Sundance Sanctuary: a fight to protect older animals

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Man struggles to protect animals discarded by others, but funds limit options

By Vidya Rajan, Special to The Times

John Ritzel, who operates the Sundance Santcuary in Newlin, flanked by Coollama (left) and Lillie (right), just two of the abused or older animals Ritzel fights to give a quality life.

NEWLIN — John Ritzel and his donkey, Dinkster, were enjoying a cuddle when I arrived. John has a visible and enduring passion for animals, especially old and maltreated animals.

John runs the Sundance Sanctuary which has been functioning since 1980 in various locations and now is located in a leased farm off Route 162 near Embreeville Mill with pastures backing up to the Brandywine River. It attained 501(c)(3) status in Januar, 2012.

John could not raise the funds to put up a large sign for the sanctuary, so he rescued an ancient metal sign advertising “Liberty” and hung it on the barn. The animals there are now at liberty to live out their lives in peace, so I guess it’s fitting.

John, 50, became an animal lover at birth when he was given a six-month old Shetland mare. The mare, Harriet, now 51 years old, is an inmate of the sanctuary, along with an assortment of other grazing animals named primarily after cartoon characters: two sheep, Thumper and Babs; a goat, Nermal; a horse, Lillie; the donkey Dinkster; and a llama so laid back even his name is Coollama.

One of John’s earliest rescues back in 1992 was another thoroughbred horse, Dover. Dover was 40 years old and so starved when he was brought to the sanctuary that vets advised John not to feed him right away because he was unused to eating solid food. With patient care, Dover recovered, thrived, and died only last year. Lillie, a thoroughbred dressage horse who was “discarded” after blowing out her leg, misses her erstwhile pal and, according to John, is showing signs of a deep depression. She scarcely budges from her stand in the stall opening, shifting form leg to leg occasionally. He talks to her and leads her outside, but she turns around and makes a beeline back to her stall. John thinks having another horse would be the best thing for Lillie, but he cannot afford to support another one.

The hard-uneven floor at Sundance’s barn is a worry — but there are no funds at this time to fix the floor or install mats.

The last few years have not been kind to John. Many of his beloved animals including Sundance, the horse for whom the sanctuary is named, passed away recently. Having lost his job, John now repairs lawnmowers and pumps whatever cash he can into the sanctuary. His biggest concern is providing feed and veterinary care for the animals, followed closely by the desperate need to fix the floor of the barn.

The mud floor is in a terrible state with huge potholes, and what looks like foundation poking through. Last year, he had just about raised enough money to re-do the barn floor but, as luck would have it, a sick pony needed veterinary care and later, funeral expenses.

So now, John frets about the animals in the barn. Uneven and unyielding floors are hard on the animals’ legs, and can cause stocking – a swelling of the legs. He would like to put barn flooring down and cover the barn floor with rubber sheets, but all this costs money which he doesn’t have.

The animals also need their teeth floated, meaning that they need to be filed down, since grazing animals’ teeth keep growing and may cut into the mouth causing intense discomfort. He would also like to repair the fence posts and have the wherewithal to take in more unwanted animals – he’s already turned down several – but he does not have the resources to commit to keeping them for the rest of their lives.

He invites people to visit the sanctuary to play with the animals and welcomes help with chores. He often takes Dink, the donkey, and Coollama, the llama, over to the KOA campground. Regulars there know them and enjoy petting them. He also does a live animal nativity at the United Methodist Church in Romansville. He prefers outdoor events, though.

He regaled me with a story of an indoor nativity where the animals got spooked and jumped off the stage into the audience. No one was hurt, but John was shaken by the experience.

His other nuggets of wisdom are rather appealing – such as one about dealing with a horse with the problem of throwing its head back. Apparently, this unwanted behavior can be cured by the simple expedient of holding a raw egg above its head. When the horse throws its head back, the egg cracks and the contents ooze down its head. Apparently horses don’t like the feeling, and the behavior stops.

He doesn’t know how to cure depression though, and while he would love to get in another horse or two needing a home to keep Lillie company, he knows that it will take a serious amount of work to get to that point. John had a lot of other stories: one about the llama fighting off a coyote which had attacked a ram; one about a man who was whipping his horse; several about Dinkster and his passion for entertaining spectators.

As I was leaving, I asked John what his dream was. John looked at me wistfully. “To fix the floor of the barn and get veterinary care for the animals”, he said. It didn’t seem a lot to ask.

Sundance Sanctuary is a 501(c)(3) registered charity. Find Sundance Sanctuary on Facebook or call John Ritzel at 610-203-0042 for more information.

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