Two frostbitten, emaciated horses were recovering inside a warm barn on Saturday thanks to volunteers who spent the week before Christmas digging the animals out of snow in the mountains of northeastern British Columbia.
Birgit Stutz said Saturday the rescuers cheered when they finally finished digging a half-mile escape route through the snow for the animals. The horses had been abandoned by a hunter and faced almost certain death.
Stutz said the horses eagerly accepted being bridled and seemed to know they were safe as volunteers led them on a seven-hour hike down the mountain in freezing temperatures on Tuesday.
Stutz said about 40 or 50 people took part in the rescue over the course of a week.
"It was a big effort," Stutz said in a telephone interview.
Stutz said the horses were discovered on Dec. 15 by two local residents. They were above the tree line and had no shelter at first.
Logan Jeck and a friend stumbled across the horses while out looking for some snowmobiles left behind by tourists who had gotten stuck during a trip to the back country on the side of Mount Renshaw – about 750 miles northeast of Vancouver.
At first, the young men thought the most humane thing to do would be to shoot the emaciated horses to put them out of their misery.
"They went up to assess the situation and to decide whether they were going to shoot them or give them hay. They decided they had enough life in them so that's when it all started," Stutz said.
Over the course of a week, a growing number of residents trudged up the mountain with shovels in hand to dig out an escape pathway through six-foot-deep (two meter-deep) snow. Stutz said the volunteers had to dig a trench just over a half a mile long through the brush along the mountainside.
On Dec. 19, the local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sent up a couple of officers along with a veterinarian to consider whether the animals could be lifted out by helicopter.
Shawn Eccles, an animal-protection officer, said on a scale of 1 to 9, the horses' health rated about a 2.
The horses are now under a veterinarian's care and are being carefully fed and watered. "They're doing well," Stutz said.
Stutz said she and her friends spent so much time and effort on the rescue that they really didn't have time to prepare for the holidays. Her family did not even put up a Christmas tree, but no one is complaining.
"This is probably the best Christmas gift a person could have, to be able to get these horses out of there," she said. "Just knowing that we managed to help these poor creatures out there in the cold and get them to safety, it's a better Christmas than you could have otherwise."