Jill Starr is the president and founder of a lovely non-profit organization called Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue, where she takes in neglected, starving, abused or abandoned horses and provides for them a sanctuary, a place to heal and grow and, hopefully, either be adopted out to a loving home, or to live out the rest of their lives in peace. Now, you may be wondering how all of this might tie in with art. In a sense, Jill Starr is not the artist in question. Her horses, however, are.
In a fundraising effort, Starr embarked on an artistic journey with a few of her beloved horses (and a special donkey, too!) where she gave them the opportunity to create charming, abstract masterpieces using a curious method. "The process was that we would dip apples and carrots in food coloring and place them on a canvas. The horses would then pick up the treats with their lips and leave the painting behind." Not only did each horse get a little snack, but Starr got herself a few stunning pieces of art.
Unfortunately, this creative venture of Starr's has been long since retired. "We haven't done that in a long time." Starr said. "It's very laborious and messy. It was fun when we weren't so busy. These days it would take too much time and effort to produce them. I still have many of the paintings in a .jpg form that could be reproduced as prints." Although, there is a possibility that the series will make a comeback in the future.
"Chili Pepper and Wimpy are the only two of these artists still alive," said Starr.
For many of these horses, Starr has provided a happy ending, or, should I say, a happy new beginning. To learn more, you are welcome to visit her website here or "like" her pages on Facebook, found here.
I am proud and lucky to call Jill Starr family, and hope to one day serve animals the way she has, with unending love and compassion. Although she is a busy woman, I was able to score an incredibly thorough interview. This special "thank you" goes out to her for taking quite a bit of time out of her day of rescuing horses to answer my questions.
First, the obvious question: Why horses? What caused you to jumpstart LifeSavers Wild Horse Rescue?
I started loving horses when I was old enough to recognize they weren't the same as dogs. People rode them. On TV. Somehow, like a lot of little girls, I was drawn to horses even before I had ever met one in person. When I was about 4 I had one of those plastic "horsies" on springs that you sit on and bounce the day way. My mother would sit me on it in front of the television and I would ride along with the Lone Ranger and all the other westerns. It was a form of babysitting and worked very well for me, except it fed a very hungry beast. The older I became the stronger the beast's craving. Finally my family moved to Texas and at age 11 my dream finally came true. After much prodding, begging, crying and downright temper tantrums I was given my first horse. My folks surprised me with an old paint gelding that had just survived Distemper and was a bag of bones, but it was a horse they could afford - $75.00. I didn't care how homely or cranky he was - I loved him! We named him Cherokee though my Mom insisted on spelling it Chair-O-Key - she thought that was so clever. Anyway I rode him every day after school, and every day he threw me off somewhere down the long dirt road behind the stable we kept him at. Didn't matter - that horse was the food the monster within needed to grow into what it is...what I am today.
For several years I was able to have horses in my life. Especially when we moved again to Michigan. I did have to sell Cherokee, but was able to purchase another horse when we settled into a cute little farm house in a rural area near Jackson, MI. I lived for my horse Freckles. And he lived for me. I managed to acquire several other horses too and had my own little herd by the time I was 13 years old.
Then the unthinkable happened and we had to move again. My step dad found a new job, but it was in the city and there was no place for my horses to go. I had to sell them all. So needless to say, my teenage world caved in on me. Things changed drastically for me from that moment forward when we moved into a suburb of Lansing Michigan. I wasn't able to get horses again until much later in my life, but they stayed in my heart for about 20 years.
Fast forward to adulthood and jumping across a whole bunch of mistakes and heartbreaks in my life, only by the grace of God was I able to wake up one day with a good job and my re-awakened dream of owning a horse once again.
Living in California, working in Hollywood for a music publishing company, I decided to take the plunge and purchase a horse. I bought the third horse I looked at in one day. China became my new best friend and my greatest challenge. It was like starting all over. I forgot most everything I knew about horses and had to re-learn. So - for a few trying years with China I spent a lot of time flying off of her back on to the ground and then getting up and chasing her down before she got all the way back to the stable without me. We worked things out after a while and became "partners". One horse led to another, just like it did when I was a teenager.
Another revelation came over me a few years into being a horse owner again. I realized I should buy a house of my own somewhere. Somewhere I could have my horses in my yard rather than paying to keep them at a crowded stable. So the search commenced and I ultimately found a little house on 16.5 acres in the wide open high desert of Los Angeles County. About an hour and 1/2 from my work and 1/2 from any other civilization. Perfect.
