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HiCaliber Horse Rescue’s Valley Center property shown on March 2, 2018. Photo by Megan Wood/inewsource
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Critics accuse HiCaliber of questionable fundraising campaign built around a dead horse

Despite statements from the founder of HiCaliber Horse Rescue that the Valley Center nonprofit is closing, it continues to take in animals and was accused by critics this week of misleading fundraising campaigns, including one built around a dead horse.

The other campaign involved passing off photos of a starving horse from Florida as HiCaliber’s own.

HiCaliber founder Michelle Knuttila and her attorney did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment.

Valley Center Fire Marshal Mike Shore told inewsource he visited the HiCaliber property on Wednesday as part of an ongoing effort to bring the nonprofit into compliance with fire rules and regulations.

“We are just trying to get compliance,” Shore said. “If we don’t, we’re going to talk to the DA about issuing fines.”

Shore said HiCaliber founder Michelle Knuttila has made great progress in cleaning up the property by removing manure, taking care of dead and dying vegetation as well as construction debris. But, he said, “I still haven’t gotten my fire protection plan yet.”

The informal plan lays out how HiCaliber would shelter horses in place in the event of a fire. Shore said despite multiple requests made in certified letters, site visits and verbal directives, Knuttila has not complied.

“It seems like Michelle was avoiding any official contact. That way she could deny she ever received anything,” Shore said.

Shore also said he saw 88 large animals on the property, most of them horses. San Diego County authorities have ordered HiCaliber to reduce the number of animals on its ranch to bring into compliance with zoning rules.

Photos of dead and skinny horses

HiCaliber relies on donations from the public to operate. Its most recent tax filing showed more than $1 million in contributions and grants in 2016, yet its fundraising practices — along with its spending, animal care, code compliance and other issues – have led at least a dozen government agencies to investigate the nonprofit.

This week, HiCaliber’s online critics – of which there are many – noticed something off with one of the photos the group used to solicit funds on Facebook.

The photo showed an emaciated horse, along with a call to donate that read:

“Please help in any way you can so we are prepared when we get the next call for an emaciated horse that needs our help. Until ours are fed, we can’t help others!”

A Google search for “skinny horse” turns up the same photo HiCaliber used for its solicitation – it was taken six years ago during an animal abuse case involving the South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

HiCaliber has since deleted the post, but screenshots show it raised more than $1,800 for the organization.

At least one person has filed a formal complaint with the California Attorney General’s Office over the HiCaliber solicitation.

“This organization has, and continues to fraudulently raise funds by showing shocking images that are not related to the work they do in order to solicit funds from those who do not know their cries for help are fake,” the complaint said.

Another Facebook screenshot, sent to inewsource Thursday, showed a HiCaliber volunteer acknowledging in a Facebook comment that a horse named Linus, rescued last week, had died.

The volunteer’s comment has since been deleted, though fundraisers for the horse continue and have so far earned HiCaliber more than $2,100 in Facebook donations.

Knuttila said in a Facebook post last month that the nonprofit planned to close voluntarily by June 30, but that didn’t happen.

Shore, the Valley Center fire marshal, said Knuttila told him this week that she would be leaving the ranch by Sept. 15.

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