Jan. 3, 2004, 4:16PM
Brett Coomer / Special to the ChronicleHouston SPCA investigators Jim Boller and Dorborah Turner take three underfed horses under their protection.
It was not a pretty sight, but at least they were alive.
The horses had been fighting each other as they sought to get free from the wire, and one had severe cuts and injuries. There was no hay or water. They were hungry, thirsty and anemic. One was blind in one eye.
Finch says they had been suffering for several days, perhaps weeks. With a court order in hand, he and the deputies loaded the horses and took them to shelters, where they were treated by a veterinarian over a period of several months. Eventually, they were nursed back to health.
Unfortunately, Texas veterinarians, horse rescue operations and deputies have been seeing far too many such cases of mistreated or neglected horses last year.
As of September, the SPCA of Texas had prosecuted 20 civil and criminal animal neglect cases involving more than 670 horses in 2003. That compared to six cases involving 280 horses for a similar period the previous year.
"This is a pretty dramatic increase," says Dave Garcia, director of humane law enforcement for the organization.
Experts attribute it to a number of reasons, but the main one comes down to tight money in a tough economy.
Melissa Phillip / ChronicleRalph Pinnell puts out special food for faster horse Heaven's Mist, which he and his wife, Loretta, are rehabilitating.
"It is purely dollars," says Dr. Jennifer Williams, who operates Lone Star Equine Rescue in Leander, an organization she started five years ago. "When you weigh the welfare of an animal against the dollar, the animal is going to lose. When the economy is bad, these cases go up."
Many first-time owners don't realize it can cost $250 to $500 a month for a horse's feed, boarding and veterinary expenses. When the funds aren't there, some owners simply walk away from their animals.
"A lot of it is ego," says Jim Boller, director of field services for the Houston SPCA. "These individuals don't want to admit they have gotten in over their heads, and they are not going to ask for help."
Whatever the reason, the result is the same: neglect.
One of the most recent cases in the Houston area came a few weeks before Christmas when investigators from the Houston SPCA and the Montgomery County Precinct 5 Constable's office confiscated three malnourished horses Dec. 5 near Conroe. Each of the animals was severely underweight and surviving on feces.
"They had been deprived for several months," Boller says.
One horse was so weak that a sling was required to hold him up, and he was placed under the 24-hour care of a veterinarian. The other two were placed at foster homes. All are expected to recover.
After the animals were confiscated, a civil court ordered the owner, a Conroe man, to pay $3,500 for the veterinarian care the horses require, Boller said, and the animals were awarded to the SPCA.
Criminal charges by the Montgomery County District Attorney's office were still being considered at press time. Options include Class A misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty, which carry punishment ranging from probabtion to a maximum of a year in county jail and up to a $4,000 fine per count (horse). Or, Boller said, the charges could be handled as a felony because of the starved state of the horses. Under a felony charge for animal cruelty, punishment can range from 180 days to two years in state jail and up to a $10,000 fine per count, he said.
In some cases, the neglect of horses is so egregious that it defies understanding or explanation.
It was a cold wintry day in January 2003 in Chappel Hill when deputies seized five horses that were starving to death. A sixth horse was so depleted and sick that veterinarian Dr. Steven Wilson had to put it down. The sickly animal had been crawling on its knees, trying to find food.
Dr. Wilson described what he saw at the time: "She couldn't stand up. There was no body fat and no muscle. She needed some semblance of care, and there was none."
The other horses were also deprived of the basics. "They had water, just nothing to eat," Wilson says. "This type of thing doesn't happen immediately. It takes months for animals to get in that type of condition."
The problem of owners failing to care for their horses by watering and feeding them properly can be found virtually anywhere. In one unusual case last year, Bee County Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Linam got a court order to seize 25 horses on property reportedly used for a rescue operation.
"She (the owner) was claiming to be a rescue operator," Linam says. "The legitimacy of that claim is highly disputed."
One horse was already dead and two more died within a week of the August seizure, Linam says. Each of the animals weighed between 300 and 400 pounds less than it should have, he adds.
"She emphatically insists that she had not done anything wrong," Linder says. "She swears they were in worse shape when she got them, but we have photographs showing how they were before (she) took possession of them, and you could see they lost a couple of hundred pounds in three months. She claims they were being fed twice a day."
Asked what reason she would have for not feeding them, Linam says the land on which the horses were kept grew no grass for horses to eat. "Do you know how much it costs to feed 25 horses -- and you don't have an income?"