I loved it and hated it at the same time. I loved having my horses in my back yard and hated leaving them every day to drive to work. But I did that for about a year before I had to make yet another change. I quit my job. Not the brightest idea I ever had, but it seemed right at the time. I took my pension which was miniscule, and opened a little saddle store near my home. I managed to keep it open for 2 years. During that time I started Lifesavers. I had already taken a few needy horses in. Ones that were hungry and left behind by negligent owners. I quickly learned that there were a lot of horses that needed a champion - especially mustangs.
In 1995, the same year I bought my little ranch, I also adopted 2 mustangs from our government's BLM. The agency within the dept. of Interior charged with managing our public lands. Our public lands are home to tens of thousands of wild horses. Wild horses became so by being released or escaping from farms, ranches, cavalry and the like ever since the Spaniards reintroduced horses to this continent in the late 1700'a. The free roaming horses found each other, formed herds and multiplied. In the 1800's there was an estimated 2 million wild horses in the western states of this country. Sadly, now there are only about 25,000 left on the open ranges. This is because the BLM captures them when their herd becomes to large for their range. The captured horses are then adopted to the public. So I adopted two yearlings and had the daunting task of gentling these wild things for domestication. It was an amazing experience, but the more involved I became with my mustangs, the more research I did, the more I found out that they were in big trouble.
I found that mustangs had an undeserved reputation for being scroungy desert rat type horses that could never be trained, or trusted, that were worthless animals raping the land of its forage that was better spent on cattle that would feed people. And the best use for them, some people thought, were to be slaughtered for dog food, or even human consumption. I certainly disagreed with this notion and found a host of other mustang lovers who felt the same as I. It was then that my newly formed horse rescue organization would focus on mustangs. Our mission would be not only to save individuals from abusive adopters and inhumane slaughter, but to try to correct the misinformation and share the truth of the mustangs with the public in hopes to create a better understanding of the most amazing creatures I have ever had the privilege to know.
So, that was the beginning of Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue. It was not a easy road to take. I bumped into a lot of obstacles and had to let my faith carry me through the rough times. But 16 years later we stand on pretty solid ground and have rescued, or helped rescue thousands of horses. We care for about 500 right now, but are actively looking for suitable, responsible homes for the most domestic minded ones. The others will stay with us at our sanctuary until they die of old age.
What prompted your idea for the Wild Kisses painting series?
Well, I'm always looking for ways to raise funds. Unique creative things we can sell or offer. I saw a documentary about Coco the sign language speaking Gorilla - she made paintings. So I thought how cool it would be if the horses could somehow become artists and create painted masterpieces too.
I came up with a plan where the horses would be willing participants but didn't really need any formal training or even talent to paint an abstract on canvas.
I did a lot of experimentation to find the best media to use and it turned out to be food coloring. Food coloring and apples. Since the horses used their mouths to move the color dipped apple pieces around on the canvas I decided to call them "wild kisses". The horses were really just trying to lift the apple slices off of the canvas board and in doing so they left a beautiful trail of color....and sometimes bits of sand and hay too.
Each one was an original and we sold them for $50 each. Since then things have gotten pretty busy at the ranch and doesn't leave me with much time to set up the easels, so to speak, for the horses to paint. The paintings are just the beginning of the project, after they dry they have to be processed, catalogued, posted, and so on. It's very time consuming, but maybe one day we'll gear up again and let the horses make another series of Wild Kisses.
Due to a computer crash and loss of my art disc I no longer have copies of the originals saved anywhere - except for a few that managed to escape the crash. Someday I'd like to make a set of note cards out of them and see if we can sell them that way to help us raise funds
What can you tell me about your feature on Animal Planet?
We did two shows. One was Adoption Tales about our first mustang rescue. That story really focused on the adopter and we had very little to do with the episode. And the other was an episode of That's My Baby. It was about one of our wild mustang mares that had a baby. We had footage of the birth and they wanted to do the story of it. The interesting thing was that the foal was born in a very cold month like February and the show came out the following summer to do the shoot. So we had to re-create all the things that led up to the birthday. Angi (my trainer) and I had to dress in what we were wearing the night of the birth like it was cold and go into the round pen where "Blessing" was born and pretend that he was there. We had to "act". It was so funny because the round pen was empty except for us reacting to an imaginary brand new foal while the cameras rolled. Later they pieced the tape and the story together and actually made it look like it all happened while they were there.
In which ways can people lend a hand or help out with your mission? What opportunities are there to donate, volunteer, foster or adopt?
