A Cataldo ranch claiming to be a nonprofit equine rescue operation is under investigation by the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office following reports by neighbors that horses were being abused at the ranch.
The calls first came in last week, and gruesome images of skinny horses emerged, along with details of animals so hungry they were chewing on fences and eating their own feces.
"This place is saying it is a horse rescue by taking in horses that are malnourished," said Kootenai County Sheriff's Office Lt. Stu Miller. "Residents don't think (the ranch) is taking care of the animals."
Miller said the Idaho State Brand Inspector and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has a special section for equine welfare, have also been contacted to help with the investigation.
"The biggest thing is that we want to make sure the horses aren't in any danger," Miller said. "We're trying to figure out if (the ranch) perpetuated that neglect, or if those horses were already in that condition when they got them."
Dawn Dempsey, a horse rescuer with Survivors Rescue in Sandpoint, said she is livid about the way Mustang Ranch and Rescue has treated its horses.
"There's no reason those horses are still there," she said. "They need to be saved. Somebody needs to step up to the plate. We are doing everything we can to get the word out and get these horses safe."
Dempsey said she begged Sean Black, who owns Mustang Ranch and Rescue with wife Bonny, to let Survivors Rescue come and get the horses, but said he refused to let that happen.
Mustang Ranch and Rescue does not have a website, but did have a Facebook page, with the ranch's mission statement, that was accessible to the public on Monday.
"Mustang Ranch and Rescue is dedicated to saving horses bound for slaughter for human consumption," the statement read. "We also assist in cases of horse abuse, neglect and abandonment. And those who are victims of financial hardships. We work to encourage owner responsibility and humane treatment and care of all equines. We rescue, rehab, & adopt them into a new home. If you own a horse that needs a new home, or know of an abused or neglected horse, please contact us."
Phone messages were left at a contact number for the ranch, but the calls were not returned, and the Facebook page appears to have been taken down.
Authorities, meanwhile, were at the ranch Tuesday. One deputy, who had his light on in the driveway up to the ranch, was parked blocking the way up and two animal control vehicles were also present.
Miller said the investigation started when the sheriff's office received a notice that there were two horses down and deceased on the property.
As word got out, several local residents made attempts to get horses off the ranch.
Candi Beeler, a resident of Cataldo, said she was able to barter with ranch staff members on Thursday in exchange for two 5-month-old horses. They let her take another horse named Shammy, for free, she said.
Shammy was in such poor condition, Beeler said, that the animal had to be euthanized Monday.
"She was extremely skinny and her temperature was at 90 degrees. She was extremely hypothermic," Beeler said.
Beeler said the two babies she bartered for are in good condition.
Amber Coberly, who paid $60 for a yearling filly horse from the ranch on Sunday night, described the scene at the ranch as dire.
"The best way to describe it is a horse holocaust," Coberly said. "If someone doesn't get these horses out they will be dead in a month."
Coberly, who said she has 13 horses of her own and rides and trains horses, said she witnessed horses chewing on the fences, licking the ground for food and eating their own feces because they were so hungry.
She said she also saw a pit at the ranch with five to six dead horses laying in it.
"They're in denial," she said of the ranch workers. "It's more ignorance than anything else. I can tell they've been riding them, which is the worst part."
She said they would ride the horses in order to train them and make them better for adoption.
Jarret Baker, who also bartered for a horse from the ranch, said he first visited the ranch in July when he noticed an advertisement on Craigslist for a horse named Dreamer.
Baker said he saw dead horses more recently at the ranch, but they were laying out in plain sight and not in a pit.
He said he is still making attempts to get another horse from the ranch.