Written by Heather Clemenceau
The transition from summer to fall is a time when the air may still be hot, but the winds signal that a change is arriving. The fall is a time of letting-go; we prepare our gardens for the fall, pruning and fertilizing, removing spent foliage, and raking leaves. When the leaves flutter to the ground, we are reminded that nature’s cycles are mirrored in reality.
It is possible to take something beautiful and lasting out of the heart-wrenching experience of seeing something you love move inexorably toward death. Four ladies living in or near Mattawan, Michigan discovered that sometimes memories are one of the most poignant legacies that exist. If you aren’t involved in the equestrian community on Facebook, you might not have heard about the story of Sugar the Mattawan Junkyard Horse.
Sugar was a 34 year-old mare living in the junkyard owned by Don Austin of Mattawan. She was purchased at auction about 20 years earlier, and lived her life out in his junkyard. Don Austin claims she was a barrel-racing quarterhorse, but to me she looks more like a thoroughbred. Her history seems unclear, but years ago she apparently had a foal who still lives to this day. There may have been a time when she looked relatively healthy, but in recent years her emaciated appearance created concern in Mattawan. Add to that concern was her injured back leg, deep lacerations, and rapidly growing mass on her jaw. Despite complaints, the Animal Control and Sheriff maintained that Sugar was healthy and receiving appropriate care.
Concerned animal lovers took sides with many residents in Mattawan over the health of the horse and the rights of others to intervene in cases of obvious neglect. Sugar was an “icon” with whom parents photographed their children while feeding her apples and carrots that she could not chew due to the loss of her back teeth and the encroaching mass on her jaw. Animal lovers questioned the appropriateness of photographing Sugar for a keepsake photo with their children while doing nothing to intervene on her behalf. Two Facebook pages dedicated to her became battlegrounds over such issues as humane euthanasia, property rights, and the Sheriff’s inability to discern via direct evidence (Sugar’s condition) that the mare needed an intervention immediately.
After reading about Sugar on Facebook, Cindy, Nancy, Mary and Laura stepped up and became everyone’s “eyes on the ground” for Sugar. And thus, the “Sugar Shack Crew” came to be. A very caring local equine
veterinarian, Dr. A, who had tried to help Sugar in the past, gave tirelessly of her time and skills to provide professional care and assistance to Sugar and the Crew. A Chip-In was begun, and people from all over the world gave money to provide food and medical supplies. Through an agreement with Austin, the Crew and Dr. A. reached an understanding about Sugar and how she would be cared-for in the coming months. They also reached an agreement of sorts that allowed for humane euthanasia when the time came. Through diligent visitation for several months, the Sugar Shack crew cared for Sugar and truly gave her her “Last, Best Days.”
Through the oppressive heat of the summer of 2011, the Sugar Shack Crew doted on their charge. They restored both her mind and body, and performed all the maintenance and hard labour that goes hand-in-hand with caring for a horse on a small acreage, in the limited time left before the harsh Michigan winter took hold. The onset of winter was an immovable milestone in the near future, because despite the greatly improved condition of Sugar, it was agreed by her caregivers that she couldn’t survive another winter. The kindest thing anyone could do for her would be to make those last days, her very best days, and then humanely let her go before the deep cold set in, and before the growth on her jaw made eating or swallowing impossible.
October 29, 2012 is the one year anniversary of Sugar’s humane euthanasia. May she rest in peace.
I know the experience was transformative for all the Sugar Shack ladies. Cindy and Nancy describe their feelings one year later……..
Dr. A did do a biopsy after Sugar was euthanized and the diagnosis was indeed osteoma, a benign tumour which is typically formed by abnormal growth of bones on the skull or jaw. Once again, she paid for everything because she wanted to know. To remove something that large would have resulted in Sugar losing her left mandible and the basic care for this kind of wound would have beyond unmanageable for any of her caregivers to handle especially considering where she lived. Dr. A also felt that it would have been too traumatic to move Sugar to a place where that kind of procedure could have been carried-out.
The excess funds (so many people were so generous) were donated to the Michigan Horse Coalition. Part of the monies were used to provide a small honorarium for Dr. A, since she would not accept cash in compensation for her services.
Don Austin was never charged with animal cruelty. The prosecutor’s office did not authorize animal neglect or cruelty charges against him because Sugar had enough food, water and shelter. Among animal rescuers, the phrase, “food water shelter” has become a sad code when clear cases for criminal charges are dismissed. Ironically, the food, water and shelter don’t even have to be nearly adequate.
The bylaws in Mattawan were subsequently changed to disallow horses in junkyards. There will be no new junkyard horses in Mattawan. I think this is a good thing, because a skinny horse living alone in a junkyard doesn’t bring anyone any peace. We would also like to wish Buddy, depicted in photos here, a safe journey to the Rainbow Bridge, where no doubt Sugar will be gratified to see him once again. Buddy died under unknown circumstances at the Austin farm. RIP Buddy.