The most helpful thing that people can do is give us a monetary donation. Cash. It's what makes our world go round. But not everyone is able to give that way. Other ways to help out is by volunteerism. We have a great volunteer program that starts with helping around the ranch doing chores like picking up poop, office work, cleaning, gardening etc. but if you stick around and take our classes eventually you can become a horse handler. Of course you need to be local to be able to volunteer regularly. Other ways to help is to do fund raisers on our behalf. Yard sales, car washes, jewelry sales, auctions, you name it - if it can make a little bit of money we'll be happy to receive it. We have people who make and sell fudge giving us a percentage of their sales. The same for some really cool hand made jewelry, and scented candles. Some artists will donate their work so we can raise funds with their paintings, photos, sculptures and so on. And if that's not an option, we also need people to just educate other people. Social media makes it easy to share our mission and the issues surrounding horses. So really there's lots of ways to get involved and all of it is important to us and to horses across this nation.
I just spoke about donations, but it might be smart to mention that we take non-cash donations too. People can donate their services like bookkeeping, or construction. Also, donations of equipment are rare but greatly appreciated. We could really use a new little tractor right about now.
Fostering - we don't really have a foster program, we really just try to find good permanent homes through our adoption program. We really spend a lot of time with potential adopters to make sure that they are fully prepared to become a horse owner if not already - or that they really understand the costs involved and the responsibilities. Horses live a long time - 30 years. That's a long commitment in some cases the horses will outlive their adopters. And we offer all kinds of educational horsemanship clinics and classes too. From the ABC's of Horsin' Around, to The Buck Stops Here - Saddle preparation. And everything in between. Our classes focus on building relationships between horse and human while everyone is still on the ground. Later on all that connection will transfer to riding.
We also have healing programs Horse Inspired Growth and Healing H.I.G.H. is an amazing experience for both horse and human and is quickly becoming the thing we want to do full time around the ranch. Our proudest moments to date are when we held two HIGH programs for groups of Wounded Warriors from the Wounded Warrior Project (organization). The first were a group of women soldiers who had returned from Iraq or Afghanistan with a variety of troubles like PTSD and other emotional and physical injuries. They spent a long weekend with us at the ranch and we showed them how we gentle wild horses. They were allowed to participate hands on. And that's where the magic takes place. In order to make "friends" with a wild horse you need to learn to speak its language - clearly and honestly. So bye bye ego, agenda, dominance, anger, hastiness and hello patience, gratitude, honesty, trust, compassion and so many other things that we as people have lost long ago. Once you can be humble and soft with the horse they will start to give you the time of day and if you keep trying eventually they will give you a chance, but not until you are ready to be real. It's an amazing transformation for everyone.
After the women's program we had a men's program. Both the guys and the girls went back to the WWP and told them how great they felt when they were with the horses. It had a deep and profound effect on them all. So now we are hoping to spin that program into one with a longer duration that will have longer lasting healing for the participants.
What are some tips that you would give someone who is about to adopt his or her first horse?
My advice would be to learn as much as you possibly can about horses and their needs before taking the plunge. Volunteer at a horse rescue or stable so you can be around them and get a sense of the chores involved. Many times people get horses without realizing they require so much attention. Some people just want to have a horse but don't really have the time it takes to keep them happy and healthy. A lot of times horses get stuck in little stalls and they might get fed, but nothing else - no grooming, no exercise, no company, no health maintenance. It's important to remember that horses are herd animals. Everything in their being tells them to stay with the herd to be safe and safety is their number one concern, after that food. Keeping a lonely horse is a form of neglect.
Horses need annual or semi-annual vaccinations, hoof trims every 2 months, dentistry, all kinds of things that you might not think of when first getting that romantic notion of owning a horse. A horse eats 2% of it's optimum body weight every day. Then it comes out the other end and needs to be removed from its living area. Horse poop is a fly magnet and therefore will spread disease. Intestinal worms are common among stabled horses and will cause serious health issues including death. So de-worming your horse regularly is important. Horses do get sick and the vet bills can be shocking. Keep a fund for your horse emergencies including euthanasia when that time comes, because it will. Horse keeping can be very rewarding and absolutely therapeutic, but it's a real commitment and not a decision that should be made on a whim or without a realistic long term consideration.
Life spent rescuing animals is filled with just as much sorrow and anger as uplifting joy. How do you cope with the day to day heartaches of animal rescue?
