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.

Courting the Legal System

logo 032

The court system is a totally different animal. Those of us used to horse behavior will be baffled again and again by what appears to be quirky and counter intuitive. Hurry up and wait seems to be the rule.

One of the goals of Horse Advocates is to become more familiar, and in a sense, make friends with this process. We must depend on our courts and the more we understand them, the better help we will be able to be for horses caught up in this process.

On August 13th, the sentencing for the Brunzell/ Dual Peppy animal cruelty case will be announced. This story started when the authorities were called September 19, 2014, to find fourteen horses dead, in various states of decomposition under tarps, and ten horses and four llamas very thin and neglected. The case came to trial May 26-29, 2015, and Brunzel was found guilty on eight counts of animal cruelty. Now, just shy of a year from the first report, the sentencing is August 13th at 10am.

For horse people, this day has been a long time coming. The surviving horses have been kept at a Humane Society facility where they are getting the care they needed so badly. They have been safe this year and most have been returned to health. Dual Peppy himself was said to be in guarded health. He is older and his condition perhaps the worst of the group. We hope for a strong judgement against Brunzell, but we are most concerned about the horse’s fate, hoping that none will be returned to Brunzell. Hoping that the horses can be released to peaceful pastures and good care for the future.

The initial outrage about this horrific discovery was cooled off. By the time the case came to court, a handful of concerned citizens attended court and a larger number people followed it on our Facebook page. We need to remember, all these months later, what happened in that barn and see this story through, for the sake of those horses involved. We hope for a huge turnout for sentencing next week.

On August 12th, a case involving Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue and an adopter, Dawn Barden will come to civil court. This case has far-reaching implications for all animal rescue organizations, but we are especially concerned for the two mini horses involved, whose health was seriously challenged. Barden signed an adoption contract promising good care and feeding for Cookie and Misty. The contract included express instruction on dental care as well as feeding, etc.  On a subsequent visit, the minis were found to be very thin, with one of them barely able to chew, as the dental work had not been done. Ruby Ranch reclaimed them, as stated in the contract. The sheriff’s office order them returned back to the neglectful home three months later, as Barden had the brand inspection. Horse Advocates is extremely concerned for these horses.

This case is somewhat different because the animals involved were previously compromised. Their health was challenged by previous poor care and as such, the promise made by rescuers and adopters to rescue animals never again be in that dangerous situation. That trust is broken; there are no second chances for an adopter who didn’t honor her promise to keep them healthy. Ruby Ranch is standing up for Cookie and Misty, while other rescues look on, concerned for their adoption process as well.

This case involves breach of contract. In the time since November there has been pre-trial maneuvering through attorneys. It’s how the system works: Barden’s attorney files motions to dismiss, claims paperwork didn’t arrive, and doesn’t respond to requests from the rescue’s attorney. Required status reports have not been filed. It costs the rescue money, and Barden as well, but most of all, these minis are in jeopardy.  It’s frustrating. Delays abound while the minis languish, until in this case finally got to the presiding judge, who waived all the pre-trial meetings and motions. The antics ended as he ordered the case to proceed and the actual trial will be August 12th and with so much riding on this case, it’s crucial that the public fill the courtroom and send a message.

It is the job of Horse Advocates, as well as the community at large, to stay focused on these cases as months pass. We can’t let the passage of time wear down our resolve. As uncomfortable as it is to remember the pain these horses suffered, we must hold our concern for the equine victims in our hearts and minds, to bear witness not just to the discovery of the cases, but to see the cases through the court system. To hold a space for the equine victims, as the humans debate the merits. And finally, to stand for them as their perpetrators are sentenced.

Information will be updated (here) on our Facebook page as soon as the final court times are posted. We hope to see a crowd at both of these court dates next week. Please make the time for these horses and join us at the courthouse. And thank you for your patience.

For Dual Peppy and his herd, and especially for little Cookie and Misty, it all comes down to court and our vigilance there is a necessary ingredient. Our response to these cases will have an impact on future cases. Please stay with us, now most of all. Let’s get these horses the justice they deserve.

H.A. Reports: Brunzell/Dual Peppy Animal Cruelty Trial

Horse Advocates was present for each day of the Sherri Brunzell/Dual Peppy animal cruelty trial. These are the notes taken detailing testimony given in the case. Final sentencing will be August 13th at 10 am.

 

Brunzell/Dual Peppy Animal Cruelty Trial: Day One.

Jury selection took 4 ½ hours. The Judge was careful to explain the concept of assuming innocence until proven guilty and the Attorneys selected a jury of 6 with 1 alternate: 3 men and 4 women. At 1pm we broke for lunch.

