Are You an Advocate for Horses?

RRHR's Keira and my friend, Amelia.

RRHR’s Keira and my friend, Amelia.

Neglected horses are everywhere in the news lately. By the time you make sense of the images, it’s too late to look away. You might be keeping an sad eye on some thin horses in your local area. Maybe you remember Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue’s Vinnie, who was here for evaluation and training for a few months, and Keira after him.

I took a vacation this summer, the first one in a decade. I sat in a court room with no windows for a week, with concerned citizens and fellow board members of Horse Advocates of Colorado, listening to testimony in an animal cruelty case. In a different neglect trial, I was a witness. I’ve always known the rescue side, but this year I came to understand some of the challenges for law enforcement and I’ve been both inspired and demoralized by our American court system.

This year I’ve been name-called and lost dear friends. I’ve seen the stress of fighting the good fight take its toll on good-hearted people, and I have seen callous people, with no concern for life, behave despicably with no acknowledgement or apology. It isn’t like I was remotely new to equine neglect and abuse; we win some and lose some, but this year has been an special education.

The first question people ask is how can someone let this happen to their horses? Simple, it usually all begins with a change in the usual routine. Colorado has had its fair share of floods and fires recently. Sometimes a horse owner has a health challenge or loses their job or has a death in the family. Sadly, at any given time, we are all vulnerable. There, but for the grace of God, go any of us.

The real question is what happens next? Some of us will move quickly to sell or re-home our horses, hoping to keep them safe. Or mitigate the costs by finding someone to part-lease him. But sometimes the issues keep coming and time gets away as we struggle to keep up. By then our horses are thin and perhaps failing. Now what? We’re too embarrassed to call the vet, if we even have the money. And afraid that someone will report us to the sheriff the rest of the time. As a last resort, would you take him to an auction? Let him die in the pasture and hope no one sees? How desperate will it get?

And yes, a percentage of humans just don’t care. They see animals as personal property–theirs to do use and dispose of as they like. For sake of pride, they spend thousands on attorneys and court fees, rather than do the right thing for animals in the first place.

But, you say, someone would be crazy to leave them to starve. Well, yes. Exactly. Mental illness usually plays a common part in animal neglect and abuse. Some humans are sick enough to choose blood and money; to be malicious without remorse.

The thing all these scenarios have in common is that no one asked for help. Humans don’t like being seen as weak or failing. Most horse people pride themselves on being independent and resourceful. And then, if asking for help wasn’t hard enough, it can be hard to accept the help offered. Humans are complicated.

Once we ask, things can start to move. Family and neighbors step up. There are community resources like hay banks that offer help. Even deputies will lend a hand. I have such respect for people who humble themselves in deference to their animal’s welfare. It shows character.

The second most common opinion heard from the public, usually extremely hostile, is that the court’s punishment is too light. People often suggest starving and torturing the animal abusers. Trust me, I understand the sentiment. It’s easy to have a hard-line of disdain for anyone with a thin horse, because it gives us a way to distance ourselves from our own vulnerability. After all, I have two hard keepers in my own barn. But threatening violence makes us guilty of the thing we are fighting against. Could we rant in the closet and then elevate the public conversation to a more helpful level?

There’s gray area; the difference between the crazy abusers and the disadvantaged owners is important to understand. Some deserve our compassion and help. And some deserve all the punishment that the law will allow. If you think the sentencing is too lenient, then it’s obvious–stop complaining and get involved.

Here’s one new light: The FBI Makes Horse Abuse a Felony in January, 2016. Not just a felony, but a Class-A Felony. That puts horse abuse on par with assault, homicide and arson. It’s been a long time coming, this acknowledgment that animal abuse is closely tied with violence against women, children, elders, and indeed, our whole society. Take heart–change happens.

Warning: The following opinion is just mine. It gets me in trouble but it’s a free country.

The other common statement that I hear is that someone just can’t be involved in helping because they love horses too much to look at the pictures; that hearing about it would just hurt them too much. Like somehow their love is just too pure to hear this kind of ugliness. Could you possibly think that those of us sitting in court are there because we love horses less than you do?

Do horses a favor; instead of loving them too much, love them just enough. Enough to offer help to a neighbor in need or enough to make the call to the authorities if necessary. Enough to be part of the solution. If you can’t take time off from work, then write letters to the media. Donate money, but if you don’t have a dime to spare, sign petitions, join groups, be informed. Love horses enough to bear witness. Love them enough to make positive change.

We formed Horse Advocates of Colorado, over a thousand members strong (join here), to give a voice to horses in our county.  It’s our first anniversary. We’re celebrating by going to an invitational horse welfare meeting at the sheriff’s office this morning. Don’t think for a minute that you can’t make a difference for horses.

And to everyone who has lifted their voice above the din of ranting and criticism–you are a hero to horses and to us. Thank you.

Anna Blake for Horse Advocates of Colorado.

Brunzell/Dual Peppy Summary and Sentencing

Dual Peppy, in his prime.

Dual Peppy, in his prime.

