Upper Bucks' Last Chance Ranch has saved more than 2,000 horses, and many other animals

At the Last Chance Ranch in upper Bucks County, president Lori McCutcheon spends some time with Ranger. The brawny gelding, rescued from an auction, is being trained for his new life as a member of the Philadelphia Police Department's resurrected mounted patrol unit.
At the Last Chance Ranch in upper Bucks County, president Lori McCutcheon spends some time with Ranger. The brawny gelding, rescued from an auction, is being trained for his new life as a member of the Philadelphia Police Department's resurrected mounted patrol unit. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 27, 2011

Growing up in North Jersey, Lori McCutcheon loved animals, but on a far more ambitious scale than most children do.

Knowing every dog in the neighborhood by name? Kiddie stuff. By 14, Lori had rescued a horse, a black beauty that had foundered and could not be ridden.

Sinner's owner was sending him to auction - and an almost-certain end at the slaughterhouse - when McCutcheon persuaded her parents to buy him for her.

And so it began.

Sinner was the first of more than 2,000 horses saved by McCutcheon, who opened the Last Chance Ranch 22 years ago in upper Bucks County. The 35-acre sanctuary has grown into a haven for not only abused and neglected steeds but also goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, the occasional iguana, and a turkey and a guinea hen that she swears are madly, inseparably in love.

It was there, in the tranquil fields of Richland Township, that a brawny chestnut gelding named Ranger got a couple of months of TLC and the equine equivalent of counseling - all in preparation for his new life with the Philadelphia Police Department's resurrected mounted patrol unit.

Last week, he joined four other Last Chance grads already accepted into the unit. Three - Guinness, Aiden, and Darby - are on the streets. Ranger and Hunter will spend three months in training, learning to take in their stride anything from road flares and the sound of gunshots to Occupy Philadelphia crowds.

The horses are "doing perfect," said Officer Marquise Robinson, an assistant trainer. As for Ranger, he added, "so far, so good."

In addition to the Philadelphia force, the Baltimore Police Department has adopted a horse from Last Chance. Inquiries have come in from mounted units in Washington and New Jersey.

"It has opened up a whole new realm of using rescue horses," McCutcheon said.

About four dozen horses live at the ranch; 18 more that require long-term care are kept in a pasture at Graterford State Prison, where inmates care for them.

They are only a fraction, though, of the Last Chance stragglers.

McCutcheon's ever-changing brood numbers about 300, including Priscilla, a black-and-white pot-bellied pig; Goliath the goat; and Jake, a lovable American bulldog mix.

The grim economy is swelling the ranks, as owners find themselves hard-pressed to keep their pets.

Caring for the abandoned is "a labor of love," said McCutcheon, 45, a mother of three. "I enjoy going to work. I don't consider it a job."

With a budget last year of $422,000, Last Chance has eight employees and about 100 volunteers, who help with grooming, cleanup, even equine massages. It is funded largely by private donations and memorial contributions. Local veterinarians, farriers, and others often provide deeply discounted services.

McCutcheon has bought most of the horses at auction in Lancaster County. But nearly all of the smaller animals hail from Philadelphia.

City animal control and humane officers from the Pennsylvania SPCA find abandoned or mistreated creatures on the streets - dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits, an emu, a ferret rolling down Broad Street in an exercise ball at 2 a.m. - and they're off to the Last Chance Ranch.

"They hardly ever say no," said Wendy Marano, an SPCA spokeswoman. In the last year, she said, 1,000 animals have been sent there.

McCutcheon was destined for a career sheltering the cast-outs.

As a child, she brought home strays and injured animals. But her parents, of the misguided opinion that two dogs were plenty, insisted she make other living arrangements for her rescues.

She got her degree in animal science, then a job with a pharmaceutical firm. Meanwhile, though, she worked part-time helping to place horses with the right owners. She eventually came up with a plan to make it her full-time vocation. With her parents' aid, she bought the 35 acres near Quakertown and started the ranch, which later became a nonprofit.

"If I die, I want to come back as one of these guys," McCutcheon said, gesturing toward the barn.

There, a handful of horses were getting dental work and another, a massage. Strutting among them were the love birds.

"Everything that comes here is safe for life. Nobody comes and gets eaten," she said in a dark reference to that fowlest of holidays, Thanksgiving.

Her equine residents usually get adopted as pets, and as show or trail horses. But she started training some of them for mounted patrol jobs last summer, at the request of the Philadelphia police.

Among the candidates was Ranger.

Like most Last Chance horses, Ranger, now 10, was rescued from an auction in Lancaster County. He had been a New York City carriage horse, McCutcheon was told, but had developed a fear of sudden movements. She paid $800 for him.

After making sure the horse felt safe and comfortable at the ranch, the staff began a retraining program. Slowly, using a beach ball, they played volleyball over him. Then they rode bicycles around him, brought chickens and turkeys into the pen, and took him out for rides.

"The first thing is to build the relationship between human and horse," McCutcheon said. "It's trust, trust, trust."

Ranger, she said, soon conquered his fear. Philadelphia police checked him out at a fund-raising event in the city for the mounted patrol unit.

Last week, Robinson came to the ranch, test-rode Ranger, and took him off to start his new life. McCutcheon handed him over at no cost to the department.

For the next three months, Ranger will be trained for police-specific work, which can be as basic as getting accustomed to yellow caution tape. He also will be subjected to increasingly large crowds, so that eventually he will be unfazed by South Street on a Saturday night.

So far, there are 12 horses in a newly revived unit. The department plans to eventually have 24 available for regular patrol, plus six horses in reserve, for such heavily populated places as Franklin Mills and Center City.

In preparation, "we want to expose them to everything we possibly can," said Robinson, the trainer.

"It's totally up to the horse to take to what we're giving them," he said. "They'll have a home, they'll have a job, they'll be well taken care of" if they make it past training.

Ranger will, McCutcheon said without hesitation. "He's going to make an awesome police horse."

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at elounsberry@phillynews.com.

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