The afternoon set the stage for the trial with three witnesses for the prosecution. The first was Denise Pipher, there when the horses were discovered. She is the mother-in-law of Diana Ragula who called the sheriff’s office and press. She described what she saw and was questioned by both attorneys.

The second witness was Deputy Larry Murphy, of the Mounted Patrol, who was in charge of the initial investigation. He reported that the horses were “somewhat thin” and need farrier work. The horses had water but no feed, although 5 bales of hay were visible. Brunzell told them that she fed every other day and puts out the quantity of food required at that time. Several officers were also there, including Det. Mike Boggs. That Friday evening, Deputy Murphy left Brunzell with a notice to comply that required the horse carcasses be “cleaned up” and farrier work done. No mention was made of any other issues; no mention of the condition of the surviving horses other than their hoof length, or the number dead. Brunzell was given 2 weeks to comply.

The third witness was Det. Boggs, who assisted that Friday, the 19th of September, and also returned Monday, the 22nd. They had a search warrant, Randy Parker, DVM joined them, and at that time photos were taken of each of the skeletal remains. The photos were grisly, as you would expect. We were shown a drawing of the facility and where the bodies were found. Det. Bogs worked with Parker to get evidence and check age and condition of the remains, remarking that none had been shot or seemed to show skull damage. The surviving horses and llamas were seized that day.

It’s hard to give an overall feel to this first day. It was low key and the testimony was matter of fact. We are hoping tomorrow, as the vets and other experts are called, that we will have a better feel for how it’s going. Today was just the start and it’s too soon to draw any conclusions after less than three hours of actual trial.

The trial continues tomorrow at 1:30 pm with more expert testimony. There were Horse Advocates in attendance, not a large number though. If you can join us tomorrow, please do.

Brunzell/Dual Peppy Animal Cruelty Trial: Day Two

We had a very full half-day of testimony, starting with Randy Parker, DVM. He was the veterinarian called in by the El Paso County Sheriff to evaluate the horses in the Brunzell barn. He began with the ten surviving horses (6 stallions and 4 mares) and in testimony, using both photos and his intake paperwork, the Asst. DA directed him to comment one by one, on each horse. Many were hard to catch and halter, with one 7-8 year old stallion described as “terrible and dangerous” to handle. Body scores ran from 2 to 5, most were in need of urgent hoof care, but that would be addressed by another expert later.

One of the horses in the worst physical condition was Dual Peppy, 22 years old. The photos showed protruding hip bones and his entire spine revealed, for a body score of 2. Dr. Parker noted that along with that, he had a stifle injury and was lame on his right front leg.

The same was pattern was followed in going through the skeletal remains of 14 horses. Ages were estimated by teeth, hoof length stated, as a means of judging neglect. Again, one by one, each carcass was noted. A few of the remains were missing hooves, which stay intact generally. Although 3 of the carcasses were likely aged approximately 20 years old, over half the remains were estimated to be younger than 10-12 years old.

Dr. Parker went on to describe the barn’s deplorable condition, with manure 4 feet deep in areas and he concern that the number dead was unusually high. Mrs. Brunzell had told him they were all older and died of colic. Parker defined colic for the jurors and said it was highly unlikely that so many would succumb at a close time range.

The jury asked several questions to clarify and paid close attention to all testimony. Dr. Parker gave credible testimony, for a solid 90 minutes.

At 3:25 Garrett Leonard, Director of Harmony Equine Center, part of the Denver Dumb Friends League, was called to testify. Harmony is the facility the seized horses were taken to and one more time, for each of the 10 horses, intake forms and photos were shown, along with reports of each horse’s weight each week.

Both the El Paso County Sheriff and Harmony used numbers to identify the horses, no names. But on the intake for Dual Peppy they estimated his age, from his teeth, to be 30+ years. His weight was 896 pounds. He went on an immediate refeeding program and his teeth were floated. Full xrays were taken to diagnose his lameness and atrophy of his left hip. Dual Peppy was given stifle injections and joint supplements, as he was in pain and laid down much of the time.

Each of the horses had dental floats, except for one mare who couldn’t be done safely, even sedated. The horses were dewormed and vaccinated. And again, using photos each of the horse’s hooves were shown—before and after–farrier work. Most were excessively long, some had “slipper foot” or had “pancaked”. Some hooves were very badly chipped and some had nasty cracks. 4 horses of the 10 had to be sedated to be worked on, and 4 horses were shod to try to help support the damaged hooves.

The high point of the day were the “after” photos shown of these 10 seized horses now. They were round and shiny, standing well and after two days of horror, it was a balm to see actual photos of how hard Harmony has worked to help these horses. I don’t think I was the only one who wanted to applaud Mr. Leonard for the work he and his team had done.

