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Oleander poisoning confirmed in mystery death of Tevis Cup horse

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Phoenix, a beloved trail horse and Tevis Cup finisher, died of oleander poisoning, the UC Davis veterinary clinic has informed its owner. The 14-year-old horse was euthanized Jan. 24, days after feeding on the leaves of the lethal evergreen shrub. A common sight in California, oleander leaves are extremely toxic when consumed by humans as well as animals. Results of tests on Phoenix were released late Monday to owner David Putnam of Auburn. Phoenix was a 2006 Tevis Cup finisher, with Putnam aboard. Veterinarian Larry Goss, who was initially called to determine what was wrong with Phoenix, said the tests found evidence of poison from the oleander plant in the liver. A veterinarian for 31 years, Goss said he generally sees oleander poisoning in cattle, sheep, goats and llamas. Horses mostly resist the plant because of its bitter taste, he said. “Some animals survive but it causes a lot of heart damage,” Goss said. Putnam said after the death that he believed a passerby had unwittingly fed the poison leaves to Phoenix as the horse was standing in the pasture. Now he’s not so sure. “Neighbors are telling me not to necessarily think it was an accident, that some people don’t want horses back on the Stagecoach Trail,” Putnam said. Putnam lives near Stagecoach Trail, a wide trail formerly used as a stagecoach route, that links Foresthill Avenue in Auburn with the American River confluence. Putnam said he’s generally had good encounters with cyclists and hikers along the route but there have been one or two he considered hostile. Signage along the trail advises that cyclists and pedestrians are to give way to horses. Putnam said the leaves might have been fed to the 14-year-old horse sometime overnight Jan. 20. He first noticed Phoenix was not eating on the morning of Jan. 21. The property off Foresthill Avenue had just been cleared of oleander plants but a branch with chewed leaves was later found. Putnam said the ground was methodically cleared and no oleander plants had been left. Goss said one possible theory is that a branch may have fallen out of a tree trimmer’s truck. “But who knows?” Goss said. Goss said property owners can guard against potential poisoning by not planting oleander anywhere near areas that are grazed on. Another safeguard would be to avoid mowing near oleander bushes if plans are to feed lawn clippings to animals, he said.