Aud Fischer and Chris Guppy have been searching the Yukon's Ibex Valley for hoof prints, specifically those of a lone colt with a lame leg, for weeks now.
The Whitehorse couple has been looking for a young wild horse named Bolt. They said they found his parents, Storm and Sundance, dead in a field together early last month — and they believe Bolt is suffering from a gunshot wound.
"We try and go out every two or three days and if somebody reports that they've seen him, then we go out straight away," said Fischer.
On several occasions, they've seen Bolt in the distance with a swollen right front leg. Photos that Fischer has shared on her Facebook group, Yukon Wild Horses, appear to show a small dark spot on the animal's leg that she believes are signs of a bullet wound.
Aud Fischer and Chris Guppy walk a trail in the Yukon's Ibex Valley, looking for hoof prints. They say Bolt's trail is easy to spot because he is dragging his leg. (Katie Todd/CBC)
A woman from Haines Junction, Yukon, told CBC News she's seen the young horse twice in the past month while driving to Whitehorse, and has noticed his deteriorating condition. Kathleen Crow said what she saw last Sunday morning, while driving to church, made her heart sink.
"The horse was on the north side of the road and I slowed down," she said. "His head was low, his leg was floppy. He looked like he couldn't hold it up as well anymore ... he looked so pathetic."
Getting help for Bolt hasn't been easy.
Fischer said she's contacted the Yukon Government, but was told the horse wasn't under their jurisdiction.
"Then, you find out they did send somebody out. It's so confusing," she said.
Reporting the deaths of the horses said to be Bolt's parents was also a challenge.
She said the carcasses had been "heavily scavenged upon" when she found them, and she believes they were shot, too. She wants someone to investigate — but says she's been getting the runaround.
"I phoned the police, who referred me to conservation, who referred me to animal health ... the horses don't seem to fit into any government department," she said.
New wildlife legislation coming
The Yukon Government's Animal Health Unit says it had done several patrols to try and find Bolt.
Asked if the unit was searching for someone who may have shot Bolt, acting chief veterinary officer Michelle Thompson said "our focus is on responding to the reports that we're seeing or hearing about sightings of this horse."
Aud Fischer points at the spot where she found Bolt's parents, Storm and Sundance, dead and 'heavily scavenged upon' early last month. She suspects they were shot at the same time Bolt was. (Katie Todd/CBC)
Thompson would not say if the two dead wild horses — the ones said to be Bolt's parents — were shot, or if an investigation was underway to find out.
The rules around shooting wild horses in the Yukon appear to exist in a grey area.
A government spokesperson told CBC News there's no Yukon legislation that protects feral horses because they're not considered wildlife under the Wildlife Act.
"The current Yukon Animal Protection Act prohibits anyone from causing distress to animals including feral horses but does not prohibit capture or killing if it is done humanely," the spokesperson said.
Michelle Thompson said existing legislation gives the Animal Health Unit limited options to act on calls about wild horses.
She said the unit could only deter horses from being on roadways for public safety, respond to calls of personal property destruction, or euthanize horses that are in distress.
That will change in 2024, though, with the introduction of a new Animal Protection and Control Act.
Thompson said it will establish "higher standards of care" and give animal protection officers and the Animal Control Unit more power to respond to calls of "high risk and frail animals."
It will also prohibit anyone from killing feral animals, unless they have a permit issued by the Department of Environment, she said.
'It keeps me up at night'
Fans from around the world have been watching for updates from Bolt on the Yukon Wild Horses Facebook group.
Many of them are frustrated with the response from authorities and have been calling for more action to help Bolt and to hold whomever hurt him accountable.
Crow and Susie Rogan are both members of the Facebook group. Rogan, who lives near Whitehorse, said it's sickening to think someone has gone out and taken "potshots" at the horses.
Chris Guppy has been out searching the Ibex Valley for Bolt every few days. (Katie Todd/CBC)
She's been writing letters and calling the territorial government, and doesn't believe it understands how much the issue — and Bolt's wellbeing — means to people.
"It keeps me up at night. It really does. I'm not just saying that. It's a freaking nightmare that hasn't ended and if you're a feeling person, it's pretty hard to just accept this."
Crow said she loved seeing the horses on her regular commutes to Whitehorse.
"We've all seen this family group. I've watched them from the side of the road. You get to know the markings, you get to know the animals, you get to watch them," she said.
What has happened to Bolt and the other horses makes her angry.
"If you're a good hunter, you shoot to kill and … if you maim something, you track it. That's your job, to go track that animal and make sure that they're not suffering."
Crow hopes Bolt's case will highlight the lack of legislation to protect wild horses, and spur change. She wants to see the horses managed "like any other big mammal that we take care of these days."
But in the meantime, her hopes for Bolt had dwindled.
"If he is found, I don't know that there's anything but the kindness of being let go."