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What to do about Edith Ann?

The horse is a fixture at Golden Gate National Park. But some say she needs to be put down.

March 04, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

MILL VALLEY, CALIF. — Edith Ann pokes her head shyly from inside a horse stall on a hilly tract of national parkland here. Volunteer Susana Ives rattles a bag of snacks and the petite 28-year-old mare nods hungrily.

"She can still hear a raisin bag at 50 yards," said Ives, stroking the docile brown quarter horse, who would be about 84 in human years. "Does this look like a horse at death's door? Not to me."

For decades, Edith Ann has been a loyal beast of burden at Golden Gate National Park, traversing steep Marin County trails without complaint. She's adored both by park visitors and the volunteers who ride horseback on the park's security patrol.

But now Edith Ann has developed ringbone, a painful arthritis in her left foreleg that often makes her limp and favor her other legs. She also has laminitis, the same debilitating hoof inflammation suffered by the Kentucky Derby-winning racehorse Barbaro.

On a veterinarian's advice, the park decided this month to put the beloved horse down. That's when a handful of volunteers began pressuring officials to consider alternatives such as treatment and relocation to a private stable.

Hours before the scheduled euthanasia, Supt. Brian O'Neill -- who manages a swath of Bay Area national parkland, including the Presidio -- opted for a regimen of steroids he hopes will ease Edith Ann's pain and make her more mobile.

Ives and others have called the move a "stay of execution."

The case has generated emotional debate over how to gauge an animal's pain and know when to put it to sleep, as well as whether it is right to prolong a creature's life in order to postpone the heartbreak of saying goodbye.

Ives says park officials need a retirement program -- to care for scores of aging horses under their management -- like one run by San Francisco police.

"These horses have been in service their whole lives. But as soon as they're no longer useful, their options are limited," she said. "They should be cared for as long as they live, not just as long as they work. Not just put down like an old pickup truck."

Frustrated park officials could still be forced to euthanize Edith Ann in a few months if her pain persists. But O'Neill said it's important volunteers know that everything possible is being done.

"Sometimes, you assign human traits and feelings to animals," he said. "You think a horse intellectualizes things the same way you do, and that's simply not the case. But getting people with an emotional attachment to accept that is difficult."

Volunteers say they're not against euthanasia when appropriate. "We felt the plan to put Edith Ann down was moving along too quickly," said Kim Bullock. "We were looking for a new home for Edith Ann when they announced they were going to euthanize her the very next day."

The campaign to save the horse has caused tension among volunteers at the park's Tennessee Valley stable, where four patrol horses are housed.

Joel Kimmel, who donated Edith Ann to the park, believes she has suffered enough. "I'm in favor of letting her pass on," he said, his voice breaking. "Keeping her going doesn't give her the dignity she deserves. We should let her go free."

Though nobody knows for sure, most people assume Edith Ann was named after Lily Tomlin's character from "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" -- the little girl in the oversized rocker who was famous for saying: "And that's the truth."

Kimmel said the horse was still a feisty filly when she was given to his two daughters decades ago. As a park horse, Edith Ann was used to introduce inner-city children to animals, he said. Kimmel donated her when he lost his lease at the adjacent stable where she was kept.

Edith Ann's health woes began a year ago. "I was riding her up a hill and suddenly she just stopped, as though she was saying, 'I don't think I can do this anymore,' " Ives said.

Her limp worsened. "You know when a horse is uncomfortable and, yeah, this horse is uncomfortable," said volunteer Harvey Smith. "Problem is, we can't talk to the patient."

Carrie Schlachter, the veterinarian treating Edith Ann, said horses instinctively do not show pain. "The eons have bred into them not to show pain or weakness or a predator would pick them out of a herd," she said.

Moving the horse to a new stable could cause other problems, she said. "This poor old girl worked for them for how long? And now they're going to uproot her? Some horses become traumatized by that."

The steroids have between a 30% and 50% chance of success, said Schlachter. "It's tough. If they put Edith Ann down, people will say they didn't do enough. If they don't, they'll complain she's in too much pain."

The park service keeps 70 horses and plans to expand riding and education programs. Officials say they also want to develop an animal retirement program. "We don't have a policy on the treatment of these animals," O'Neill said. "We could have handled Edith Ann better."

Confined to her stall during treatment, Edith Ann gets many visits from volunteers, who say they plan to bring her a radio for company. They also want to line the stall with get-well cards from area students.

A photo of Edith Ann, taken at her birthday party a few years back, hangs in a nearby office. Her coal-black mane is laced with blue and pink ribbons. Volunteers baked her a carrot cake.

Her stall has a small window that looks into the adjoining one housing Steel, a gelding who notes Edith Ann's every move.

"Steel is obsessed with her," said Ives, who runs a local communications firm. "She's such a flirt. She likes to be outside where all the boys can see her."

For now, Ives hopes for the best for her Edith Ann.

"On paper, this looks clean-cut, but I know this animal and it isn't," she said. "She hasn't told me she's done."

She softly brushed Edith Ann's legs. "What a sweet girl," she whispered. "You're a beautiful girl, aren't you?"


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