Catherine Ketch meets the founders of AHAR, an animal rescue service giving a home to unwanted horses.
As the fate of unwanted Irish equines continues to headline, one animal rescue centre stands at the threshold of a 21-year dream — a state-of-the-art equine rescue centre.
Pivotal to the story is a Cork City-born animal lover who refuses to say ‘no’ to an animal in need.
Suzanne Gibbons, who has devoted her life to animals, founded AHAR, Animal Heaven Animal Rescue, in 1992, and remains the driving force behind what she terms her ‘army’. Aged 41, she is keen to safeguard AHAR’s future and that means securing ‘a place called home’.
Suzanne was born with dislocated hips, and her determined mother got her to kick balloons in her pram (where Suzanne reckons she got her temper!).
At six months, she was crawling after a white rabbit, her first pet. There were monkeys, Ben, Paddy and Judy, in Suzanne’s house; she started riding lessons at four, and her dream was always to save animals.
From a well-off family and destined for the professions, Suzanne left it behind for a career with horses, initially at a racing yard. Poised to become a jockey, she turned her back on it when she saw the cruelty of the industry.
“They were treated like a commodity, a possession, and if they didn’t make the grade, that was it,” Suzanne says.
Turning instead to show-jumping, Suzanne bought factory horses and brought them up to grade. A £120 pony went to grade ‘A’ three times, she explains. “Another one was Tir na nÓg. I bought him for factory money. I sold him for €7,000 to the Irish Equestrian team, and they sold him for €47,000.” That €7,000 was spent on more factory horses, and it went on from there.
“It was always there. It’s only being exposed now. I’ve always had factory horses. I’ve had factory horses for 30 years,” Suzanne says.
Suzanne says there is an equine crisis in Ireland that people need to know about.
A month ago AHAR got a call from Holly’s Horse Rescue in Wexford that 21 horses were going to the factory.
“When we got there, it turned into a four-day non-stop 24-hour rescue, where 85 horses turned up and 85 were saved.
“A local guy thought it would be a great idea to collect unwanted horses and get them ready for the factory. They were going to be slaughtered,” Suzanne said.
Four years ago a call about more than 500 horses in seven counties in ‘death row’ horse pounds came, through AHAR patron Sharon Shannon. “It took two and a half weeks to save and transport every one of them,” Suzanne says.
AHAR hit the headlines again in recent weeks when 36 horses were saved from Cork Pound.
Suzanne does not reject emaciated horses. To date, she says they have saved over 100 such animals, including ‘Passion’ who has become a Facebook celebrity. Only one had to be put to sleep, because it had a twisted gut, she says.
Suzanne says that every horse rescued by AHAR is rescued for life, and is registered to AHAR. “Every horse always stays in the name of AHAR, so obviously they can never be sold or go to the factory. I will be called if one gets out on the road. I get the phone call,” Suzanne explains.
Danny Holmes, the AHAR vet, demands best practice. Like most, Danny has reduced fees for rescue work, but sees the main benefit to AHAR in their interactions with the regulatory bodies and the law.
Danny has observed a change in what society demands in terms of animal welfare. “Veterinary Ireland and other bodies have been working tirelessly trying to improve animal welfare, so we are challenging ourselves as a society to act better and be better when it comes to the welfare of animals.
“There was a big increase in the number of pet dogs, pet cats and pet horses during the boom years. How we deal with them now is confronting us all morally, where previously it didn’t bother us just as much,” he says.
Danny says the public believes in animal welfare, but in practice, that can mean “a cold job in January pulling a horse out of a ditch”.
“The practicalities of being involved in animal rescue are not always glamorous. You’re often dealing with criminal activities, but also a lot of social problems, because nine times out of ten the reason an animal is neglected or abused is because there is a social, human problem that happened first.”
Danny offers stability in a hard-working organisation where drive, motivation, enthusiasm and emotion are in plentiful supply.
Suzanne says, “AHAR never says no. We basically give a date, a time and a place.
“We’ve never said no to an animal. Never. Ever. My committee are not allowed to say no. They do hide things for a few days, and don’t tell me anything until this lot are saved, and then we go on to the next.”
Eight months ago the premises of Suzanne’s dreams came on the market. With indoor and outdoor arenas, 38 acres, a cross-country course and stables, Suzanne has it visualised down to the adoption of animals, riding lessons, and competition and fun days that ensure AHAR’s financial future.
The price is right, the auctioneer is wonderful, the owner is patient, the place is perfect, and the deposit was raised in six months, Suzanne reveals. Now it’s a waiting game.
“It will be the first time AHAR will ever have been home.
“I’m terrified. It’s like I’m hanging by my ankles over a bridge. I don’t know if I’m going to live or die. This is everything to me. This is what I was born to do. I can’t explain it.
“In the last two years, we put together by accident the strongest committee I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s like the pieces of a jigsaw that’s slowly falling into place. A lot of paths have crossed that should never have crossed, but my God, did they make a difference,” Suzanne says.
Annie O’Brien came to AHAR to re-home a puppy, following the death of a beloved dog, Merlin. Annie is now AHAR secretary, and husband Liam is AHAR’s photographer.
“It’s become a huge part of our lives. We believe in them. Suzanne is one of the most down-to-earth, genuine people I’ve actually ever met, honest as the day is long. This is her life. She really cares for all the animals and they always come first with her and that’s why we do it,” Annie says.
“Suzanne,” Danny Holmes says, “has the heart of lion, the energy of an ox, and is wonderfully direct. She has brought drive and ambition, and risen this charity out of nothing, only her own dreams, and that’s all based on hard work, and all that hard work is bringing followers and people that want to help her, because they see the energy she has.”
AHAR has had four rented homes in 21 years. The new premises will, Suzanne reckons, save AHAR money.
“In my life, I own four horses, two parrots, a three-legged fox, and 11 dogs. That’s all I own. Everything else is passing through. You can’t get attached. You have to see that there is better out there for that animal,” Suzanne says.
Everything costs, and what it costs depends on whether you have an animal for a week or for a year. “We try to get them in and out as fast as possible, but we don’t call the shots. Danny Holmes calls the shots.”
“It’s all about money. Getting in the gate, it’s about money. Keeping AHAR alive, it’s all about money, saving the next soul. Everything is donations. People can sign up to help for as little as €3 per month, the price of a cup of coffee and a bar of chocolate!”
Suzanne’s dad, Cork man Christopher Goggins, is her inspiration. He died in a drowning accident 22 years ago. AHAR comes from the Irish word “athair” for father.
“If you ever said to my father, I want to cross the Sahara Desert, he’d say right, where are you going to start? Never once did he say ‘no you can’t’.” A founder of Cork’s first soup kitchen, Suzanne says, he would have turned Cork upside down for the homeless. Presents went unopened in their home on Christmas morning, until hampers were distributed. “It was the best day of the year,” says Suzanne, who loved to see the faces light up on Christmas morning.
Now, Suzanne works seven days a week, 365 days a year, including Christmas, which can be the toughest day, because volunteers spend time with family, and most rescues close.
“Last Christmas, we had two ponies tied to my gate, Christmas morning, emaciated, skin and bone — I mean, carcasses are the only way of describing them.”
They were found only because Suzanne had to pick up a cat that walked into a Garda station!
You can donate through the ahar.ie website.
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