NEW YORK — Tod "Doc" Mishler spent years rambling across the country on horseback in a white cowboy hat, staying with strangers and telling curious reporters that he was on a mission to raise awareness about child hunger.
Now he has a new mission: Trying to get his two horses back after officials in New York City accused him of neglecting the animals.
The 80-year-old, Bible-quoting horseman recently filed a legal claim demanding $50 million from the city for the horses, which were seized in June after Mishler rode one across the Outerbridge Crossing while pulling along the second one. The bridge connects Staten Island to New Jersey.
Mishler was initially given tickets for blocking traffic and trespassing, but after veterinarians from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals examined the horses, he was arrested and charged with two counts of animal cruelty. The veterinarians said the horses were malnourished, dehydrated and had open saddle sores.
The case is still pending, but Mishler, currently staying at a ranch near Richmond, Virginia, isn't waiting for the criminal case to wrap up. He insists the animals were fine and he's done nothing wrong.
"My horses have been illegally seized," he said.
Mishler says his equestrian adventures started in 2002 in Choteau, Montana, after he was diagnosed with colon cancer and survived. Facing possible death inspired him to launch a new, more spiritual life, he said.
Mishler said he sold all his possessions and set out for what he calls the "biblical wilderness." He likens his own travels to the wanderings of Jesus. Along the way, people have provided food and shelter for him and his horses, plus access to email and Facebook.
Last year in Tennessee, Mishler suffered a heart attack. A family took him in while he recovered.
In California, where he rode across the Golden Gate Bridge three years ago, a woman with more than 40 horses hosted him, dubbing him "The Messenger from Montana."
"I never know where I'm going to get my next meal, but each day is a miracle," says Mishler, who also has undergone heart and hip replacement surgery, and suffered a broken pelvis.
For all his supporters — about 5,000 on his Facebook page — he has fervent detractors.
Members of a Facebook group called "Stop Doc Mishler" describe him as a homeless man who has for years abused the animals that took him around and must be stopped from riding.
The group includes several fellow horse owners who had gotten to know Mishler in his travels and put him up for a time, only to subsequently sever ties over concerns about whether he was caring for his animals properly.
In 2011, in Madison, Wisconsin, he was charged with animal neglect when his horses appeared dehydrated and underfed. The charges were eventually dropped after he agreed to care for the animals.
He is due back in New York on Jan. 9 for another court appearance in his new neglect case. In the meantime, his horses have been cared for by the ASPCA.
Mishler said he decided to file a legal claim with the city after meeting his attorney, Richard Luthmann, by chance last summer at a diner near the Staten Island courthouse. The attorney took on Mishler's cases pro bono.
The notice of claim, the first step in suing, also names the local district attorney, city police and the parks department.
Mishler said people simply don't get his mission.
"My journey is to get people to understand that there are hungry children in the world, and we have the money to feed every starving child," he told The Associated Press, speaking by phone.
If he ultimately gets back on the trail, he may have to persuade a judge first that he can feed his own horses.