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Jenny Michael, Bismarck Tribune, Published February 10 2013

Horse case puts spotlight on animal welfare in North Dakota

BISMARCK — The recent case of officials in Burleigh and Morton counties finding 99 dead horses in a man’s custody and seizing an additional 157 live ones that hadn’t been properly cared for has brought new attention to North Dakota’s animal welfare laws, described by many to be among the weakest in the country.

Crimes against animals — whether they are abuse, neglect, abandonment or the worst cruelty a person can imagine — are considered, at the most, Class A misdemeanors in North Dakota, punishable by up to one year in prison and $2,000 in fines.

Officials seized the horses from a rancher who has homes in New Salem, N.D., and Fargo. The 25 worst of the Morton County horses were taken to Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue, located south of Mandan, N.D.

South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick ruled Friday that officials in Morton and Burleigh counties had probable cause to seize the horses from the man, who lives part-time in New Salem. The man has not been criminally charged. Romanick said officials can sell or give away the horses.

Burleigh County Assistant State’s Attorney Jeff Ubben said the horses have to be brand inspected before they can be adopted. He anticipates his county’s bunch will be available for adoption by Monday.

Morton County Sheriff Dave Shipman said his county is going to work with Triple H to develop a process for adopting the more than 100 horses in his county.

On a recent day, Allison Smith, the founder of Triple H, stood near the corral where the horses are being kept. The horses were eating hay, wearing new blankets that cover the bones visible through their hides. Smith had worked on a ballot initiative, voted down in November, that would have offered prosecutors a Class C felony animal cruelty charge to levy in the worst cases.

“This is why we need that,” she said.

The initiative went down, though most public sentiment surrounding the measure was not against the idea. The initiative only took into consideration dogs, cats and horses, which put many people off. Others were bothered by the influence of out-of-state interest groups.

Behind the scenes, the group North Dakota for Responsible Animal Care already was working on a complete remodel of the state’s animal laws. Rather than just add a felony crime to existing law, the group, which includes livestock and agricultural representation, along with animal shelters and humane societies, rewrote the entire title in the North Dakota Century Code, which now has taken shape as Senate Bill 2211.

State veterinarian Susan Keller said it remains to be seen whether the legislation, if passed, would stop cases such as the one ongoing in Burleigh and Morton counties. It would offer law enforcement and state’s attorneys more guidance in what to do in such cases and would give prosecutors more charging options, she said.

Smith said the legislation “looks awesome,” and that anyone who doesn’t vote for it is “totally not with it.”

Separately, Keller worries that more cases such as the present one are possible, given a poor horse market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture cut off funding for inspection of horse slaughter facilities in 2006. Keller explained that hasn’t stopped horses from being slaughtered; now they are shipped to Canada or Mexico.

New Mexico state veterinarian Dave Fly said 130,000 horses were exported from the United States for slaughter in 2012. The added cost of transportation means the price for all but the top horses has shrunk to the point that some horses don’t even bring bids at sale barns.

Keller said efforts to halt horse slaughter have, unintentionally, led to more problems. People don’t want to put down their own horses or pay to have a veterinarian euthanize and dispose of a horse. Instead, many horses end up standing around, sometimes not being cared for properly, she said.

“My fear is, we’re going to have more like this,” Keller said.

In New Mexico, cases of abandoned or abused horses are weekly occurrences. The state’s 10 horse shelters are filled to capacity and low on funds, Fly said.

“It’s difficult to find a place to go with them,” he said.

Fly talked to the New Mexico House Appropriations Committee on Thursday about the budgetary problems caused by a glut of horses. His state deals with additional problems that further stress the situation, including an ongoing severe drought and the fact that horses from the eastern United States bound for slaughter in Mexico occasionally get dumped off into New Mexico.

Keller said slaughter is a divisive issue within the horse and livestock industries and even talking about it can be difficult. Smith, who is firmly against horse slaughter, agrees that the issue divides horse owners.

Smith, who also belongs to the North Dakota Anti Horse Slaughter Coalition, believes the problem isn’t lack of slaughter facilities but is an overbreeding problem. She said responsible horse owners buy horses knowing that they come with veterinarian bills and need care throughout their lives. When horses become unusable, responsible horse owners call a veterinarian and have horses humanely euthanized, she said.

Horse meat also isn’t suitable for human consumption because of medicines given to horses, she said.

Fly said disposing of horses has become a problem nationwide, though, because some landfills in his state won’t take horses, and efforts at composting are in their infancy. He understands the argument about the consumption of horse meat; however, many zoos import horse meat from Canada for animal consumption.

“I have a hard time understanding why we can’t find a way to humanely euthanize these animals, and why, in this day and age of limited resources, we waste a good product,” he said.

Smith doesn’t believe horse slaughter is the solution to keeping horses from starving. Owners make the choices not to properly care for horses, and breeders make the decision to keep breeding animals beyond what the market can handle, she said.

“They come with responsibility,” she said.

Fly agrees that stopping overbreeding, owners providing proper care and increasing education are issues that would make a big difference in the long term. However, that won’t stop the problem today.

“We’re working from an emotional standpoint, not a logical standpoint anymore,” he said. “So, it’s put us in this jam.”