There's only so much rescue that one group or individual can do, and the world is filled with cruelty. Every time I turn around there's another terrible situation that I cannot reach out to. Every animal, every town, state, country has more suffering animals than anyone can imagine. I am very sensitive to it and after all this time I still get emotional when I see it. I try to find balance by focusing on the horses and other animals that I can save. The ones that didn't die at the hands of the slaughter house, or didn't starve to death in someone's back yard. You know that story about the starfish? They guy walking on the beach is picking up starfish and throwing them back into the ocean so they won't die, but there are hundreds and hundreds that washed up in the tide. Someone else ridicules him and says "why bother, you can't possibly make a difference", but the guy keeps picks up another starfish and says "I made a difference for this one" and threw it also back into the water so it could survive.
What advice would you offer to someone who wanted to start a similar animal rescue venture?
My advice would be Don't Do It! Don't, unless you are ready for the heartbreak and the sacrifice that will come with it. People don't know that when you start a nonprofit organization that it doesn't just take off. You don't automatically get donations just because you are a charity. It's a business and has to be treated as a business and therefore it can take a long, long time before you become established and trusted by the public who, by law, have to support you or you will lose your charitable status. It takes a lot of money and it will come from your own pocket for the first few years.
There's nothing worse than a rescue that jumps off and takes a bunch of animals in, then they can't raise the money to feed their rescues. They have to be shut down and the animals then have to be re-rescued by some other place that is just barely hanging on. When that happens it gives all of the animal rescue and welfare organizations a bad name. In the first two years of starting Lifesavers I had my truck repossessed, had to file bankruptcy and almost lost the ranch. It was sheer determination and having no other options that I was able to make it through. And a lot of praying. A lot. Lifesavers was organized in 1997 and it's been around long enough that it has momentum and a good donor base. Still I can never take that for granted because it's a fickle economy and you never know if the donations you need will be there next month or the month after.
What is the reality of horse slaughter in this country, and what can be done to combat the problem?
This is a very big issue with a lot of sides and angles. So I'll just keep it simple. Horse slaughter is cruel. It is not humane euthanasia. It involves a lot of excruciating pain and suffering. It is a money-driven business. Horses are bought and sold for the only purpose of selling the meat to an overseas market. There are no slaughter houses in the U.S. that kill horses at this time. The plants are in Mexico and Canada. The plants are largely owned by foreign businesses such as the Belgian owned Beauvry plant in Canada. Over 100,000 American horses are butchered each year. The meat sent to be consumed by Japan, France and other Europeans.
A myth that continues to pop up in pro-slaughter arguments is that horse slaughter is how old, sick, skinny and lame horses get put to sleep. Not true. Young, healthy, gentle and fat horses are the primary target for killer buyers. Old, sick, skinny horses do not make good product.
Another is that it is a humane way to dispose of unwanted horses. Not true. It's not humane. Horses are difficult animals to restrain in a system made for killing cattle. The captive bolt gun, which is the most common tool used to "stun" a horse, is a 4" retracting spike that is meant to penetrate the animals skull, piercing the brain and rendering them unconscious. Usually the bolt misses the mark and has to be re-hit over and over again until the panicked animal finally falls to the floor stunned, but not dead, and many times still conscious.
Then they are hoisted by one leg while incapacitated until their head is hanging a few feet from the floor. It's important that the horse's heart still beats so when the throat is slit the body will pump the blood out. Many times, as reported by workers and undercover film, horses regain consciousness during this process and even then the skinning and dismembering continues. Only a few minutes later, when the horse is finally dead, is there any peace for that animal.
Additional arguments for the ban of horse slaughter is that the meat is typically full of drugs such as bute - a common pain reliever for horses, and de-worming medications that are basically a pesticide also routinely given to horses to control parasites. These things have proven to be unhealthy to humans when consumed.
There are many arguments pro and con, but I stand against the cruelty of it. It's not a necessary evil as some want to believe. Every horse comes to an end, and sometimes we need to help them through that last moment - but this is best performed by a vet in the company of the people who cared for that horse during its life. Only in that way can you call it humane - an act of mercy.
Factory farming of all animals is as heartless as any brutal treatment one can imagine. But it's accepted because it's the food industry and well we have to eat, don't we? No, we don't have to eat animals that have been horribly mistreated. There are other options. But that's a story for another day.
Anyone who wants to support the ban of horse slaughter for American horses can write, call, email or phone their state and federal representatives. There is a bill that is introduced into Congress every year that will outlaw this form of animal abuse. It is called the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act. It has yet to be passed by both the house and the senate. But horse lovers have yet to give up.