
State Representative Kelly Townsend, a vocal advocate for the herd, expressed relief that the MCSO had acknowledged Dotty's death as a case of possible animal cruelty.
"The first layer of justice has been delivered," she posted on her Facebook page. "Now on to finding who did it."