Some of the horses were returned to owners who kept them there, and the rest were turned over to Lone Star Equine for care. Linam says he is still investigating, but no charges have been filed against the owner.
Since the Wharton County seizure, Finch, 58, has retired and now runs Habitat for Horses in Hitchcock, a nonprofit organization that works closely with law enforcement authorities on cases in which animals are seized after efforts to get owners to properly care for them have failed.
"We've been to court seven times and never lost a case," says Finch, who uses his 27 acres as a safe harbor for the rescued horses.
Boller says that through September of last year, he had seized 63 horses in 13 separate cases. Moreover, he recovered about 30 animals that owners let loose on the highway. Another dozen people voluntarily turned their horses over to the Houston SPCA because they were no longer able to care for them. In a couple of cases, Boller asked the owners to cover the veterinarian costs or pay the $250 fee that is charged at the landfill to dispose of the carcass.
Before the SPCA's Garcia or Boller can seize animals, they first try to educate owners on their proper care, which includes a full examination by a veterinarian and inspection of the hooves by a farrier. Photos and video are taken to show the condition of the horses. Owners are told what kind of feed and care are needed to help with weight gain.
"The way the statutes are written, you need to show some type of intent at neglect" before animals can be seized, Boller says.
That means if the owner fails to act on the suggestions of animal-control officers and evidence of continued suffering is found, a court order is obtained to seize the animals. In case there is severe cruelty or starvation and the animals' lives are in immediate danger, the horses are seized immediately. In some cases, it's time-consuming to track down absentee owners.
Such was the case of 13 horses left in stalls near Hopkins, where they had run out of feed and were eating their own feces. In testimony during the civil proceedings brought by the Houston SPCA against the owner, the Houston man said he knew the horses were dying but did not take any action to help them, according to Garcia. "It was like he didn't want to be bothered," Garcia says.
The owner originally had invested at least $20,000 in the animals, including $5,000 for one stud horse, hoping to profit from the breeding and sale of colts.
"He was not a proficient horse person," Garcia says. "When a person has no perceived value for any animal, how could he care? He paid high-dollar prices and gets angry when he can't get his money back. From this comes revenge on the horses. He cuts costs with the food, and the animals suffer again."
Abandoning or neglecting horses is a problem for other states, too.
In Florida, expensive thoroughbreds, some worth as much as $40,000 each, have been found roaming loose, discarded by owners who were unable to take care of them, according to Laurie Waggoner, director of the South Florida SPCA.
"We're seeing an increase in all breeds," she says.
In Arizona, abandoned-horse cases number 200 a month and growing. "It is the worst I've ever seen, and it is getting so bad now," says Miriam Parrcarranza, program director for the Arizona SPCA. The worst case: a horse tied up in the desert without food or water.
The Animal Defense League of Oregon says the number of abandoned horses in individual cases also has increased. It is no longer just one or two animals. The worst case, according to the ADL, was 129 starving horses seized in Oregon, where a man and his wife were convicted on 65 counts of animal neglect, sentenced to jail and ordered to pay $40,000 in restitution.
"People have no idea what the proper care of these animals is," says Dana Campbell, an attorney with the ADL.
"There is no thought of commitment to the animals," says Nan Stewart of Colorado, a former equine investigator who now trains law-enforcement officers in the field. "There is an overpopulation of horses, and everybody is breeding their animals to sell the colts. Ignorance is the big thing."
One of the worst cases she ever handled was a horse that had to have its halter surgically removed because the bit had been left in its mouth so long.
"Some of it is neglect and some of it is ignorance," says Dr. David Fry, a Navasota veterinarian, who has seen many neglected animals. "I have seen a lot of them that you can't even do surgery on because they are so skinny."
Some are in such poor condition that it takes up to six months to restore them to full health, and sometimes longer if they have severe injuries. "You can't give them all the feed they want," Fry explains. "It has to be a steady growth rate."
Ashley Wesp, a horse owner and rescuer from Bryan, says, "People get into a financial situation and taking care of the horses is the last thing on their priority list. People have a real emotional attachment to animals. When things are going really bad in their life, they will cling to their horses. It is tough to turn loose because of the emotional attachment."
But for some, owning an animal is just like owning a car, says Jeannie Weatherholtz, who runs the Brighter Days Horse Refuge in Pipe Creek near Bandera. "When it is broke, you just go and get a new one. That is the attitude of a lot of people. It is just an animal, and they are ignorant on the care of it and simply do not know what to do."
