Dulce has come a long way from his days on the farm where he lived before the fire. Born on a farm in the south of Chile, Dulce was released into the hills of the vast acreage as a young foal. This is common practice on farms where they raise/breed horses for meat. His contact with people was extremely limited and he lived his first two years of life largely as a wild horse.
The fires that swept through Chile in early 2017 changed everything. Dulce was one of about 70 animals belonging to this Chilean farmer and most did not survive the tragedy. Those that did survive were seriously injured and many had to be euthanized.
The GAAP was put on standby in February as the fires raged through Chile. After connecting with a large animal shelter in the central region that desperately needed help moving horses around, the GAAP team suspended the day to day duties at the clinic and deployed to one of the worst affected zones to help out. The shelter was set up as a triage center where those that could be treated for minor injuries on-site were assigned a stall or a corral and volunteer veterinarians attended to their immediate needs. The most severely injured animals were rapidly assessed and referred to veterinary specialty hospitals in Santiago that were already on standby. This is where the GAAP, partnered with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, was able to help. Dulce was one of the seriously injured horses and was one of the first to be transported to Santiago, about a two-hour drive away. There, he would undergo the extensive rehabilitation necessary to treat his injuries. Dulce sustained 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 20% percent of his body and severe damage to his hooves.
Despite Dulce’s history of having extremely limited contact with people, he was unusually calm when the GAAP team approached him in preparation for loading. Most horses with his background would be highly unpredictable around people. There are some very basic things that, over time, a tame horse would have learned to accept from an early age, such as being touched, having a halter put on and being asked to walk quietly beside a person. Dulce had none of this. But even a horse that has spent its entire life around people can be extremely difficult to load into a trailer for the first time. It can be a scary experience: walking into a dark area, with strange sounds underfoot, clanging metal doors and a narrow space to stand in.
But not Dulce. We took all precautions assuming that he would very likely explode with this new and stressful experience, on top of his injuries. Any animal in great pain has a tendency to respond unpredictably. Imagine trying to do this with a 1000 pound wild animal, whose kick can instantly kill a grown person? Considering the urgency of Dulce’s condition, the team knew that somehow, we had to get him in the trailer! To everyone’s surprise, in spite of his obvious pain and fear of his unfamiliar surroundings Dulce calmly accepted our touch, lowered his head as we put on the halter, hesitantly followed us, and observed the opening of the trailer. So far so good! We offered him some hay, which he ate enthusiastically. Perfect! Enticing him into the trailer with hay was a bit of a challenge, but because he proved to be so incredibly gentle, we were able to grasp hands behind his hindquarters and almost lift him into the trailer physically! Finally, we had him in the trailer, IV fluids running to correct his state of dehydration during the trip, and quietly nibbling hay- we were ready to depart.
Upon arrival in Santiago, Dulce was treated by Dr. Felipe Lara and his team at the Andres Bello University hospital. While the prognosis was good, the veterinarians estimated that Dulce would need to undergo at least 6 months of treatment for his burns and damaged hooves. Horse rehabilitation is prohibitively expensive, especially for burn victims. For the duration in hospital, we expected that his treatment would easily cost thousands of dollars. These costs were covered by international and local donors that took an interest in his recovery. As Dulce’s owner was financially unable to assist with these costs, he wasn’t asked to contribute at all.
With around the clock medical attention and care from the many people involved, Dulce began his long, painful recovery. Each month saw a slight improvement in his physical injuries: his burns slowly turned to scars and his damaged hooves started to grow out. After 6 months of treatment, Dulce was finally ready to go home to the south of Chile. He would still need to be watched closely, but he no longer needed extensive professional care. His owner was contacted and given the good news. Much to everyone’s surprise, this was truly not good news for the owner. We had all been so focused on Dulce’s well-being and recovery, we honestly had not thought too much about the owner. After a lengthy conversation, we learned about the harsh reality of life for many of these struggling farmers post-fire. Most did not have any insurance; they lost their homes, their barns, all their stored hay and grain, their pasture, and their forests. In Dulce’s owners’ case, he lost his entire living. Sixty of his horses had died and he was left with only 10. He had no money to feed them and no pasture. His neighbours were all in a similar situation. Many of them, including Dulce’s owner, cut down the entire burned forest on their property, had the logs milled and tried to sell the wood to pay for their food. But since everyone had done the same, there was no market for milled lumber, and it still sits there, in his burned yard. The sad truth was that Dulce’s owner was in no position to pay for the shipping of the horse back home, and even if he could get the horse there, he couldn’t afford to feed it. The only consolation for him was that Dulce could be sold for meat to pay for hay for the others and to put food on his family’s table. Although this news came as an enormous shock to the GAAP and all of the team who had worked so hard to rehabilitate Dulce, the hardship these people had suffered gave them no other choice. We had to understand their situation. Yet, no-one could quite reconcile the fact that lovely Dulce, after all the courage he had shown in the face of immense suffering, would only be sold for meat. There was one alternative. The GAAP team quickly decided that they would compensate the owners with an amount equivalent to Dulce’s market value so that they could continue to care for this sweet horse they had come to love. The owner happily agreed, and a virtual handshake sealed the deal. “Dulce”, which means ‘’sweet’’ in Spanish, was saved from a fate that his caregivers simply could not imagine for him. In turn, he lives at the GAAP farm as part of their animal family: adored, wanted and cared for.
Without knowing his story, one could be forgiven for thinking Dulce is a high-maintenance horse. His daily routine at his new home with the founders of the GAAP, Dr Elena Garde and Guillermo Pérez, is quite in-depth. Dulce’s day always starts with a thorough revision: his badly scarred legs, face, and belly are examined closely for new lesions. His scar tissue is so fragile that every day he seems to have a new wound. Once he is all checked over, he then has hydrotherapy which involves a gentle hosing down of his legs to keep him cool as his joints tend to get hot and swollen causing Dulce more pain. Then a healing cream is applied to new and old lesions. Only time will correct the damage to his hooves. Being much like fingernails, new hooves will have to grow in to completely replace the damage caused by the fires. During this time, he needs soft ground to stand on, constant farrier attention, and special cushioned and corrective horse shoes.
Then Dulce spends a few hours in a grassy field enjoying the fresh air and stretching his legs until he is brought back into his pen later in the evening. Despite the intensive day to day care that Dulce requires, his new caretakers at the GAAP wouldn’t have it any other way. They know only too well the alternate fate that awaited Dulce, had they not agreed to take him in.
Dulce is just a lovely soul. He is starting very gentle daily training now to learn proper horse manners, but his personality is inherently tender-hearted. Already he shows great potential as a horse in a therapy role, for example helping small children with mental, emotional or physical disabilities connect with animals. Although he will carry his physical scars for the rest of his life, the GAAP will be doing everything within their power to ensure that one day, his psychological scars might heal and he in turn, can help heal others.