Animal welfare groups in several states are dealing with the emotional and financial toll of rescuing, rehabilitating and caring for horses that have survived appalling neglect. Even as they respond to the immediate needs of these horses, they wonder how on earth these horses' desperate situations could have persisted over months and years without detection.
In all but six states (Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota), animal cruelty is a felony offense. Yet, when cases actually get to court they are often treated as misdemeanors. The people who are on the front lines in caring for animals that have been abused and neglected argue that the penalties eventually handed out for abuse are not sufficiently harsh to deter the crime.
Is it possible to create a less flawed system for protecting animals? How do animal control officers and inspectors ensure the welfare of animals in their jurisdictions without violating property rights of the people who operate farms and ranches?
"Horses Live in the Moment"
Sue Mitchell is the Director of Development at Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine, Maryland, where a number of horses were brought after a Howard County farm was raided by local humane officers. "Horses live in the moment. And their moments right now are pretty great," she says. "They have fresh water, they have grass and they each have their own individual care plan. They are nowhere near out of the woods. This is a really precarious situation in the horse's life." It costs Days End $2,000 per horse per month to rehabilitate and treat these horses, a cost that has strained the organization's budget, even though the American Humane Association (AHA) provided a substantial grant to help with the treatment.
The farm where these horses had been living was nothing short of a hell hole. When humane officers entered the farm, they found rotting carcasses, empty and broken water troughs, trees with the bark stripped off by the desperate horses searching for food. Many of the emaciated horses were rated at 1 or 2 on the Henneke Scale of body condition. A horse with a rating of 1 is barely alive—a walking skeleton.
Tracy Reis, Program Manager with the AHA, spent several weeks working with the horses at Days End. She says that in addition to starvation, the horses were riddled with lice and parasites, and their manes and tails were matted and tangled.
Mitchell says that the county humane officers had been reportedly investigating the farm for a number of years. "Garrett County animal control had been dealing with the owner of this property over a four year period. This particular situation arose when they went back on the property to investigate a complaint. They went there and seized every animal on the property," she says. There were also cows and goats on the farm, sharing space with the horses. "The decision to impound is not taken lightly. There needs to be a place for those animals to go. This was a large, complicated situation. You could hypothesize that they had not seen the situation at that level before," she says, explaining why it took so long to rescue these animals.
Reis, once a control officer herself, say that it's never easy to resolve these situations. "In my experience in working with animal control officers throughout the nation, they do have the training, and they do know what to look for. It's not as easy as one might think to get it through the process to actually do something for the animals."
For Reis and her team in the AHA's Red Star Animal Emergency Services, the end result is what's important. "It does wear on my heart, but at the same time, those horses are very, very fortunate to go to Days End. They'll either be there for the rest of their lives or they're going to be adopted. As horrible as it is to pull those animals out of a situation, what I try to tell my team is focus on the end result. Let's get these guys out of here."
A Leading Owner Disgraced
Ernie Paragallo was once a respected thoroughbred breeder and owner in New York. His horses won millions of dollars for him in nearly 5,000 starts. He was once named the leading owner in New York. He owns half of Unbridled's Song, one of the elite stallions in the thoroughbred world, with a stud fee of $100,000. He was convicted of animal cruelty in May, and sentenced to up to two years in prison. Additionally he will pay fines and some restitution to the organizations that wound up caring for his horses.
"This was a tough one, because there were so many of them," Ron Perez explains, as he describes the conditions on Paragallo's farm. "It was akin to a World War II equine concentration camp. There were nearly 200 horses on this farm." Perez is the president of the Columbia-Greene SPCA, which seized the animals in April, 2009 after receiving numerous complaints about conditions there.
Some of the most ardent complaints about Paragallo came from Christy Sheidy, co-founder of a Pennsylvania rescue group, Another Chance 4 Horses. Sheidy says her organization, based in Bernville, routinely buys horses at auctions, and one of her associates had seen several emaciated horses in a holding pen in New York. They found out that the horses had come from Paragallo's breeding farm near Albany.
Sheidy says they brought four of the horses to Pennsylvania, where a veterinarian body-scored them and did blood work and fecal analysis. They also took pictures and videos of the horses. "We made them public on March 25, and then the SPCA entered the farm with a warrant on April 8." Sheidy believes it was the publicity generated by the photos and videos on their website that finally prodded the SPCA to take action against Paragallo. "There were more horses on the farm, including some feral horses. There had been an ongoing investigation," she says.
