Runaway Ray is a little pony with a big fan club.
The partially blind Shetland with more than a few years under his belt has stolen hearts across the Key Peninsula since he was found roaming there earlier this month, earning him his nickname.
Ray’s fans are worried about his well-being, though some say needlessly, and through a string of events any would-be adopter likely will have to buy the pony at auction later this month.
As far as anyone knows, Ray’s story starts April 11, when Marykate Fowler saw him hurrying along Whiteman Road, between Palmer Lake and Key Peninsula Highway South near her home.
“He looked really ragged,” she said. “He was losing his hair. Covered in lice, looked like. He had a big sore on his back. His eye was almost swollen closed.”
She grabbed a lead rope and went to get him. Another bystander helped get the rope around him.
Fowler said she could care for Ray until they found his owners.
It looked like he hadn’t been cared for properly, though she wants to give his owners the benefit of the doubt. Her own rescue horse was in bad shape when she got him, she said.
She posted on the Key Peninsula Facebook page to try to find the owners. She also called a friend with more horse experience to help treat Ray, and got in touch with her vet.
Meanwhile, Ray seemed happy being part of the gang at the Fowler home, among two big horses, a couple of goats and a sheep.
“All my other animals could go and visit him,” Fowler said. “They would talk through the fence.”
It occurred to her that she should make a report to animal control, so something would be on file about Ray condition in case someone came to claim him.
As a result, several days after Ray arrived, animal control officers took him away .
Her 7-year-old son was sad to see Ray go.
“He cried when they took him,” Fowler said. “He wanted to go out and feed him every day.”
State law required the Pierce County Auditor’s office — which oversees animal control — to turn Ray over to a state brand inspector, who tries to find the owner.
“A pony, although to some people is a pet, is considered to be livestock,” Auditor Julie Anderson said. “Just because you can’t locate the owner doesn’t mean that you can keep it.”
If the state can’t find an owner, the animal goes to auction.
“I told them that seemed kind of silly, when we were a willing foster home,” Fowler said.
Her family would like to adopt Ray and will pay for him at auction. She’s been told a pony like him should go for $50 to $100.
She’s heard Ray is getting better in treatment at the Tacoma Equine Hospital, but that he still has only partial vision in his damaged eye.
She said the Key Peninsula community would have been willing to pay the vet bills, which now fall to the county at a little more than $1,000 by Anderson’s estimate.
In cases where animal control knows the owner of an abused or neglected animal, Anderson said, her office boards the animal at a contracted facility as it investigates. After the investigation, adoption is a possibility.
But loose or roaming livestock such as Ray must go through the state process, to prevent livestock theft.
The good news, Anderson said, is that Ray is getting medical attention, someone found and corralled him and, if his owners are not found, he has a potential home with the Fowlers.
“Normally we have a very hard time finding homes for horses and ponies,” she said. “I am thrilled that somebody wants to make a commitment and provide a home, but I’m not allowed to skip the step of turning this animal over to the state brand inspector.”
The state put a legal notice in The News Tribune on April 23. Beyond that, the office can do little more to find the pony’s owners, because Ray doesn’t have a brand, said Hector Castro, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.
Unless someone comes forward, Ray will be auctioned May 9 at the Sales Pavilion in Enumclaw. That has Fowler and other Key Peninsula residents worried, which Anderson said she understands.
“There is a surplus of unwanted horses, which makes it a buyer’s market, and we have reason to believe that many horses are purchased for the horse meat trade,” she said. “They can be transported down to Mexico and slaughtered.”
Transport conditions for the horses aren’t always humane, Anderson said.
Asked about speculation that Ray could end up in slaughter, Enumclaw
Sales Pavilion owner Ronald Marriotti said: “It would never happen in a million years.”
He noted it’s expensive to move horses as freight, and buying Ray for slaughter would make no sense, based on what a pony weighs.
“The freight on getting it to slaughter would be 10 times more than it’s worth,” he said. “It’s not going to slaughter. I’ve been in this business for 50 years.”
He said he couldn’t say what a pony such as Ray might go for. Asking that is like calling a used car lot and asking what the vehicles there are worth, he said.
“The way everyone is talking about this stupid horse, I might have 500 people here wanting to buy the damn thing,” Marriotti said.
“I’m just sick of these people who know everything about my business, but they don’t know nothing. They’re idiots who think they know everything that goes on here.”
Should the price be driven up, the Key Peninsula community has offered to set up an online fundraiser after the auction to help the Fowlers.
Among those supporting Ray at the auction likely will be the pony’s state representative, Michelle Caldier, who said she plans a bill to give auditors more discretion in cases such as Ray’s.
She’d like auditors to be able to place such animals with foster families and to adopt them out, avoiding auctions when appropriate. Anderson said having more discretion in state law would help.
Caldier learned about Ray while scrolling through the Key Peninsula Facebook page.
“I was in foster care when I was little,” she said. “My heart went out to him.”