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Image: Theresa Batchelor
Erica Brough  /  AP
Theresa Batchelor works with two-year-old quarter horse Baby Girl, who was just skin and bones when she arrived at Beauty's Haven Farm & Equine Rescue in Morriston, Fla. with blunt force trauma that had broken a bone and caused nerve damage that made it difficult for her to eat and open her eyes.
By The Gainesville Sun
updated 12/24/2011 10:54:39 AM ET 2011-12-24T15:54:39

The horse was skin and bones. A halter was becoming enmeshed into an open wound on her jaw. And "Baby Girl" was smaller than horses less than half her age.

Just a few months later, though, her caretakers report that Baby Girl is full of sass and spunk. She'll approach strangers to nuzzle their hands and stretch her neck into a stall to steal what hay she can.

Advanced imaging, surgery with precision unusual for a veterinary case and treatments of concentrated oxygen have restored the buckskin filly to full health.

"She is a little chubby," laughed Dr. Ali Morton, an associate professor of large animal surgery at the University of Florida's Large Animal Hospital, who performed the surgery. "But she deserves that."

Theresa Batchelor, president of Beauty's Haven Farm and Equine Rescue in Morriston, first met Baby Girl when she was barely able to stand, unable to open one of her eyes and teetering on the brink of death.

"It was the worst combination — starvation and trauma — that we'd ever seen," Batchelor said. "Her body was trying to get through so many things."

But somehow, amazing Batchelor and her volunteers, the quarter horse's spirit was unbowed.

"She would come by us, and almost want to sit in our laps," recalled Marcia Williams, an Ocala nurse who volunteers once a week at Beauty's Haven. "She couldn't get close enough to us."

An unknown, blunt trauma had broken the horse's jaw. It could have been intentional, it could have been an injury Baby Girl inflicted on herself from being startled and smashing into something.

Unable to eat normally, Baby Girl had withered to less than 300 pounds, half the horse's current weight.

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"One more week, and she would have been dead," said Batchelor, not wanting to name the nearby rescue where she found Baby Girl. It's because they still want to work with them, she explained.

Baby Girl's condition led Batchelor to galvanize a team of volunteers, donors and veterinary specialists. Together — united on the social media website Facebook — they pressed on. First, Baby Girl had a $2,500 surgery in September to remove bone fragments in her jaw.

But the infection did not clear up.

Baby Girl was referred to UF's Large Animal Hospital for advanced imaging.

With a three-dimensional computerized tomographic scan, veterinarians saw an infected bone fragment was further infecting the horse's skull and jaw. The infection was literally a hair — one millimeter — away from getting to Baby Girl's brain, Batchelor said.

UF's Morton said she couldn't give Batchelor much hope.

"I would not have felt bad euthanizing her right there," Morton said, explaining that she couldn't be sure that the covering of the horse's brain was intact. Of Batchelor she said, "She wanted to go ahead in the belief that we underestimate what we can recover from."

And so Baby Girl went for her second and last surgery in October.

In the most desperate equine struggles, Batchelor sees something of her own, she says. Batchelor, now 50, was 37 years old with two young children when a tumor was discovered growing in her spine. Doctors, Batchelor said, told her she'd never walk again.

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"The doctors just wanted to send me home and have my family take care of me for the rest of my life," she said. "If I could have crawled out of the fifth floor and gone out the window, I would've."

For Batchelor, a retired logistics program manager for the U.S. Navy, Baby Girl's story is one of a number of equine journeys she has had a hand in since she and her husband sold their Tampa home in 2004 and bought the rescue that recently became a nonprofit.

But few have generated the support of cyberspace as Baby Girl's tales have.

"Baby Girl told me she wanted to keep fighting," Batchelor said.

Tampa area resident Tamara Dunn updated the horse rescue's Facebook page throughout Baby Girl's ordeal and especially during her surgery. Hundreds were hanging on the hour-by-hour updates, she said. And anytime Baby Girl needed something else — her veterinary bills topped $6,000 — Facebook friends came through, Dunn said.

