“You can’t care about horses and see this happening and keep your mouth shut.”
With these words from Allvoices Anchor Maryann Tobin, Emmy-winning journalist Mike Deeson of Tampa Bay’s WTSP News Channel 10 opened an April 26 report on the Domino Effect Rescue Ranch, an operation billing itself as a horse rescue charity in Tampa, Fla.
Tobin, a trainer and former jockey who has worked around horses for more than 40 years, also is a citizen journalist for Allvoices.com and other online publications. Her passion for seeing horses treated in a humane fashion, e-mails to local animal control officials and Web-based reporting were major factors in bringing the story to the attention of Florida authorities.
Hernando County Animal Services and Code Enforcement, which had received numerous complaints about the way horses were treated by Domino Effect Ranch owner Robert Ashcraft prior to any of Tobin’s reports, stepped in when her reports began getting attention. WTSP eventually joined the coverage in late April.
As it turned out, Ashcraft was convicted of a felony in March of 2011 – felony possession of a firearm by a convicted felon – which he did not disclose on the application for charitable status he filled out in December 2011.
Tobin says public records also show Ashcraft with a long list of run-ins with the law.
According to a report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Ashcraft has been arrested more than 15 times since 1982 and served time in prison for his crimes, which include burglary, drug possession, smuggling, larceny, carrying a concealed weapon, probation violations, grand theft, contempt of court, dealing in stolen property, driving with a suspended license, and possession of a weapon by a convicted felon.
The state of Florida revoked Domino’s charitable status license in January 2012. And although the state of Florida did take action, Tobin says it is difficult to tell if the ranch is now open or closed because Ashcraft is still listing horses for sale on Craigslist, in various Florida locations.
Tobin said she first became aware of the ranch in 2011, when her daughter ran across the Domino Effect Facebook page. They visited the ranch in October of 2011 to see a baby horse they had read about online.
Tobin described her first visit to Domino Effect in October 2011 as troubling: “I gave him some advice on how to make improvements, since it was obvious to my experienced eye that he didn't have a clue what he was doing.”
The following week, Tobin returned with her daughter to donate five bridles and a $200 saddle pad, but said that Ashcraft’s manner had changed drastically from their first encounter. Rather than being receptive to advice from an experienced horseman, he became upset and, after accepting the donations, lashed out at her for “criticizing” and “embarrassing” him.
Tobin said she put Domino Effect out of her mind until early November, when the video of the blindfolded horse that had her chest torn open went viral with horse-lover groups on Facebook.
The footage showed a mare with a gaping wound on her chest, the result of the horse being blindfolded by Ashcraft while attempting to lead it to a horse trailer during a “rescue.” It was then that Tobin’s virtual pen shifted into high gear. Her first article on Ashcraft and Domino was published Nov. 10, 2011.
Once Tobin wrote that article, her e-mail inbox began “filling up with people who had complaints about him. I began investigating and found out about his criminal history, and it really was a domino effect from there, because one thing kept leading to another.”
Witnesses and visitors to the ranch would e-mail Tobin and tell her that the horses had not eaten, or that they were being fed bread instead of hay or grain-based feed, or about the general deterioration of the animals' health.
Tobin's continued reporting on the conditions at the ranch led to more people contacting her with similar horror stories. WTSB’s report helped draw still more attention to Ashcraft and his operation.
As Tobin’s stories on the conditions at Domino Ranch demonstrate, the power and potential of citizen journalism to spotlight issues and stories that might otherwise get overlooked is rapidly becoming a powerful tool in the 21st-century. It took a lot of hard work and commitment, but Tobin’s efforts made a major difference.
“It’s very important for people who want to effect change to have perseverance,” Tobin said. “In this case, somebody had to speak up for these horses, so I simply did what I could until something changed.”