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HiCaliber Horse Volunteers Say Disease Outbreak At Valley Center Ranch Not Disclosed

From left to right: Julie Morton, Leah Bjerknes, Shelly Hagerthy, Brittany Cooley and Alyson Rosman. The former HiCaliber volunteers spoke to inewsource on March 4, 2018.
Brad Racino/inewsource
From left to right: Julie Morton, Leah Bjerknes, Shelly Hagerthy, Brittany Cooley and Alyson Rosman. The former HiCaliber volunteers spoke to inewsource on March 4, 2018.

An active outbreak of a highly contagious equine disease called strangles has occurred on the HiCaliber Horse Rescue ranch in Valley Center and is not being disclosed to anyone on the outside, including people who have adopted horses from the nonprofit over the past few months, five former HiCaliber volunteers told inewsource.

“HiCaliber is absolutely 100 percent not admitting that there is strangles,” said Shelly Hagerthy, a registered nurse and HiCaliber volunteer until Feb. 24. “At this point, every single horse on that ranch has been compromised.”

Strangles is an upper respiratory disease specific to equines that is highly contagious but completely manageable if properly contained. The volunteers, who have seen the disease spread at the ranch first-hand, said proper containment, which includes quarantine and disinfecting, is not happening.


More than 180 horses were under HiCaliber’s care as of Feb. 22, according to an internal feeding schedule verified by multiple volunteers. The nonprofit is bringing in more each week while at the same time trying to obtain a county permit that requires 100 or fewer horses on the property.

At least 10 local and state agencies are investigating allegations of fraud, animal abuse or issues related to veterinary practices by HiCaliber. In the past week, the California Attorney General’s Office prohibited the nonprofit from soliciting or disbursing funds, and three former board members have publicly distanced themselves from the organization’s financials.

Michelle Knuttila, HiCaliber’s founder and public persona, told inewsource Friday she believes she’s being targeted because of her success rescuing sick and abused horses.

“I don't get this industry anymore,” she said. “I don't understand how you get this big and this successful and make such an incredible impact on these horses only to be made out to be the bad guy. If anything, we're being creative and inventive in finding new ways to do things. If we're doing it wrong, I'll own it.”

Since Monday, Knuttila has stopped responding to inewsource’s phone calls, texts and emails.


Volunteers describe strangles outbreak

The former volunteers who spoke to inewsource gathered Sunday at the home of Leah Bjerknes, who joined HiCaliber about two years ago and worked on its feeding and ferrier teams until last Friday.

All spoke highly of their fellow volunteers at the ranch but detailed problems with the property’s biosecurity. They said the strangles outbreak began last year, and HiCaliber’s decision not to disclose it is threatening Southern California’s horse community that adopts, fosters or rides HiCaliber’s horses.

“I've stayed quiet since I left,” said Alyson Rosman, who volunteered at HiCaliber from October 2015 to June 2017. “To see how bad it's getting, and the strangles and endangering the community in Southern California horses ... it's not ... I can't anymore. It's got to stop. It's just too much.“

inewsource asked Knuttila about strangles during the interview Friday at the ranch. She said some horses got the disease last year, but it’s “not that big of a deal in California.” HiCaliber’s “biosecurity is pretty darn solid as far as when a horse has it, to the point where it doesn't jump the ranch,” she said.

Was it being disclosed to people who adopt or foster HiCaliber’s horses?

“As far as I know,” Knuttila said, HiCaliber’s paperwork “does say that there's a chance that things have been exposed. It does say they recommend for them to be quarantined when they get to their new place.”

Bjerknes shared HiCaliber adoption paperwork from August 2017. Neither strangles nor quarantine were mentioned.

“The horse that I just adopted – Bunny – had strangles. January 2. I have pictures,” said Julie Morton, who had volunteered with HiCaliber since April 2017 before leaving the organization on Sunday. “They had known it four days before that. It was not announced. Nothing was announced.”

Former volunteer Hagerthy said, “We can't control this sickness on this ranch. We have medical cases falling out of our ears here.”

She said she was asked on Feb. 24 not to return to HiCaliber after questioning whether Knuttila was stealing from the rescue.

The volunteers provided inewsource with recent photos of several HiCaliber horses with what appear to be abscessed lymph nodes – a symptom of strangles, said veterinarian Larry Catt with Large Animal Veterinary Associates in El Cajon. Catt has no association with HiCaliber. He did not review the photos and spoke only generally about the disease, which he said is fairly common and can be vaccinated against.

“If horses are managed properly and isolated in quarantine, and people are managed properly, generally speaking, the disease can be managed properly,” he said. If left untreated, the disease is potentially fatal.

HiCaliber volunteers also provided a screenshot of a Jan. 25 Facebook message from a resident of the HiCaliber ranch confirming the property tested positive for strangles.

They shared a feed sheet from late February showing 59 horses under quarantine in various parts of the property. They also provided a letter one volunteer dropped off to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department on Feb. 26 that said HiCaliber is “sending horses out for adoption and foster all over Southern CA without making the involved parties aware of the potential risk” from strangles.

Bjerknes, who started at HiCaliber about two years ago and worked on the feeding and ferrier teams until last Friday, provided veterinary records showing her own horse contracted strangles after she brought a HiCaliber horse onto her property.

“It's ridiculous,” Bjerknes said. “There's absolutely no quarantine at the ranch. They have new people come in all the time and love and hug and kiss horses, and they have no idea what's going on.”

The volunteers who spoke to inewsource Sunday said they’re frustrated no agency is stepping in to prevent the spread of the disease.

“We’re waiting for agencies to do something,” said Rosman, and “nobody is doing anything.”

Catt, the veterinarian, told inewsource the San Diego Humane Society or San Diego County Animal Services would be the only agencies that would step in to deal with the strangles outbreak.

Other than that, he said, “I don’t think there’s a governing agency that you can call.”

A San Diego County spokesman said the county “could investigate such a complaint” but has not received one. Rosman said the former volunteers have not sent information to the county or Humane Society about strangles because both previously bowed out from investigating HiCaliber, citing conflicts: Knuttila worked for county animal services until suffering a work injury, and a former HiCaliber board member was associated with the San Diego Humane Society.