The story began in Black Forest, just east of Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Friday afternoon, September 19, 2014. A neighbor followed her dog into a close-by barn to find ten seriously thin horses and four llamas. She saw deplorable conditions with manure everywhere, several feet deep in places, and tarps on the ground covering the skeletons of more horses. She immediately called the Sheriff’s office as well as the press. Deputies gave the owner, Ms. Sherry Brunzell an order to comply stating that the horses needed foot care and to clean up the barn.

The story aired on the news and a photo of one of the horses was almost immediately recognized as Dual Peppy, a well-known Quarter Horse stallion. The Sheriff’s office received countless emails and phone calls as the story went viral over that weekend. Law enforcement returned to the barn three days later with a search warrant and a veterinarian. They seized the ten surviving horses, four lamas, and documented skeletal remains of a total of fourteen horses, over half the herd.

Seven months later, on May 26th, the case came to trial. Brunzell was charged with fourteen counts (ten horses, four llamas) of Cruelty to Animals, a Class 1 misdemeanor. Inconclusive DNA on the skeletal remains meant that she could not be charged for the deaths of the other horses. The trial lasted four days with the attorneys on both sides presenting their case before Judge Stephen J. Sletta. (See reports from trial here.) The prosecution laid out their case with logical precision, calling officers from the Human Society, Sheriff’s office, and several veterinarians involved in the case. Before and after photos were shown of each of the horses, along with records of their initial evaluations and prescribed care since arriving at Harmony Equine, a facility used by the county for this purpose. Mrs. Brunzell testified last, saying she had horses all her life; that she disagreed with common knowledge about issues of feeding, dental care, and hoof trimming. She felt she knew more than the experts and she showed no remorse.

The jury found Brunzell guilty on eight charges of Animal Cruelty. She was found not guilty on two of the horses whose body score was slightly higher and the four llamas.

On August 13th, we met again for the sentencing portion of the trial. Judge Sletta called us to order and this time the courtroom was filled with spectators from both sides. Testimony began with character witnesses for Mrs. Brunzell. Three men spoke briefly, and then Chief Deputy District Attorney Shannon Gerhart and Defense attorney Andrew Bryant each made statements.

There were high moments, as both the prosecution and Judge Sletta mentioned the horses who survived that horrible barn in Black Forest and those who did not. Brunzell, who never acknowledged any responsibility or remorse, through her attorney, continued to make excuses and minimize the condition of the horses.

In pronouncing sentence, Sletta said that there were no excuses for this level of neglect because Brunzell was not a novice horse owner.  He gave the full sentence possible for eight counts of Cruelty to Animals. Sletta added that if he had the power to give more, he would have.

The sentence includes 60 days in jail, with 5 years’ probation where she cannot own, possess, control, or care for horses or livestock. She must attend sixteen counseling sessions and pay court costs. Finally, she must relinquish all registration papers so that the Sheriff’s office, in cooperation with the Humane Society can sell the horses, with the proceeds to go toward restitution.

And just as there was a communal sigh, the defense made a motion for an appeal. The judge set a date to hear that motion on September 17th, two days shy of the anniversary of their discovery. The horses will continue where they are for another month.

Horse Advocates is happy with the sentence. In light of the current laws, it was the best we could hope for. We were present for every moment of this trial and there is so much to be gained from watching the legal process.

For most of us, what we know about court we’ve seen on TV. Those attorneys are actors, reading from a script. In the real world there’s less theater and more monotony. Law books are checked and the case isn’t resolved in sixty minutes, minus the commercials. At the same time, we at Horse Advocates are convinced that attending court makes a difference. Being there for the horses sends a message that the public is concerned. And being a witness to the trial gives information that we wouldn’t know otherwise, and when we know more, we can do better. The public response on this case had an impact for the better; a huge thank you to everyone who participated on any level–holding the belief that these horses matter.

The final thought must be for the horses. Originally this hand-picked herd cost an estimated 1.5 million dollars. Each horse, the mares as well, were impeccably bred. Dual Peppy was performance trained and well-respected. We are so relieved that these horses were seized by the Sheriff’s office and receiving the care they needed so badly during the months that this case was in litigation. Horses have shorter lives than humans and this herd has suffered enough.

When we last heard, Dual Peppy, a senior at 22, was in guarded condition. As he gained weight, his lameness got a bit worse. He is having the finest care possible with great vet attention, but a guarded condition is not good. The other nine horses, some of whom are quite young, will wait a while longer to learn their fate from us humans. Horse Advocates hopes for the day to come soon when each horse finds a human partner who gives top priority to their care, as well as their overall well-being and happiness. We hope they find the safety and security of a true home.

Horse Advocates of Colorado.

Courting the Legal System

logo 032

The court system is a totally different animal. Those of us used to horse behavior will be baffled again and again by what appears to be quirky and counter intuitive. Hurry up and wait seems to be the rule.

One of the goals of Horse Advocates is to become more familiar, and in a sense, make friends with this process. We must depend on our courts and the more we understand them, the better help we will be able to be for horses caught up in this process.

On August 13th, the sentencing for the Brunzell/ Dual Peppy animal cruelty case will be announced. This story started when the authorities were called September 19, 2014, to find fourteen horses dead, in various states of decomposition under tarps, and ten horses and four llamas very thin and neglected. The case came to trial May 26-29, 2015, and Brunzel was found guilty on eight counts of animal cruelty. Now, just shy of a year from the first report, the sentencing is August 13th at 10am.

