NIARADA - What's been described as the largest rescue at an animal sanctuary in history is over.
Karyn Moltzen, founder of AniMeals in Missoula, confirmed Monday that the very last of more than 800 animals living at the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary in this remote area north of Hot Springs and west of Elmo were trucked off the 400-acre ranch on Jan. 31, ending a rescue operation that spanned 42 days.
Many animals remain in the care of rescue groups and still need new homes, Moltzen said, but all critters - from camels to llamas, and horses to pot-bellied pigs - have left the sanctuary.
The operation began on Dec. 21 after the people operating the sanctuary contacted the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, saying they were out of money and nearly out of food for their menagerie.
In the weeks since, several of the rescue groups involved have decried the condition in which they found many of the animals - llamas that were starving, they said, cows that were seriously overweight, and burros whose hooves had not been trimmed in so long they resembled miniature skis.
Moltzen said they lost four to five animals a day during the first two weeks rescuers were on the scene - some expiring naturally because of poor health, and others that were put down for humane reasons.
One of the sanctuary's employees who stayed on told Moltzen another 60 to 70 animals had died in the three months before help was sought.
"So many awesome people came together and helped us get the job done," said Moltzen, whose group moved into the sanctuary for all 42 days of the rescue effort. "One of the other things I witnessed - the hardest part that made the nightmare almost unbearable - was the dark side of human nature."
That, Moltzen said, involved the "armchair quarterbacks who made judgments based on inaccurate information or no information at all. We were trying to do something I felt was a noble cause, but I had to defend myself to these naysayers."
Patty Finch, executive director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries in Washington, D.C., said the Niarada rescue is believed to be the largest ever undertaken at a sanctuary.
She said Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, wrote that "he thought it was the largest ever in terms of numbers, and I've been in the field a long time and don't remember a larger one. It was certainly large enough."
Truckload after truckload of everything from cows to parrots and emus were hauled out of the sanctuary over the six weeks, bound for New York, Texas, California "and all points in between," Moltzen said.
AniMeals said it documented 810 animals at the sanctuary. The majority - 590 - were llamas.
"A lot of the animals, and especially the llamas, went to rescue groups because they'll have to get healthy before they can be adopted out," Moltzen said. The healthiest went farthest and earliest; the sickest were transported last and the shortest distances.
Two camels named Danny and Muhane, adopted by a breeder in Fairfield, were among the most difficult to move.
"You should have seen it," Moltzen said. "Their corral was an ice rink and Danny was in rut and madder than a hornet. He was slinging slobber and actually growling.
"Muhane had had about enough of all the years of Danny's bullying and chose this day to start biting Danny," she went on. "Danny went ballistic, and actually grabbed the arm of one of our volunteers and chomped down - I can't believe it didn't break his arm."
Then, she said, Danny knocked over the piece of corral the volunteer was holding and fell on top of it, pinning the man to the ground.
"Camel Al" Deutsch, the Fairfield breeder who took the camels - he can't use animals from a sanctuary in his breeding operation - reported that once he had them at their new home east of the Continental Divide, he opened up the trailer and it took two days for the wary camels to venture out.
"But ‘Camel Al' has Danny eating peanuts out of his hand now," Moltzen said.
Moltzen, whose organization is normally a regional food bank for feral and sheltered cats and dogs, said AniMeals spent $40,000 of donated funds during the rescue operation, where it initially took four tons of hay a day to feed the animals.
"It spread my team so thin, and it was hard on everyone," Moltzen said.
She and her crew dealt not only with animals dying at the sanctuary, but others being born.
"We had animals dying every day, and babies being born every other day for two weeks," Moltzen said. "I talked to a vet who told me it takes two weeks for them to really start using the nutrition they were finally getting to get better. What's really wild is after two weeks they stopped dying, and they stopped having babies, too. I mean, boom, it just stopped."
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries helped coordinate the rescue effort, even though the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary had never gone through its accreditation process, nor applied to it.
"If they had, we would have seen things that would have jumped out at us, even from a distance," Finch said.
She listed the small number of people working at the sanctuary compared to the number of animals in its care, the lack of barns, and that it was a small private foundation relying on one donor, as red flags.
"When you have one main donor, you want a minimum of a year's operating expenses held in reserve," Finch said, "in case the donor is suddenly unable or unwilling to donate, as was the case here."
Finch said her organization investigates animal care, governing policies, staffing, safety and security measures and veterinary practices as well as funding before accrediting sanctuaries.
The Montana Large Animal Sanctuary was run by a divorced couple, Brian Warrington and Kathryn Warrington, and largely funded by a woman in Texas named Susan Rawlings.
The three were the only people on the 15-year-old sanctuary's board of directors, and Moltzen said the Warringtons are no longer members of the board.
The Warringtons have denied that the animals were not properly cared for, and blamed Kathryn's deteriorating health - she has multiple sclerosis - for things getting out of hand at the end.
Rawlings has said a move to a lower-paying job ended her ability to pay the sanctuary's bills, which Brian Warrington in 2008 estimated were about $400,000 annually.
Moltzen said the ranch, which includes a newer large main home, a second home that was already on the property when the sanctuary opened, and several outbuildings that include an indoor swimming pool that was also added, is being prepared to be put on the market.
Finch said that as the nonprofit is dissolved, any monies made through the sale of the property must, by law, be given to other nonprofit organizations - either all at once, or distributed at a rate of at least 5 percent per year.
She said Rawlings has indicated she intends to divvy any profits up among the groups that took on the task of rescuing the sanctuary's animals.
"We're counting on her to do the right thing," Finch said, "and I believe she will."