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"We would go on FB and say, 'This is what we would like to do,'?" she said.

Morton said she often sees horses with wounds near the jaw, but usually not as complex as this. "We had to go through her jaw to get through the base of her skull," she said.

Morton and her team were able to remove the infected bone. But they found a particularly aggressive form of bacteria. Next up, treating the horse with concentrated oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber to kill any remaining bacteria. It's a round chamber that's about 12-feet-by-12 feet, Batechlor said. A drug makes the horse feel like they've had a margarita so it's easier for them to stand it, Morton said.

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Lee Byrne, manager of Kesmarc, an Ocala equine rehabilitation facility with the hyperbaric chambers, already had heard about Baby Girl from Facebook when she arrived. Byrne said from the start, she knew Baby Girl was going to make it.

"We were absolutely thrilled to have her in," she said. "Horses without a will to live and big heart like hers don't make it through what she did — she just loves being the center of attention.

"She was just the queen bee."

Batchelor said she is grateful she has supporters and volunteers and professionals willing to support her life's passion that started with her first horse at 4 years old: "You can look into their eyes and see their soul. They are such big guys. They could kill you. But they are gentle."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Friend with a foe: Uncommon animal pairings

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  1. Lose a lover, gain a friend?

    The book “Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom” by Jennifer Holland, a science writer for National Geographic, depicts shared affections between disparate creatures in sometimes quite odd (a golden retriever and a goldfish?) pairings.

    Do their instincts drive them together? The author explores the science behind the 47 interspecies bonds, and tells the tales, of say, how a lion, tiger and bear (oh my!) became buds – and what do they do for fun anyway?

    Seen here on the book cover, an orphaned rhesus monkey and white dove that seemed to have lost its mate forged a special bond at the Neilingding Island-Futian National Nature Reserve in China. The monkey was born on the island but had strayed from its mother. Luckily, it was taken in by work staff in the protection center and became friends with the pigeon that had lingered there after possibly losing its mate. (CNImaging/Photoshot) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Cat lady

    It’s not clear why or when this stray black cat turned up in the bear enclosure at the Berlin Zoo. But something is clear: She’s been coming back for 10 years to see her friend, the oldest known female Asiatic bear. (EPA/Alexander Ruesche) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Friend with a foe

    Anatolian shepherds keep cheetahs away from livestock in Africa. But at the San Diego Zoo, the former foes are paired because the calm dog makes a good friend to the nervous cat. (Ken Bohn / Zoological Society of San Diego) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Modern family

    Chicks perch on a Siamese-snowshoe cat, who keeps the little ones in a line with her nose, and a pit bull, who is a loving father figure to many animals on their Texas farm. (Helen J. Arnold) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Make new friends…and the other’s gold

    A big goldfish, or koi, named Falstaff swims over to the pond’s edge for another meeting with a golden retriever named Chino in a backyard pond in Oregon. (Bob Pennell/Mail Tribune) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Birds of a (different) feather…

    An orphaned Madagascar teal duckling snuggles under orphaned kookaburra (a predator to the former). (Solentnew.co.uk) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A friend in need…

    A young elephant, who lost his mama, cozies up to his comforting sheep pal at the Shamwari Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in South Africa. (Rex USA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Oh my!

    A lion and tiger and bear hang out at their “clubhouse” at Noah’s Ark Animal Rehabilitation Center in Locust Grove, Georgia. (Barcroft via Fame Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Got your back

    A cockatoo named Coco throws her whole body into a backrub for cohabiting friend, house tabby Lucky, in Savannah, Georgia. (CNImaging/Photoshot) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Growing up together

    It’s naptime for an orangutan baby and a tiger cub, hand-reared as siblings at the Taman Safari Zoo in Indonesia. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The author

    Jennifer Holland is a senior writer for National Geographic magazine, specializing in science and natural history. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her husband, two dogs, and dozens of snakes and geckos; none of whom, to her dismay, have crossed the species barrier to befriend the others. () Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Wide-eyed creature rescued in China

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