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She needed a crowbar to open the sliding barn door. Once inside, Drew Fitzpatrick tried to ignore the stench of ammonia and manure packed 4 feet deep and focused on 28 starving horses that authorities said had been confined for years.
The animals were little more than skin and bones. Several were listless when Fitzpatrick arrived at the farm near Princeton, Minn. When the horses later were released from the barn, two got so excited that they broke legs jumping out of their stalls, she said. It was another hurdle as Fitzpatrick began the months-long task of nursing these animals back to health.
For many of the hundreds of malnourished horses in Minnesota that will be rescued from abusive and neglectful environments this year, Fitzpatrick is a last gasp of hope. Her nonprofit Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation is the largest horse rescue initiative in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.
"Throughout the country, starving horses haven't had an advocate in a long time," Valerie Pringle, equine protection specialist for the Humane Society of the United States, said Friday from suburban Washington, D.C. "It sounds like they do in Minnesota."
Fitzpatrick, 53, began her nonprofit rescue foundation as a one-woman operation 20 years ago. She has been on-call ever since, showing up with authorities at ranches and farms, news conferences and in court.
But it is at the Zimmerman farm she shares with two dozen recovering horses, a half dozen donkeys, multicolored chickens, a pet sheep and her partner, Randy Fredrickson -- a guy with a ZZ Top beard who says he finds the farm as therapeutic as some of the animals probably do -- that Fitzpatrick is in her element.
She has a daughter and two grandchildren, but with her long, blond hair, and the way she smokes Camels down to the filters, Fitzpatrick doesn't look like your typical grandma. She's not even sure how old she is. "I was born in 1958," she says. "So what does that make me?"
But she can identify every rescued animal on her farm by name, from once-malnourished horses like Abbey Road, Black Magic and Raggedy Ann to Beatrice, the oldest and most "queen-like" donkey in the pen.
"And she's tough," says Howard Goldman, state director of the Humane Society of the United States. "I'm a vegan, but believe me, Drew's a beef eater."
Charged with 35 counts
Fitzpatrick was among those at a news conference on Thursday after authorities charged Lowell Friday, 72, with 35 gross misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty and neglect. Seventeen malnourished horses were seized from him Friday by Anoka County Sheriff's deputies and the Humane Society last year. After initial treatment from University of Minnesota veterinarians, the horses were placed in Fitzpatrick's care.
"What bothers me most is he still has 26 horses on his farm," Fitzpatrick said of Friday, who testified last month in Anoka County court that he believes his horses were in good health when seized.
"The horses we rescued were in an incredibly hard environment," Fitzpatrick said. "A judge can decide Mr. Friday's fate, but what some of these horses have gone through makes me sick."
One of the horses taken from his farm two months ago was so weakened from a heart murmur that it collapsed when authorities tried to load it into a trailer, according to the complaint against Friday. Crystal, a Paint filly, had a body condition of 1 on a scale of 1 to 9 when authorities found her -- with 1 being emaciated.
The horse has gained 200 pounds since being seized, Fitzpatrick says. A St. Francis woman has twice visited Fitzpatrick's farm and asked about adopting the horse when it is ready.
Many of Friday's horses have found homes through Fitzpatrick.
Economy a factor
The Humane Society has spent years trying to understand why horses are starved by owners, Pringle said. The troubled economy and the cost of feed are factors, she said. But in some cases, owners are hoarders who don't realize they are endangering animals' lives, she said.
Fitzpatrick says she has long been concerned about animal welfare. She grew up in Maple Grove -- her dad was an architect, her mother a teacher -- just wanting to show horses some day. Now she is a trained agent for the Humane Society who has traveled throughout Minnesota and beyond.
The worst case she's seen was in Nebraska, where authorities found 211 malnourished and 76 dead horses on a farm. But the case in Princeton, from two years ago, made her physically ill for three days, she said. In that case, the owner agreed to work with authorities, giving up his horses, Fitzpatrick said; no charges were filed.
Fitzpatrick continues to respond to crisis calls and care for rescued animals while orchestrating fundraisers and seeking donated items that can be auctioned or given to other charities. Trying to make horse cents out of horse sense, or at least running a nonprofit, has become a family trait. Her daughter, Katie, runs a nonprofit in Utah to provide for needy kids.
"I don't know how Drew does it, quite frankly," said the Humane Society's Goldman. "She's on a shoestring budget, gets no government or corporate grants and relies on fundraisers to make ends meet.
"Yet, I believe she dedicates every waking minute to protecting horses. She's the last stop."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419