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.

Horse Politics: Livestock or Pet.

fifi 1We live in a somewhat enlightened time. Brain science has proven what some of us have always known: that animals are intelligent, have emotions, and are capable of communicating with each other and us. That’s the good news and the bad news. It blurs the line between pet and livestock.

Definitions according to Wikipedia: “A pet (or companion animal) is an animal kept primarily for a person’s company or protection…” “Livestock are domesticated animals raised in an agricultural setting to produce commodities such as food, fiber and labor.” So, dogs are pets, horses are livestock, and now things are starting to get complicated.

Some of us believe that livestock are a financial asset, that there’s no such thing as cruelty to dumb animals, and showing kindness in the barn is a sign of weakness. Drowning a litter of kittens is effortless. You do what’s necessary to make a living.

Some of us think it is cruel to even ride a horse, that no one should wear fur or leather, and that a vegan diet is the only answer. Eating an egg is tantamount to drowning a litter of kittens. There is no reason to ever enslave another species.

Humans are an adversarial species and the question of animal rights inspires a lot of defensive and extreme posturing on both sides, but most of us land somewhere in the middle ground. We eat less meat and buy organic. We vote for free range chicken eggs. A huge majority of us are against horse slaughter. There are a million other lines that we draw, but in the end, it’s political. Legally speaking, it’s a question of personal property rights vs. animal rights.

But times are changing slowly. Lots of people admit what they used to be too shy to say publicly; that they love their dogs like kids and their family includes horses and llamas and maybe some chickens. No one wants to think of themselves a fanatic, but those killer whale tanks are pretty small. Elephants at the circus aren’t as entertaining once you think about how they live.

In recent years, there’s a growing voice in the middle ground that is both personal and political. Rescues are a reasonable voice, but not always understood. Horses come to rescue for a wide range of reasons, usually not the fault of the horse or his previous owners. At first introduction to rescue, you might think that the animals should be cost-free. After all, it isn’t like anyone wanted them in the first place, and the rescue should be happy if someone wants to take them off their hands. Right?

Not so fast. To begin, there might be an auction fee or transportation costs. Add the veterinary work performed, usually a few hundred dollars–if there are no special conditions. If the animal was neglected he might need a careful re-feeding program to gain weight back and if the horse is older, maybe a beet pulp/senior feed combination with more feedings per day. Lack of hoof care might take a couple of trims to correct, with 8 weeks in between, and that’s even more feed and care. Then he might need some training to tune up his ground manners or work under saddle, so that he is more adoptable and more likely to get a good home. Once he is ready…. the wait for the right adopter begins.

Now the cost seems reasonable, less than the rescue invested in the horse probably, but paying the adoption fee isn’t the only requirement. There is an application a few pages long and a required home visit. If that’s successfully completed, then a contract, promising the horse a good home and that he will never again be treated with neglect or cruelty. By signing the contract the adopter agrees that the horse is, in effect, co-owned. That the rescue may check up at any time and reclaim the horse if the contract is not upheld.

Yikes, who wants someone looking over their shoulder forever? By now you might be thinking a horse from Craigslist would be easier. Is it okay to just call a horse a rescue if you think you are giving them a better home than the one they had before?

Rescue isn’t for everyone; it isn’t about ego and there’s no room for ulterior motives. Rescuers hold ourselves to a higher standard of care, believing that all horses deserve it. The best reason to get a rescue horse, beyond that, is because it’s a vote for a world where animals do have rights. It’s a way to say that, in between the extremes of opinion, you reasonably believe horses are more than livestock.

Adopting from a legal 501(c)(3) horse rescue is also a political choice. As time passes, laws will continue to change but that process can be hurried along by a change of consciousness at a grassroots level right now. As long as a horse is considered livestock, a rescue horse is a vote to take responsibility for the well-being of an individual horse for his natural life. It’s a safe place for a horse in transition to be protected by like-minded humans, who see the humanity of a horse–his intrinsic value, past his financial worth.

Rescue is the one place in this world that HORSES COME FIRST. A rescue horse belongs with someone who wants to make a difference in the definition of ownership, quietly start a revolution, and change the world–one horse at a time.

Anna Blake for Horse Advocates of Colorado.

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