Volunteers relocate 41 horses hundreds of miles north ahead of Hurricane Irma

Evacuating much of Florida’s most populous county is quite a feat, but relocating 41 horses in the midst of the oncoming Category 5 Hurricane Irma is another challenge in itself.

South Florida’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals relocated 41 horses from Homestead to Ocala — over 300 miles away — on Thursday. The challenge for SPCA volunteers, however, was managing horses with pasts of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.

“Let me tell you — it’s been love, working hard for them,” said Emily Villafane, the director of corporate endorsement at SPCA. “They’ve been so badly abused … This is why it’s a big deal.”

Horses found starving, abused, or abandoned in the Everglades take months of care before they trust humans again. Moving them onto a trailer riled up their nerves. Many were bucking, neighing, and pulling away from the ramp leading up to the trailer.

But, said Villafane: “They’re gonna be in good hands.”

Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead in 1992. When word of a hurricane with more breadth than Andrew arrived, they knew the horses would have to be relocated no matter the price.

The massive undertaking would require one trailer to make three round-trips to Ocala, each with 13 or 14 horses. The first load took off Thursday afternoon. Two drivers would make the trips without stopping, all before Irma’s winds are expected to hit South Florida on Saturday.

This week, SPCA volunteers bought enough hay, food, and medicine for the horses. One of their biggest challenges was securing enough fuel for the trailer.

Jose Rodriguez, who owns a ranch with 10 horses nearby in Homestead, was part of the reason the massive relocation came to fruition. Plans made earlier this week for a trailer and stables closer than Ocala fell through.

Rodriguez met SPCA volunteers two weeks ago by coincidence and saw the work they were doing with horses. He said he was impressed. When the SPCA called him Wednesday evening, he found a trailer and stables at the last minute through people within the “horse world” in Homestead, as he described it.

“They have all my respect for what they have done,” he said. It’s no easy task to rehabilitate horses after they have been abused, he added.

“We do it for the love of the animals,” he said.