Nonprofits Step Up, Sue Horse Abusers
Two nonprofit organizations are taking the reins on six horses, like the one pictured above, who were found weak and starved of food on their owners' Willow Springs, N.C. property. (Photo Courtesy of the Animal Legal Defense Fund)
A unique statute has allowed two out-of-state nonprofits to file a civil suit against three suspected horse abusers in North Carolina. "Whether it is right or wrong, a lot of counties don't have the money to pursue all animal cruelty cases," an U.S. Equine Rescue League spokeswoman said.
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Two nonprofit organizations filed a civil lawsuit yesterday against three people accused of neglecting and starving their eight horses.
All but one of the horses has been removed from the Willow Springs, N.C., property of Michael, Judy and Gayle Keating, thanks to the work of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the United States Equine Rescue League.
While partnered with a Wake County Animal Control team, the two organizations spearheaded the effort, utilizing North Carolina's Civil Remedies for Protection of Animal Statute, or Chapter 19A.
The statute, unique to North Carolina, permits private animal protection organizations or individuals to rescue and gain ownership of animal abuse victims.
"We got contacted by a vet, who told us about the horses and asked if we would provide legal support," said Bruce Wagman, chief of the ALDF's outside litigation council.
"We have had very successful experiences in North Carolina with this statute. The ALDF likes to be able to provide this assistance to the state. We are using our resources. This is what we do."
A veterinarian received a complaint from the Keatings' neighbors and went to investigate the scene at the end of December. She found the horses were "in severe distress and literally starving to death," according to an ALDF press release.
There was no sign of edible hay, grains or other food on the property; the property's grass was pared to the ground, and bark from trees was missing in chunks, displaying the animals' desperate attempt to find food.
One horse was found dead on the property, and another could barely stand, according to Jennifer Hack, the U.S. Equine League's executive director.
"It was dark and the vet couldn't get a good look, but she could see that there was one horse unable to stand on her own. They had to use a tractor to lift her up and help her get over to a small shed," Hack said.
The U.S. Equine League, which facilitates rescues in the region, received a search warrant the next day.
The six horses, some of which are pregnant and nursing, are presently being housed in foster homes and are all on a path to a full recovery, Wagman said.
One mare presently remains on the property, since he was in relatively good physical health, Hack said. Though a veterinarian is checking on the horse several times a week, the U.S. Equine League is still hoping to instill a sense of proper pet ownership in the Keatings, Hack said.
"We believe education is the long-term solution to animal care and abuse, and we are trying to provide the opportunity for the family to properly care for at least one animal," she said.
The other horses are likely to soon find "loving, permanent homes."
If the case unfolded in a different state, the horses may not have been able to receive the full level of support exhibited by the ALDF and the U.S. Equine League.
"Whether it is right or wrong, a lot of counties don't have the money to pursue all animal cruelty cases," Hack said. "When looking at a murder case or an animal cruelty case, the District Attorney will always try and save the resources for higher level cases."
By providing outside organizations to step in, the North Carolina statute relieves the state of exhausting its funding and resources.
"We try to give authorities some room to breathe," Wagman said.
Wake County's neighboring county, Wayne, has also received assistance from the ALDF and the U.S. Equine League, as well as the Humane Society of the United States, in previous abuse cases.
"It's nice to have that support, just to know that it is there," said Justin Scally, director of the Wayne County Animal Adoption and Education Center.
While the Wayne County Animal Adoption and Education Center generally handles cases on its own, it knows it can turn to outside help for information, guidance or, if needed, legal action.
"The ALDF, in particular, has a lot of experience, and is useful in animal cruelty cases nationwide. It's a good resource to be able to pull from," Scally said.
Wayne County's animal control receives a high number of animal cruelty complaints, said Scally, who attributes the trend to the state's significant human and pet population.
"Overpopulation is one of our biggest issues here, and what goes with that is neglect," he said. "For some individuals, there is notion that animals do not matter."
The overpopulation issue is compounded by a "mentality" that spay/neuter procedures are not necessary treatments, Scally said.
"A lot of people just don't do it, and some people can't afford it," he explained.
The ALDF and the U.S. Equine League are now seeking permanent injunctions against the Keatings, granting them full ownership of the horses. They would also then be responsible for covering the animals' medical care.
It will still be up to the state to file criminal charges against the accused, but the nonprofits' civil action and investigations can further that cause, as well.
"It's a great law," Wagman said. "Everybody should have one. It's certainly frustrating when there is cruelty anywhere and that is not being addressed. The lack of law in all other states makes it tougher to do everything we can to assist the D.A. in getting animals out of a situation."
Though the intensive investigative work and attention requires more time, and potentially money, the ALDF and the U.S. Equine League say they only wish to expand their services -- if they are given a chance.
"We went there because we got the call," Wagman said. "We will go anywhere that animals are being abused."
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