Updated Jan. 27, 2017
CHEYENNE, WYO. — On a 16-mile trek off a mountain, a young horse lay down — she could not go another step. The mare looked deathly ill to the men leading a train of horses out of a base camp for hunting and fishing excursions.
In a race against the weather last fall, they left behind the horse they named Valentine to get the rest of the animals down. When they went back for her the next day, she had vanished into the vast Wyoming wilderness.
Six weeks later, a worker spotted the 6-year-old mare, and her owners helped guide the healthy horse out through a storm and deep December snow. Not only is this grizzly bear country, a domesticated animal like Valentine had to find food and survive the harsh winter conditions.
She didn’t even need veterinary care. But when the story spread last week in the horse-loving resort region of Jackson Hole, it unleashed a fervent debate among residents over whether the outfitting company did the right thing in leaving the horse, did all it could to find her or should have put her down to spare her suffering.
It has culminated in a state criminal investigation that aims to find out if the outfitter’s actions were cruel or helped lead to what some call the miraculous survival of an animal that’s iconic in the American West.
B.J. Hill, who owns Swift Creek Outfitters and the horse, said he has received angry phone calls from across the country.
“People are so quick to judge,” Hill said in a telephone interview from his ranch. “Who knows what’s going to happen. It’s not over with yet. We’re just trying to survive the moment that our horse is home.”
Hill, who owns 125 horses, said Valentine is doing well and is happy. It’s unclear why she got sick.