By Terese Karmel
So many heroic stories emerged from the Hurricane Katrina era of American history that one could get dizzy from this steady stream of impossible achievements. Most have to do with rescues of people that might otherwise have drowned or lost all of their possessions only to be given a second chance at life by a special organization or individuals. But there are also plenty of amazing animal rescue stories.
The fall and rise of Molly, a 15-year-old Appaloosa rescued not once but twice by Kaye Harris, ranks among the most heartwarming tales of courage and persistence. Harris owns a small horse farm in St. Rose, not far from New Orleans, The first time she rescued Molly was soon after after the August 2005, hurricane devastated the area. Harris found her wandering in a pasture, apparently abandoned by her owners who had fled the storm.
Harris, who has been in the horse rescue business for more than two decades, had also rescued other animals from the brink of hurricane-induced death, including a pit bull, Red, who one day took out whatever effects the storm had on him on Molly’s right front leg.
“One day I came home and when I pulled my car up to the fence I saw that Molly was laying down and the dog was barking at her,” Harris said. “In the next second, he grabbed her and started shaking her.”
Harris hurdled the fence and screamed at the dog, who let go and watched in horror as the blood spurted out of the horse like a levee had broken in her body. Molly was in shock but Harris, despite fears that her cell phone battery was limited, kept her wits about her, called her veterinarian, Allison Barca, and started cleaning her up.
“Imagine putting something through a meat grinder. That’s what she looked like,” Harris said recently with the same with the breathless urgency as if it had just occurred. Molly couldn’t stand up, so using a blanket as a sling, Harris got her into a stall and the horse collapsed. “This started this journey of trying to get her to heal,” Harris continued.
There were plenty of heroes along this journey, including Barca, a graduate of the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine, who stopped the hemorrhaging and put 17 staples in the horse’s jaw, five stitches in a stomach wound, and provided other immediate care.
But the third day after the attack, the signs that this was not an ordinary horse started to reveal themselves. Harris, who believes horses belong turned out, opened the stall and Molly exited it, putting weight on three legs and using the bad leg for balance. This became her daily routine. At night after being in the pasture all day, she created a depression in her stall floor and that’s where she slept so she could be more comfortable and push herself up when she wanted to stand. In short, she had begun to figure out how to survive.
“In three days, she had almost taught herself to walk,” Harris said. “She found ways to rest the bad leg on the drain pipe. This was a very intelligent horse, who figured things out.”
The little 415-pound roan’s intelligence and courage led Harris to the next step. Molly’s right leg had atrophied so badly—it was cold from the ankle down—Harris knew it was totally useless. One day as Harris was flexing the ankle, the bone snapped, causing Molly to rear up on pain.
“The hoof was just dangling down,” she said. Only a sling held it up. The possibility of putting Molly down loomed, but Harris, like her horse, is a survivor. “I looked at her and said ‘what do you want me to do for you girl’? She looked at me and told me she wasn’t ready to give up.”
And so Harris came up with a plan: Have the leg amputated and fit her with a prosthetic. One reason for optimism was that there was no sign of laminitis and the horse continued to walk on three legs. Her first task was to convince a skeptical Barca. But the vet knew the horse was smart and cooperative, so she consulted Dr. Rustin Moore, then director of the LSU equine health studies program, about the possibility of surgery. He too was skeptical, but Harris and Barca convinced him to at least meet Molly.
“I knew Molly would speak for herself,” said Harris. Moore met Molly, and in addition, a camera was put in her stall so he and his staff could see how she got up and down, and walk on three legs.
“My first reaction was skepticism and that many things had to fall into place for it to be successful,” said Moore, who is now the Bud and Marilyn Jenne professor and chair of Veterinary Clinical Science at Ohio State University.
“(But) she knew how to take care of herself. She would lie down frequently to rest her leg and had no problem getting up. She also allowed us to help her. She was tough and smart. If I’m ever going to do this, she’s the one.”
After consultation with another veterinarian, who had performed similar operations, he agreed to the surgery. Moore made it clear to Harris, however, that if anything went wrong during or after the surgery, it was possible Molly would have to be put down. Harris understood this fully.
“I wasn’t in the business of making animals suffer,” she said.
Moore was also convinced that Harris understood if Molly survived, hers would be a lifetime commitment. When a local prosthetic maker, Dwayne Mara, was found (this was important to Moore because of the adjustments that would have been necessary), he was won over.
“After he saw her, he couldn’t come up with a reason not to do it,” Harris said of Moore. “We had angels on our shoulder."
There were other angels as well, including the U.S. Humane Society and a group called Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue, who came up with the $5,000 to pay for the operation. Time also became a major concern since Moore was to leave shortly for a conference in Morocco. The only possible day open for the operation was Jan. 19, 2006, an “auspicious” day, Harris said, since it was also Martin Luther King Day. Most of the LSU staff could have taken the day off, but instead many volunteered to help out.
The surgery itself was fairly routine. When Molly woke up from the anesthetic, she was surrounded by people. “I was bawling; everyone was crying,” Harris said.
For five weeks Molly was in a heavy plaster cast, hobbling around not unlike she had prior to the operation. She was fitted with a high-tech neoprene leg by Mara, who studied the joint configurations of a horse leg, then created a plastic prosthesis with plastic grommets to allow for her knee to bend and she took to the new one with no problem. She remained at the LSU clinic for close to three weeks and then came home.
Harris said Molly often runs away when she approaches to put the prosthetic on and prefers her three-legged life style although she does wear for some time each day. It is attached by Velcro taps to a cup that slides over the stump of her former leg.
“If she wants it, she stands there and lets us put it on her,” Harris said. “She walks like she has a crutch— kind of gimpy.”
Since the operation, Molly has enjoyed a charmed life. She regularly visits rehab facilities, especially those with children who have lost limbs, hospitals and veterans homes, befriending and providing inspiration to others with similar problems. She has been to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., visiting with Iraq veterans. This past July, she was reunited with Moore during a tour of hospitals in Ohio.
A book, “Molly the Pony,” has been written and Molly’s Foundation raises funds for her appearances, and to help children and adults with physical problems. In the fall, she will make a special appearance at the 2010 AllTech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
“I learned a lot of important things,” said Moore. “Most of all, the importance of letting an animal tell you if they’re up for it.” Moore said he was also reminded of the value of teamwork.
Because Molly was small and had the right disposition, she was the perfect candidate. Thoroughbreds, he said, are so much larger and heavier, and have different temperaments, which would lessen their chances for success with artificial limbs. Laminitis is also a greater problem.
“This was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had,” Moore said, “and it was not necessarily about medicine.”