Sitting on 19 acres of Collin County pastureland, Storybook Ranch is part nonprofit, part for-profit kids camp and dude ranch, with horseback riding, a petting zoo, and a faux-Western saloon -- a place where exurbanites can indulge in their nostalgia for a simpler time. And that's the feel the city of Dallas was going for when it enlisted River Ranch Educational Charities, Storybook's nonprofit arm, to co-run the $11 million Texas Horse Park, the latest jewel in the Trinity River Corridor Project crown.
The city was also desperate: It needed to justify pouring millions of dollars into a project that, though approved by voters as part of the grab bag of pricey baubles in the 1998 Trinity River Corridor Project bond package, no one outside a couple southern Dallas council members and a handful of their constituents seemed to care much about. Had they cared, the Texas Horse Park wouldn't have fallen so woefully short of its $15 million fundraising goal.
To some, this might have suggested that the project should be tossed in the garbage. Instead, plans to build an elite, world-class equestrian center were scaled back, and the park was reimagined as a therapy center for special-needs kids that would also offer trail rides, horse-riding lessons and summer camps to the general public.
Under the deal, the city lets River Ranch use the land rent-free for the next 20 years. In exchange, the nonprofit will build trails, handle programming and maintain the property. (A separate nonprofit, Equest, handles the therapy). The pictures of disabled children riding horses, which figure prominently in presentations to the City Council, are a bonus.
All of that requires horses, of course, which River Ranch will provide and care for. What the city of Dallas didn't know when it was negotiating the deal was that Storybook Ranch and its president, Harris Wayne Kirk Jr., was the subject of an ongoing animal cruelty investigation in Collin County. And while the charges against him were eventually dropped, animal control officers were concerned enough about Kirk's care for one sick horse that they asked a judge to let them take it away -- and the judge agreed.
Dr. Bill Carter, a former USDA veterinarian, came to Storybook in spite of, not because of, the nostalgia trip. After more than a decade of whiling away his retirement playing golf and sitting around the house, he was ready to get to work again. He got in touch with Kirk, who at the time was keeping a couple of dozen horses at Storybook -- plus a few goats, sheep, hogs, and chickens -- and signed on as a volunteer.
It took Carter all of a day to figure out that Storybook's picturesque facade was about as authentic as the faux-Western town. His first stop was the petting zoo.
"It was just a mess," he recalls. "There was feces out there. Nobody ever bothered to clean it up."
Nobody had bothered to provide the animals with basic veterinary care, either. The goats -- the ones the kids most loved to hug on -- were infested with lice, which transfers easily to human hair, and intestinal parasites, which are harder to transfer but nevertheless an indication of neglect. Carter loused and dewormed the petting zoo. Then he turned his attention to the horses.
There, too, he found warning signs. None had been given a Coggins test, which detects the presence of a deadly disease called equine infectious anemia and is required by state law before they can participate in public events, as Storybook's horses frequently do. They also hadn't been vaccinated in years.
Luckily, the horses were disease-free, and after vaccinating them in March 2011, Carter deemed them to be in good shape. But according to investigators, their condition would deteriorate rapidly in coming months.
The summer of 2011 was a brutal one, even by Texas standards. That year, Dallas saw a record 71 days of 100 degrees or higher temperatures. The drought was equally merciless. For urban dwellers, this meant unsightly sweat stains and higher-than-average A/C bills. For ranchers trying to eke a living off the land, it meant devastation.
The dry spell that year scorched pastures and obliterated the hay crop. Demand for animal feed skyrocketed, as did prices. Those who could afford to sometimes trucked in bales from out of state. Those who couldn't sold off all or parts of their herds.
Storybook Ranch was lucky in that regard. Kirk had a shed full of round alfalfa bales, each maybe half a ton, which he kept on an adjacent property. The thing was, he never used it.
Carter still can't understand why. A significant portion of Storybook's horses were what Carter calls "hard keepers." Once their food starts running short, they "really start deteriorating fast," especially when they're put through a daily regimen of trail rides and horseback riding lessons.
"In summertime these horses were working for two, three hours a day," Carter says. "Horses that work that much, they have to have ... some type of concentrate grain or pelleted feed of some type that give their body the needed nutrients."
It didn't take a veterinarian to see this. The horses had gnawed their small pasture bare. Their ribs and hip bones protruded. Carter kept nagging Kirk but was invariably brushed off.
"When I was getting talking to him about nutrition," Carter recalls, "he wanted to talk about he had alfalfa -- but he wasn't feeding them any alfalfa!"
It got so bad that a couple of Kirk's employees took to buying food for the horses out of their own pockets. They couldn't afford to feed them all, so they focused on the ones who were faring the worst. Carter credits those efforts with saving the animals.
River Ranch officials, not surprisingly, tell a different story. "There's always been hay on that ranch," Vanessa Fry, River Ranch's vice president, tells Unfair Park.
