Janine Felix’s Facebook newsfeed was flooded with rescue and relief efforts for Taal that Tuesday but it was the posts that looked for trucks and trailers to rescue stranded horses that gave her pause. As the coach and founder of Team Equisport—a group of showjumping and dressage competitors—Felix felt strongly for the safety and well-being of the horses forcibly abandoned in Taal. So she mobilized her team quickly and found a way to help.
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When Taal volcano erupted on January 12, the community residing around the area were forced to evacuate, leaving behind their possessions along with the animals that populated Volcano Island. For days, the animals had to live without enough food and water, left to fend for themselves. Many were close to dying but many more did not survive.
A good number of these abandoned animals were horses, which the island’s inhabitants rely on to bring tourists around the sights near the volcano’s crater. Dependent on the horses for their livelihood, the handlers were reluctant to leave the animals behind and were desperate to find a way to rescue them.
But rescuing proved tricky; with their size and power, horses need to be carefully guided to vehicles that can withstand their bulk and weight. And with Talisay, Taal’s municipality, on lockdown, and Volcano Island declared a danger zone, rescue efforts became even more challenging. Even if residents could manage to rescue their steed from the island, they did not have the means to transport the animals away from the danger zone as quickly as possible.
Braving the odds
On January 14, Felix got in touch Jan Kierulf, whose number was shared to her online. Kierulf, an animal lover who just wanted to be of help, got Team Equisport’s efforts going by getting the group in touch with a horse owner who was at an evacuation site in Sto. Tomas, Batangas.
With the lockdown, however, the simple act of going back to Talisay would prove challenging. “The team tried to seek the assistance of the local government and the Philippine National Police (PNP) to reach the boats at the lakeshore and safely ferry the horses to safer territory,” Katrina Holigores, a member of Team Equisport, says. “From daylight till almost midnight, we waited for the authorities’ reply, but to no avail.”
Felix relayed the situation to the horse owners. Despite the challenges, the evacuees were insistent: they had to get their horses back no matter what. Their animals are family, and their aids in their only source of income.
By the morning of January 15, the Taal evacuees called Felix and her team to report that their relatives were already at the lakeshore, all set to ferry the horses from Volcano Island to the mainland. This rescue group were to sail to Volcano Island, fetch the horses in two batches, and then sail safely back to mainland with the animals in tow. Soon enough, the boats were maneuvering through the currents, even playing a cat and mouse game with the coast guard who were concerned about the travelers’ safety and would’ve certainly prevented them from stepping foot back on the island.
By mid-morning, the boatmen were able to fetch the first group of horses and have brought them to the lakeshore. Kierulf was able to ask for the PNP’s assistance and permission to let a truck reach the lakeshore to pick up the first group. “Janine was able to hire a cattle truck and pick up 16 horses from Talisay. This group arrived at a farm in Malvar at around 3PM. The next day (January 16), we were able to get 22 more horses,” Holigores says. She remembers how pitiful the animals looked. “All the horses had ash-caked skin. Their eyes were irritated, and some had burn marks all over their bodies. They’ve been starved, parched, and trapped for two days. You could tell from their faces that they were depressed.”
When the horses arrived in Sto. Tomas, Team Equisport wasted no time cleaning and administering first aid. “Since many of the horses were weak, we had to give them dextrose and vitamins. We also attended to the wounds they incurred. We took time cleaning their eyes and bodies, removing all traces of ash,” Holigores recalls. “We received an outpouring of food donations, so we distributed that accordingly. We also hired someone to visit the horses every day to ensure that they are well-fed and hydrated.”
By Friday, January 17, more of the evacuated horse owners flocked to the rescue sites in hopes of claiming their prized steed. But by that time, horse and handler were facing a different problem. “While some locals were able to reunite with their animals, there’s no telling what they will do to them, given the conditions around Taal,” Holigores laments. “Volcano Island is now inaccessible, and some horseowners do not have homes or means to take care of their horses. We assume that they might just sell their steed shortly after; however, we are working on long-term plans to keep them alive and well in the best possible way.”
Still, Team Equisport were astounded by the immense support that their initiative—and other rescue efforts happening simultaneously—received. It was the first time they were able to participate in such an endeavor, and they cannot be more grateful.
“We were amazed by the quick donation and mobilization of veterinary care supplies,” Holigores notes. “We worked with Dr. Dan Arreola, an equine vet, who mobilized a team of doctors and students to provide emergency care to the horses. They even worked through Tuesday evening—in complete darkness—just to save lives.” —with Jacs T. Sampayan
Team Equisport’s rescue and rehabilitation efforts may be seen on their Instagram page. If you would still like to donate pls make a deposit to our fellow Equisport member’s account : BPI C/A # 0170004051 Maria Beatriz Ortoll Manahan.
Photographs by Katrina Holigores