By JO ANN HUSTIS
PEOTONE, Ill. — Born without the ability to speak, horses cannot accuse their owners for abandoning them along stark Illinois country roadsides to face starvation and death.
This also applies to animals such as bulls and cows … and alligators, tortoises and kangaroos. Yes – even kangaroos, said Tony Pecho, founder of Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County, Inc. (IHR). The two-year-old nonprofit attempts to save the lives of horses and other unwanted animals dumped by their owners to shirk the cost and responsibility of caring for them.
“We’re getting all kinds of cattle, from Brahma bulls to dairy cows,” noted Pecho, who is licensed by the USDA to rescue abandoned horses and other animals. “But, it’s not that we’re just a giant pet shop. We were put on this Earth to care for animals. It’s not the other way around.”
Nearly three dozen homeless horses are among the abandoned animals being cared for by Pecho and 60 volunteers at the IHR rescue stables on West Church Road at Beecher, and the quarantine facility on South Crawford Avenue near Peotone. He said there’s been a trend of owners abandoning their horses, on the contention they are too expensive to maintain in today’s economy.
“You know how impractical some people are. If it helps them get rid of their responsibility, to drop the animal off in the country like it’s just going to live (off the land), you know they’ll do it. Their attitude is, ‘I don’t want the responsibility anymore. Let someone else worry about it,’” he said.
“Horses are coming into the facility like crazy now, and cattle and everything. We’ve gotten calls (to rescue) a 150-pound tortoise and a kangaroo, and a three-foot-long alligator in a creek. We’re getting calls that you wouldn’t believe.”
IHR cares for lost and abandoned animals that come its way. It will not consciously let an animal starve to death. Upon arrival, each new animal is quarantined to detect possible diseases or infections. When diagnosis and treatment is completed, the new arrival moves into the stables with the rest of the herd.
“People say to me, ‘Why are farmers letting their animals get skinny?’” he said. “Let me tell you something – farmers are responsible people. They’re not going to let their animals get skinny.
“It’s not farmers who abandon their animals – it’s the people who bought horses for their kids. Then when the care and maintenance becomes too much for them, they turn the horses loose out by us. That’s what’s happening. Farmers aren’t turning these animals loose; no way. Farmers are way more humane than that.”
Some of the abandoned animals are cattle that have been abused and injured in rodeo-type crowd entertainments. All cattle are marketable somewhere, no matter their condition, Pecho said. When abused cattle get loose, though, the owners will not reclaim them, fearing legal reprisal for mistreatment of animals.
A former Tinley Park resident, carpenter and real estate agent, Pecho founded the rescue operation after Cook and Will counties authorities confiscated more than 100 horses from a facility near where he once lived. His good contacts with area veterinarians and county officials help in giving the rescued horses the best care possible. It takes about 18 months to rehab an abandoned horse.
Although the animal lovers will attempt to save every creature they possibly can, there are exceptions. An example is a horse with a bad leg, which means it needs to be put down, Pecho noted.
IHR has formed an outreach program he said is incredible.
Volunteers transport some of their rescued animals to visit residents at military veterans facilities and nursing homes. He said all the residents want to see, feel and touch these animals.
“I’ve had people who are blind who just wanted to know what a dairy cow felt like,” he said. “These animals give back more than anyone could ask for. These horses that we pick up – you pick up one, and it will touch 100 people.”
Hopes to expand, carry on
Pecho hopes the outreach program will not be just a local activity; he wants to approach other states about organizing similar ventures. He speaks about the rescue operation at schools and service organizations like Rotary and Kiwanis. Student classes tour the facility to learn about animal care and nurturing. He and the staff are preparing to work with Indiana Dunes State Park at Chesterton to manage one of their historic farms.
In addition, he wants to enlist the help of disabled veterans to construct mini horse barns at the IHR site. As a public attraction, the revamped facility would resemble a Western frontier village, complete with replica blacksmith shop, bank and store. The “village” will be decorated for holidays.
Five years ago, Pecho purchased the property where the animal rescue facility is now located. He rehabbed the existing house and barn, then sold his other real estate holdings before the bottom dropped out of the housing market.
“I’ve been supporting this (operation) out of my pocket, for which we’re all tapped out,” he said of the proceeds from his real estate sales. “There’s no way I could possibly have another job, because I’m at this 80 hours a week. It’s impossible for our people to hold down other jobs. If we don’t start making money, we’re going to start losing awesome people.”
The rescue facility’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit rating was approved two years ago. Pecho said the IHR is partnered with Harvey United Pentecostal Church of Harvey, Ill. (The church did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)
The IHR motto calls for providing an environment of unconditional love and companionship in which horses and people can work together toward healing each other, giving them purpose and strengthening their ability to be a positive force in the lives of others and to themselves.
Pecho said IHR is a model others could emulate: “America getting powerful America working together.”
Donations to the IHR may be mailed to: Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County, Inc., P.O. Box 1019, Peotone, Ill., 60468, or online at www.illinoishorserescue.org or by contacting the office at 708-258-3959.