Perez said that the SPCA had received complaints about the farm, and had indeed been investigating Paragallo. "This seemed to be well known within the industry about him. The complaints that came to us were scattered, inaccurate when we did get them." But once his group secured enough evidence for a warrant, Paragallo's fate was sealed. "It was far worse than I had been told. When we brought Paragallo in to interview him, he surrendered 60 horses to me," Perez explains. Later Paragallo surrendered another 25 horses, as the SPCA seized the farm and began the process of caring for the horses—sending some to other farms for rehabilitation and euthanizing those that were beyond help.
Both the SPCA and Another Chance 4 Horses have spent thousands of dollars caring for Paragallo's horses, and on preparing for the trial. It was money well spent, but still exacted a heavy toll on both organizations' limited budgets.
Today Paragallo is just another convicted animal abuser, with a story that seems too twisted to be true. Except that it is true. Whatever justice there was for the horses that suffered at Paragallo's hands came partially as a result of the evidence collected by the veterinarian from the horses brought to Sheidy's Bernville farm.
Evidence presented in Paragallo's non-jury trial created a picture so disturbing and heartbreaking that Judge George G. Pulver, Jr. reached back through the centuries—to the writings of St. Francis of Assisi—to find a voice for his anguish and concern. "If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."
Animal Abuse and Violence toward Humans
The judge is on to something here. The New York Times Magazine in June explored the well-documented, harrowing connections between abuse of animals and violent behavior toward humans. "The link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors." In many states, in fact, veterinarians, like doctors, are now required to notify police if they suspect animals in their care have been abused.
In light of all this, one might question whether the two-year prison sentence and $33,000 fine Paragallo received were sufficient penalty. A Bethel, Ohio thoroughbred trainer who was convicted of neglect, served just 120 days of a 180-day sentence. Animal control officers found six malnourished horses on his farm, along with carcasses of at least 10 animals.
A Colorado rancher was found with neglected horses in his care, for the second time in three years. He was convicted in June of neglecting 17 horses that were found emaciated, infected and desperately in need of dental and farrier care.
Even though animal abuse is a felony in 44 states, it is often treated as a misdemeanor when the cases are brought to court.
What the Law Allows
Perez, of Columbia-Greene SPCA, says that in Paragallo's case, the law did as much as it could. "We need a felony statute for horses, which we don't have. The amount of animal suffering that went on there was horrible," he says, but the judge in the case delivered the maximum sentence and fine that the law allowed.
Each state treats animal abuse differently, and within states, individual jurisdictions operate differently. With states facing steep budget deficits, along with prisons that are already overcrowded, it's hard to imagine legislatures' mustering the political will to change existing laws.
Some critics suggest that humane officers are not always trained properly for the complexities that they might face. But Perez says that he and his cruelty inspectors have received extensive training in identifying abuse and gathering evidence for trials. "Our chief investigator has been through specific equine training. The rest of us have gone through four different courses, which is as much helping you navigate through the criminal justice system as identifying cruelty," he explains. Furthermore, all their investigators are former police officers, familiar with the routines of gathering and preserving evidence.
And the AHA's Reis, who has worked throughout the country in abuse cases, says that most of the cruelty inspectors she works with are properly trained for their jobs. Property rights of individuals often trump the work of cruelty investigators until abuse reaches the levels seen in these extreme—although far too common—situations.
The Paragallo case did force New York's racing industry to confront abuse insofar as their owners and trainers are concerned. They have revoked Paragallo's license to race in the state, and the New York Racing Association announced last December that it would bar owners or trainers from its tracks if any of their horses were found to have been sold for slaughter. This policy is similar to those in place at several Pennsylvania racetracks.
Putting the Humane in Human
Perez says that the New York Racing Association has stepped up to the issue. "Telling owners you're responsible for the horse from birth to death. Hitting people in the checkbook is the best way" to help horses. But not all horses involved in abuse are racing. Some are show horses, or pleasure horses. So while it's good news that the racing industry is taking positive action, there are still huge gaps in the safety net.
Laws won't change unless people demand changes. It is up to organizations that exist for the welfare of animals to lead the way, but private citizens—unaffiliated with rescue groups and humane associations—have to support their efforts and speak up on behalf of horses. Unless and until lawmakers recognize the implications of the connection between animal abuse and violence, the status quo will persist.
"The question is not," as the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham suggested, "'Can they reason?' nor, 'Can they talk?' but rather, 'Can they suffer?'" Humans are the ones who can talk. It is up to humans to put an end to the suffering of animals.