Some horse owners simply no longer want to take responsibility for their animals.
"If you take on the responsibility, it is a lifelong responsibility" says B.J. Schubert, who runs what may be the best known animal sanctuary in Texas, Black Beauty Ranch near Tyler. "If you use an animal for jumping, it is still your responsibility to take care of that horse and not pawn if off on a sanctuary. People want to get rid of animal just because a horse is taking space in their life. It really irritates me."
Deliberate cruelty to horses is nowhere near as common a problem as neglect, but Boller has encountered it.
"I had one case from the race track when the handler split open the horse's face when he hit him with a chain," Boller says. "His excuse was the horse was acting up, and he beat it up to teach it a lesson, and he said if his kids act up, he would treat them the same way."
During her years as an animal-cruelty investigator, Stewart says she observed that cruel animal owners were also hurting their children: "Animal abuse and family abuse are directly linked. The guy that mistreats his horses and kicks the dog is probably hitting his kids."
Then there are "collectors," people who hoard animals and pets and don't give them the proper care. They represent a small number of the people cited for animal neglect, but their cases usually involve a lot more animals.
Gini Barrett, director of the American Humane Association Western Regional Office in Los Angeles, says that animal hoarders are well-known to SPCA investigators.
"Collectors exist in almost every community, large or small, rural or urban," she says. "They are in a state of denial that prevents them from seeing the filth or understanding their animals are sick, dying or dead. They need help."
Experts estimate there are 700 to 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding every year in the United States. Most involve small animals.
Horse rescue operations are run by dedicated people who donate their land to provide a safe harbor for animals. Usually, they are nonprofit organizations that depend on donations to sustain feeding and veterinary costs. Many of their rehabilitated horses are put up for adoption.
At Black Beauty Ranch, Schubert says it costs between $700,000 and $1 million a year to maintain his large sanctuary for 1,300 animals. Included are 218 horses and an assortment of burros, elephants, mountain lions, camels, bison, water buffaloes and even an elephant. On Saturdays, visitors can take guided tours.
When malnourished animals are brought to the ranch, they are placed in quarantine. They are treated for worms, and those that require special medical care or dental surgery are taken to Texas A&M University at College Station. Horses that have suffered serious weight losses are given a special diet. It takes months for them to put on proper weight, Schubert says. Most of them are not suitable for riding.
But when the horses have been returned to health and are ready to be adopted, rescue operations advertise on their Web sites.
Here's a notice posted on Lone Star Equine Rescue along with a photo:
"Chief is a beautiful, 7-year-old bay and white paint gelding. He was seized from a neglectful home and then placed with LSER. Chief was used as a breeding stallion prior to coming to LSER and has only recently been gelded. He gets along well with other horses, but is still learning to socialize. He is green broke to ride, but easy to train. Chief has the ability to do any type of riding, will require an experienced rider or someone willing to put him with a trainer. Chief is a very calm and willing young gelding and will make someone a very nice pleasure horse."
As part of its adoption policy Lone Star retains ownership of the horse for the first year, giving those who adopt the option to return it in the first 12 months. They also have to sign a contract that they will not sell or give away the animal or send it to slaughter.
For its part, Lone Star makes sure its horses have been completely checked by a veterinarian, dewormed and have current vaccinations. The majority of animals are either not currently trained to ride or have behavioral or training problems that will require work with someone experienced with training, according to Williams, who works with law-enforcement officers in neglect cases.
At the Brighter Days Horse Refuge, adoption fees can range from $400 to $700. It is important that adopted horses be on the same property as the owners, says Jeannie Weatherholtz, who founded the rescue operation in 1987. "Our adoption program is very strict and with good reason," she says. "Many of the horses and ponies have already experienced starvation and cruelty, and we want to make sure these creatures never have to experience mistreatment again."
The most important thing rescued horses need is love, says Weatherholtz, who now cares for more than 70. "They have to know they're not going to be hit anymore or yelled at. You have to comfort them and bring the trust back. It doesn't take long."
Weatherholtz has had a mare for the past five years that "doesn't trust women at all," she says, because the previous owner threw feed buckets at her and often abused the animal. A man who volunteers at the refuge is the only one who can get close to her.
"They don't forget, but they forgive," she says. "They are very gentle creatures by nature."
Dennis Blank is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Fla.