Last of the Santa Cruz horses
Nonprofit horse sanctuary pleads for public’s help
Sunshine Sanctuary for Kids and Horses is anything but sunny these days. Recent storms have pummeled the ranch into a muddy mess, and the place is missing an essential ingredient—the kids.
Christina Nooner’s nonprofit organization near Los Molinos is in lockdown due to an outbreak of equine influenza, and she is starting to feel desperate to protect the animals and the mission of helping children (many of whom are at-risk youth) by connecting them with rescued horses.
“These horses have been so therapeutic for so many people, so many kids,” she said earlier this week as it began drizzling.
Dr. Bill Gray, a veterinarian at Cottonwood Veterinary Clinic, confirmed that a particularly virulent strain of the flu first struck Tehama and Shasta counties in December and has since sickened 80 or so animals, and that three likely have died from the illness.
“It went a lot of places really quick, and that concerned us,” he said.
Gray hasn’t treated any horses with the illness for about a week and said he thinks the worst of the flu has passed through his neck of the woods. Still, he cautioned North State horse owners to vaccinate. Inoculated animals appear resistant to the strain, the subtype of which has yet to be determined.
But Nooner isn’t taking any chances and has quarantined her ranch. Her husband, Troy, two ranch hands who live there, and this reporter have been the only people allowed on the property, which is nestled among orchards about six miles north of town. She is being extra precautious, and for very good reason.
Most of her equine companions are Colonial Spanish horses, descendants of a herd rounded up and removed from an island off the coast of Southern California in the late 1990s. Removal of that 15-head herd from Santa Cruz Island—part of the Channel Islands—stirred up quite a controversy at the time. Animal activists and geneticists decried the move of the National Park Service, which had purchased the horses’ home on the eastern portion of the island and viewed the creatures as an invasive species.
One of the herd’s most vocal advocates was Dr. Karen Blumenshine, a Santa Barbara-based veterinarian, who had treated the horses for the island’s previous owners and believed them to be the progeny of animals introduced by the Spanish in the mid-19th century. In a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times in July 1998, the veterinarian called for the preservation of the creatures on that range.
“One of the island’s former owners has said this is a historic herd and wishes them to remain on the island for public appreciation,” she wrote.
DNA testing wasn’t around to support Blumenshine’s theory back then, and the animals were relocated to Shingletown in the care of the nonprofit Wild Horse Sanctuary. Nooner was vice president of the organization at the time and agreed to allow the horses to live out the rest of their days under its care. About a year later, though, she came into possession of a sickly foal abandoned by the herd.
During a visit to Sunshine Sanctuary, she showed photos of the days-old creature—just skin and bones—and recalled lying next to the animal on a mattress she had placed in her yard. With the help of local children, Nooner nursed the gravely ill filly, a rare cremello color, back to health by administering intravenous fluids and antibiotics, and feeding her every two hours for months.
She already owned several rescued horses and was helping troubled neighborhood kids by inviting them to care for the older and unwanted animals. “I would just treat [the kids] like people—make them feel valuable,” she said. “They’d learn compassion and feel needed.”
Nooner said the foal had stirred in her a spiritual encounter revealing that she was meant to save the breed of sturdy little gaited horses, and unbeknownst to many she’s been on a mission to do so for the past decade. She’s managed a sophisticated breeding program, nearly doubling the herd. At the same time, she continued her work with children and established the operation as a nonprofit, naming it in honor of the abandoned filly, Sunshine, whose miraculous survival astonished consulting UC Davis veterinarians.
Two years ago modern genetic analysis found the group to be an isolated population with ancestral roots to the Iberian Peninsula (mostly in Spain), and whose closest equine relative is the Peruvian Paso. In an e-mail to Nooner, Dr. Gus Cothran, a Texas A&M geneticist, described the significance of the breed, which no longer exists in Spain. “It has survived the New World primarily by chance,” he said. “It is important to the survival of this land race of horses that as much of its past diversity as possible be preserved, and to do this we must preserve the various remnants that still survive.”
Nooner’s worst nightmare is that the recent flu strain could whip through her ranch, wiping out all trace of these horses. Vaccinations for the animals—28 Santa Cruz horses and a few others—will cost more than $600, and that’s just for the first round of inoculation. Nooner, who has maintained the herd through fundraising and her own money, is hoping the public will help defray the cost. She’s also looking to raise funds for the general upkeep of the horses (her feed bill alone is about $20,000 a year), training and to ensure the breed continues to thrive.
“These horses need to be saved for the next generation,” she said. “There’s something very special about them.”