For horse people, this day has been a long time coming. The surviving horses have been kept at a Humane Society facility where they are getting the care they needed so badly. They have been safe this year and most have been returned to health. Dual Peppy himself was said to be in guarded health. He is older and his condition perhaps the worst of the group. We hope for a strong judgement against Brunzell, but we are most concerned about the horse’s fate, hoping that none will be returned to Brunzell. Hoping that the horses can be released to peaceful pastures and good care for the future.

The initial outrage about this horrific discovery was cooled off. By the time the case came to court, a handful of concerned citizens attended court and a larger number people followed it on our Facebook page. We need to remember, all these months later, what happened in that barn and see this story through, for the sake of those horses involved. We hope for a huge turnout for sentencing next week.

On August 12th, a case involving Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue and an adopter, Dawn Barden will come to civil court. This case has far-reaching implications for all animal rescue organizations, but we are especially concerned for the two mini horses involved, whose health was seriously challenged. Barden signed an adoption contract promising good care and feeding for Cookie and Misty. The contract included express instruction on dental care as well as feeding, etc.  On a subsequent visit, the minis were found to be very thin, with one of them barely able to chew, as the dental work had not been done. Ruby Ranch reclaimed them, as stated in the contract. The sheriff’s office order them returned back to the neglectful home three months later, as Barden had the brand inspection. Horse Advocates is extremely concerned for these horses.

This case is somewhat different because the animals involved were previously compromised. Their health was challenged by previous poor care and as such, the promise made by rescuers and adopters to rescue animals never again be in that dangerous situation. That trust is broken; there are no second chances for an adopter who didn’t honor her promise to keep them healthy. Ruby Ranch is standing up for Cookie and Misty, while other rescues look on, concerned for their adoption process as well.

This case involves breach of contract. In the time since November there has been pre-trial maneuvering through attorneys. It’s how the system works: Barden’s attorney files motions to dismiss, claims paperwork didn’t arrive, and doesn’t respond to requests from the rescue’s attorney. Required status reports have not been filed. It costs the rescue money, and Barden as well, but most of all, these minis are in jeopardy.  It’s frustrating. Delays abound while the minis languish, until in this case finally got to the presiding judge, who waived all the pre-trial meetings and motions. The antics ended as he ordered the case to proceed and the actual trial will be August 12th and with so much riding on this case, it’s crucial that the public fill the courtroom and send a message.

It is the job of Horse Advocates, as well as the community at large, to stay focused on these cases as months pass. We can’t let the passage of time wear down our resolve. As uncomfortable as it is to remember the pain these horses suffered, we must hold our concern for the equine victims in our hearts and minds, to bear witness not just to the discovery of the cases, but to see the cases through the court system. To hold a space for the equine victims, as the humans debate the merits. And finally, to stand for them as their perpetrators are sentenced.

Information will be updated (here) on our Facebook page as soon as the final court times are posted. We hope to see a crowd at both of these court dates next week. Please make the time for these horses and join us at the courthouse. And thank you for your patience.

For Dual Peppy and his herd, and especially for little Cookie and Misty, it all comes down to court and our vigilance there is a necessary ingredient. Our response to these cases will have an impact on future cases. Please stay with us, now most of all. Let’s get these horses the justice they deserve.

Why Animal Abuse Matters: The Big Picture.

abbMost of us have animals in our lives. We need nap-buddy and a wag at the end of the day. There is a perverse satisfaction that comes from being ignored by a cat. Some of us are lucky enough to get the emotional re-balancing comes from sharing breath with a horse while mucking out the barn. A lot of us want to pay that kindness forward by working against animal abuse.

Starting next year, the FBI will raise animal abuse to a Class-A felony, putting it on par with assault, rape and murder. (Read more here.) No, law enforcement isn’t going to be carrying dog treats and wearing kitten hoodies–it isn’t because they love horses. It’s because animal abuse holds a very serious and profoundly important place in the larger world of abuse. Statistics tell us that animal abuse is frequently the first step toward to greater violence to come, and tracking these crimes will be an aid in understanding more about offenders, as well as catching repeat offenders. This national change will hopefully encourage more enforcement at the local level across the country.

Horse Advocates board members met this week with the new El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder. Our county has struggled with a lack of leadership in the sheriff’s department in the recent past and Sheriff Elder has a big job ahead, as well as a management style that’s inclusive and well-suited to the task. He shares our concern about horse abuse in the county, but our conversation encompassed all forms of abuse from child welfare to domestic violence to elder abuse. Each of these areas has things in common and he would like to see a more unified approach used across the board to help the victims.

Since animal abuse is usually the starting point, our organization has a crucial role to play. Our success in advocating for horses will have a much greater impact than we can measure. We are committed to working for horse welfare, knowing that the ripple effect will improve human lives as well.

Let your voice be heard. Please join our ranks by liking us on Facebook and following our blog and website, Horse-Advocates.com   Thank you.

Anna Blake for Horse Advocates.