by Blake Herzog
Mitzi Conn’s fateful internet search from about three years ago has changed her life, along with many others.
From her Chino Valley home, she stumbled upon the existence of auctions, held primarily in Texas and Oklahoma, for horses and donkeys, many coming from loving owners who have passed away or can no longer care for them.
But most of the buyers have no intention of giving or finding them a good home. Instead, they bring them to “kill pens,” generally the animals’ last home before being sold to slaughterhouses in Mexico and other countries where the sale of horse meat is legal.
“I found these kill lots, and they looked just like cattle feed lots, just thousands of horses, and I had no idea,” Conn said.
She was appalled, she added: “I actually bought a couple of them from the kill buyers (some are open to selling animals to rescue groups) and brought them out here, and I kept thinking I could do something for these animals, I can get a few of them and get them good homes.
“So that’s how it started, and friends of mine kept saying ‘Oh, you really, really need to expand.’ Well, we’ve expanded,” she says, bursting out laughing. “And I’m going to say we’ve adopted out more than 100 animals in the last two years.”
She founded Now That I’m Safe Equine Rescue as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in January 2018 and has quickly become a large-scale rescue group with animals being adopted out to homes in Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico. Conn said about 60% of the adoptees are full-size or mini-donkeys, and the rest are horses or ponies.
“Little mini-donkeys, they’re the light of my life. They’re just the sweetest things,” she says. “And there seems to be a real want for them in this area.”
Some 80% are rescued from an auction or kill pen, she said: “We look at these little 30-second videos of these animals and we try to decide which ones we think we can bring home, rehab and find homes for. It’s kind of a process.”
The ones purchased are put into a 30-day quarantine at one of two facilities the rescue works with in Oklahoma and Texas. Some animals have been adopted straight from those ranches, and the one in Oklahoma includes a sanctuary for those found to be unadoptable.
The rest are driven out to Conn’s 10-acre home in Chino Valley, usually in groups of about 10.
“They’re all clean and healthy, they’ve had their Coggins (tests, for the equine infectious anemia virus), and they have a health certificate, they’ve been checked out. Then the process begins, we start evaluating them and seeing where we think they might fit in. And when they’re ready, we put them up for adoption,” Conn says.
Some have minor health issues, temporarily or for life.
“We have one sweet, sweet little pony right now that has kind of a deformity in her shoulder and she’ll always walk with this little bit of a twisted walk. But they’re vetted, the vet says that’s just the way she was born. She’s way too small to be ridden even by a toddler, she’s just a pet,” she said.
Some others have been through some trauma, she added, though the sociable donkeys tend to bounce back pretty quickly.
“A lot of the little donkeys have been used by ropers; they want to save their cows so they practice on the donkeys. And the little donkeys are very, very frightened when they get here,” Conn says.
“We spend a lot of time sitting with them, and once one of them becomes friendly — and it doesn’t take much to make them friendly — then the others will wander over like, ‘What are you doing?’ and I kind of reach over and scratch them and they say ‘Oh that feels so good.’ Pretty soon they calm down and become really, really nice animals.”
Now That I’m Safe will also take in equines brought by local owners who can no longer care for them, as well as those caught running loose, in which case the rescue will try to locate the owner. They will also take animals that need to be euthanized.
Interested adoptive families must fill out an application, and if they’re not in the Prescott area they must provide photos of the facility where the animal will be kept. Regulations on keeping horses and other livestock on residential lots vary, but some jurisdictions now categorize mini-horses and mini-donkeys as pets, though Conn recommends owners have a lot that’s at least a quarter-acre to half an acre for these animals.
“Once they’re approved, they can pick an animal, or let an animal pick them, which sometimes happens,” she says, laughing.
In one instance from several months ago, a family which had adopted two children, ages 6 and 7, was looking for a pony for those kids, one of whom was blind. Conn eventually suggested they consider a donkey instead.
“The family came up and spent the afternoon, and this one little donkey kept following this little girl, and following this little girl. They decided to adopt this donkey; we called her Mary. They have 10 acres and (her mother) says this little blind girl will put her hand on the donkey’s back and walk along with her, and this donkey leads her all over, never goes through any ditches, never goes under any trees. They’re just best friends now.”
Adoption fees usually run between $500 and $800, and can be paid in installments.
“We try to adopt out the animals for approximately 50% of what we’ve put into them,” Conn said. “And then we pray we get donations to cover the rest. And of course every time we adopt someone out, that gives us funding to bring the next one in.”
Monetary donations to the organization are tax-deductible, and it also has a volunteer program for those who would like to groom or clean up after the animals.
“We like for them to have a little bit of experience, but we’re always looking for help, too. And some people like to just come out and sit with the horses,” Conn says.
The mini-donkeys regularly appear in live Nativity scenes for Easter and Christmas at local churches, and smaller animals do visit patients in rehab hospitals, with one pony making a recent stop in Prescott Valley.
“There was a gentleman who was going to be there for quite a while, and he just wanted a four-legged equine to love on and that was really, really great,” Conn said.
Now That I’m Safe Equine Rescue is located at 2303 N. Road 1E in Chino Valley. For more information on adopting, donating or volunteering, call 951-233-1318, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.nowthatimsafe.org or Facebook @nowthatimsafeequinerescue.