"When somebody's got a lot going on for them like Wayne does, he's always gonna have a target on his back," Fry says. "They're going to try to find any way possible to make him look bad." She calls the story a "vendetta."
According to Kirk and Fry, the animal abuse allegations were dreamed up by a disgruntled former events coordinator, a well-intentioned but naive woman named Karla Santiago. They say the bad blood started over Kirk's decision to thin the goats in his petting zoo by selling about half at a livestock auction, and by his ongoing refusal to allow her to keep goats inside the Storybook office.
"She's Hispanic; she ate goats when she was little; she loves goats," Kirk says. "She has three living at home today, inside the house."
They say Santiago, who declined to be interviewed for this story, also loves horses and had begun keeping two of her own to the property, but she was a novice. She didn't understand much about the animals or horse-owner etiquette, which led to more problems. And they claim Carter, the veterinarian, was just following Santiago's lead.
"Dr. Bill attached himself to Karla almost in a very juvenile kind of way, to the point where he did everything she told him to do," Fry says. "I'd find him and Karla inside the kitchen at the ranch -- inside the kitchen where we make food!" She likens their antics to reality TV show.
Whatever their antics, the animal control officer who soon arrived was equally troubled. That happened in November 2011, when the city of McKinney's animal control department first received reports of animal abuse. Kirk suspects Santiago made the call. Records say the city was first contacted by the SPCA, which had received an anonymous tip. Regardless, Officer De St. Aubin visited the property on November 21 and conducted an inspection.
"I found most of the animals to be underweight and no hay provided for these animals," he wrote. An employee named Tammy Lochasio told him that Kirk refused to provide adequate food and other supplies for the horses. Employees made up for the shortage by digging in their own pockets, she said.
Lochasio took St. Aubin out to an adjacent property where several other horses were being kept. These were in noticeably poorer condition than the first bunch. "I found the majority of them to be underweight and some to be emaciated," St. Aubin wrote.
One of the animals, a dun-and-white male paint male horse, was in particularly bad shape. It was "very thin and had an abnormally swollen and distended penis."
None of the employees knew the source of the swelling, according to the report, nor did Kirk, who pulled up as St. Aubin was leaving. St. Aubin told him that the horses needed hay and that the one with the swollen penis needed to be seen by a vet. Kirk agreed and promised to have his staff veterinarian give St. Aubin a call later in the day, and to put some feed out for the horses.
St. Aubin visited the next morning and "found conditions to be the same," with no hay in sight. The only difference was that a dozen of the most severely undernourished horses from the day before were gone, shipped off to Kirk's ranch in West Texas. He conducted another followup the next morning. The horses now had plenty to eat, several bales of hay having been brought to the property the previous day.
A few days later, a Storybook employee called St. Aubin to tell him that the horse with the swollen penis hadn't been taken to West Texas as he had assumed. He was still on the property, confined to a small stall in the barn. And he apparently hadn't been treated by Kirk's veterinarian, whose existence St. Aubin had begun to doubt.
"The condition of the horse had deteriorated markedly," St. Aubin would write in an affidavit. It had yet to receive veterinary care, and "his penis was significantly more swollen."
Kirk tells Unfair Park that the horse in question was a recent rescue who had not yet been socialized with Storybook's other horses. When Santiago, acting against instructions, let him into the main pasture, a dozen or so of the others ganged up on him. In the ensuing scrum, the animal was kicked in the scrotum, hence the swelling, Kirk says.
But a local veterinarian to whom St. Aubin showed pictures disagreed. He attributed the swelling to malnutrition and said that it needed immediate care.
Kirk also claims that the horse was receiving daily checkups by his staff vet. St. Aubin saw no evidence of this, though. So the next day, the city of McKinney obtained a warrant to seize the animal. A judge awarded it permanent custody following a hearing at which Santiago testified. According to Carter, she was promptly fired. Fry claims Santiago quit after being caught stealing six goats on the eve of the hearing.
Collin County prosecutors filed animal cruelty charges the next month, but they were later dropped for reasons that are unclear. St. Aubin declined to be interviewed for this story. Prosecutors didn't return a call seeking comment.
The city of Dallas says it wasn't aware of the allegations when it signed its deal with Kirk, even though the animal cruelty charge was still pending in Collin County when negotiations began.
"At no time did anyone from River Ranch mention or disclose the incident in question, and the incident did not come up in the due diligence search conducted by city staff," assistant city manager Jill Jordan wrote in a memo to the City Council in response to Unfair Park's inquiries. "Staff's research focused primarily on the financial aspects of the charity as is common whenever the city enters into a long term contract with another organization."
Jordan said the city would investigate. But to Kirk, the case is closed: Dismissal of criminal charges is proof of his innocence.
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"I care about the kids, and I care about these horses," he says. "I'm not a hypochondriac when it comes to animals, but I do take care of my animals."
Carter, the veterinarian, came away with the opposite impression.
"Wayne's a liar and a cheat and just outright not a good individual."
Either way, he's holding the keys to Dallas' horse park.