An old, partially blind Shetland pony named “Runaway Ray” resulted in likely the most unusual bill introduced in the 2016 state legislature.
It’s called House Bill 2500; but, really, it should be called Runaway Ray’s Bill.
Ray, an old, partially blind Shetland pony, is responsible for a move to change state law.
On Thursday afternoon, the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee met to consider a number of items.
Among them was something with the humdrum title, “Creating a preferred alternative for the placement and sale of impounded livestock.”
But the story behind that title is full of emotion.
It begins on the afternoon of April 12 of last year on the country roads of Lakebay, an unincorporated community in the Key Peninsula.
Marykate Fowler was heading to pick up Pierson, her 10-year-old son, when she and others saw a lone pony on the road. From its compact size and punkish mane, she knew it was a Shetland.
“He was hoofing it,” Fowler says.
This is an area for families who want that rural experience. The Fowlers live on three acres and own three horses, two goats, a sheep, a pig, dogs and cats.
Fowler had a spare stall and offered to take the pony until the owner could be found.
By then it was clear the pony wasn’t in good shape. She knows horses and knew this was an old one.
“His eyes were all puffy and goopy,” Fowler says. “There was green goop coming out of one of them and the eye was almost shut. There was a huge scrape on his back that looked pretty infected.”
In the stall, at first the pony bumped into things, Fowler surmising because of his bad sight. She cleaned his eyes, put ointment on the scrape, texted her veterinarian.
And as is second-nature these days, when Fowler told a nearby friend about the pony, the friend posted about it on a community Facebook page.
Fowler recalls the emotions the posting generated. Some people, she says, didn’t think the owners should be contacted since they obviously hadn’t taken care of the animal.
Fowler wanted to make sure she had some sort of record of the pony’s condition.
She called Pierce County Animal Control and, two days after Fowler had found the pony, officers showed up.
By then the pony had a name: Runaway Ray.
“My son named him,” says Fowler. “The name just flowed.”
The animal-control officers said they were taking Runaway Ray.
“It was a very traumatic experience. I said we were willing to keep him until the owners were found, and happy to help pay for the vet bills,” remembers Fowler. “They said no, because I was not a licensed rescue.”
The pony ended up at the Tacoma Equine Hospital, where they treated his eyes, gave him antibiotics and worked on his teeth.
Runaway Ray was being prepared, and not for potential return to the Fowlers.
State law considers “any horses, mules, donkeys, or cattle of any age running at large” to be a public nuisance.
If no owner is located — either because the animal wasn’t branded or no one responded to a public notice — the animal “will be sold at a public livestock-market sale.”
Meaning, an auction.
The one most familiar in Puget Sound is the Enumclaw Sales Pavilion.
Ron Mariotti is the owner of the auction house and not liked by many horse lovers.
Yes, he says, “I buy slaughter horses,” which are shipped to Canada or Mexico for their meat.
Mariotti laughs at the thought of the pony being bought to be butchered.
“The freight would be more than the horse would bring. You gotta have enough meat on it to make it worth slaughtering,” he says.
On Facebook, though, emotions were running high: “This is just plain disgusting and so very sad.”
Fowler and a handful of supporters showed up at the auction on May 9.
Also with her was state Rep. Michelle Caldier, a Republican representing her district who also had read about the pony on Facebook.
“This whole pony community was up in arms,” says Caldier.
Fowler was expecting Runaway Ray would sell for $50 or $100.
He went for $625. After the auction house’s deduction, that left $455 to cover the county’s $2,880 vet bills.
Fowler and Caldier say that from their vantage point, they couldn’t see anyone else bidding among the five dozen people there.
Mariotti has this explanation about the high bidding: “That’s righteous people thinking they gotta save everything. It was ridiculous. It wasn’t worth $100.”
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Fowler’s group pooled their money. Runaway Ray was theirs.
The pony grew accustomed to his new home. Pictures show Pierson obviously happy as he poses with Runaway Ray.
“Awww — such a happy little guy!!!” was a typical comment on Facebook.
Then came Aug. 10, 2015.
“He had four seizures. He was on the ground. That was it,” remembers the mom.
Just like that.
The family buried Ray on the property at a spot picked by Pierson. A small plaque says, “Runaway Ray. Always in our Hearts.”
In the months that followed, Rep. Caldier did not forget the pony. She drafted House Bill 2500.
It changes the current law so that a family such as the Fowlers, if deemed suitable by the appropriate agency, could keep an animal such as Runaway Ray pending a search for its owner.
And if no owner was found, it further would allow the animal to stay with the family instead of going to auction.
The change in the law wouldn’t affect that many animals. In 2015, 22 head of cattle in this state were found wandering around; 14 were auctioned and the rest were claimed. Last year, 27 horses were found; 23 were sold.
But it certainly would matter to all those pony lovers.
The state’s Department of Agriculture, which has jurisdiction, seems generally OK with the bill.
Caldier says she’s meeting with state branding inspectors and cattle-industry representatives to refine the wording.
She expects the bill will be winding its way to a vote.
In a short legislative session such as this one, the Legislature still manages to consider some 1,500 bills. Only a fifth are passed.
Testifying on Thursday on behalf of the bill was Marykate Fowler.
“I’m not a public speaker. I was very nervous. I did it so I can tell my son that we were part of something that was pretty big,” she says.
Democracy in action. Sometimes it really does work.