As the judge informed the jurors, in a case like this it is up to the prosecutors to prove their case, and the defense is under no requirement to respond, or present witnesses. That is the practical reality of being innocent until proved guilty. At the end of the Asst. DA’s questioning, Mrs. Brunzell’s attorney, Mr. Bryant did cross examine each witness, by asking questions that didn’t doubt the testimony, so much as ask questions about the lack of signs of physical abuse, meaning abrasions, cuts, etc. In the case of the hoof condition, he asked about founder or laminitis, and no signs were there of those conditions. Perhaps his purpose was to plant the idea that the neglect could have been worse, it was hard to say.
Again today, Asst. DA Shannon Gerhart did a thorough job, horse by horse, of showing clearly to the jury the condition of each of the horses.

The last witness of the day was Dr. Frank, an expert Pathologist. Femur bones were sent to his lab to test for cause of death. These femurs were sectioned and at that point, bone marrow can be tested for % of fat content. His testimony was that there was no marrow and as such, they couldn’t identify the cause of death. No reason was given for why there was no marrow and this was a disappointing end for the day.

The trial continues at 8:30 tomorrow morning. Please come and join us if you can. Horse Advocates would like to kindly remind everyone that although this is a very emotional case, our actual judicial system is bound by rules. The Judge instructed the jury, and we pass it on, that it’s very different than Judge Judy and other television shows that are marketed as entertainment. We share your frustration with this process at times, but are looking forward to learning more facts through testimony as the trial convenes in the morning.

Thanks everyone, we sincerely appreciate your support, as well as your concern for these horses. There is some peace knowing that the horses have all gotten healthier, and we trust these good jurors to do their best.

Brunzell/Dual Peppy Animal Cruelty Trial: Day Three

Thursday, May 28th was a full day of expert testimony with the Prosecutors continuing their methodical laying out of their case against Mrs. Brunzell. The first testimony at 8:45, came from William French, DVM, an associate at Littleton Large Equine Center. He was called in to address the lameness issues on Dual Peppy. His left hind had visible chronic atrophy and after palpating the stifle area and doing a lameness check, along with x-rays and an ultrasound, the diagnosis was inflammation and scarring in the stifle joint, as well as severe arthritis. This kind of damage was consistent with the athletic work Dual Peppy competed at when he was younger. Dr. French gave a clear description of the physical condition and described it as “extremely painful.” Peppy was given systemic medication and a week later, stifle injections. On a later check up, significant improvement was reported and he will require committed ongoing treatment, but the condition is “guarded.”
The Defense cross examined briefly, questioning whether the lameness was current or long term, and whether it had gotten worse at Harmony.

At 9:10 testimony turned to the four llamas that were seized. Jamie Norris, assistant director of the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region testified that she had been called to the Brunzell barn that Monday, Sept. 22nd. She reported the condition of the barn as filled with manure and again, she witnessed the carcasses of horses in the indoor arena as well as one of the stalls. She was called in to pick up the llamas and take them back to the Humane Society facility.

At 9:37 Signe Balch, DVM, testified about the condition of the llamas. She is a camelid vet that Mrs. Brunzell called in to check the llamas for physical damage after they had been moved to the Humane Society facility. Dr. Balch reported on each of the llamas, one by one, and most were between 5 and 7 years old, with one older at 9-10 years old. That older llama was the thinnest with a score of 2. Two other llamas were scored at 2 1/2 -3, and the final llama was body scored at 4, a good weight. She found no injuries but noted that they were hard to capture and check. She suggested a feeding program specific to llamas. Upon cross examination, she confirmed that the llamas were underweight, as the defense questioned her testimony.

At 10:22 Dr. Cribley, DVM, from Castle Rock Equine Practice took the stand. He was in charge of the intake evaluations when the ten seized horses arrived at Harmony Equine Center and he did their subsequent dental work. Again, one horse at a time, ages were evaluated and a check up given, along with fecal counts and vaccinations. All horses were subsequently dewormed. Again each condition was noted. He also included the dental results for each horse, listing the number of ulcers from sharp edges, as related to the tooth they were next to, for each of the horses. Each horse’s dental exam revealed mouth ulcers, with some having multiple ulcers, as well as sharp hooks, waves on the molar alignments, and displaced incisors. Some had ulcers next to each of the back molars that Dr. Cribley referred to as “significant and painful.” Each of the horses was in need of dental care and some had serious issues. One of the mares was very difficult to handle, and under mild sedation, leaped out of the restraining stocks and stumbled, landing on her chin, damaging a tooth. Her float was not completed, as Dr. Cribley felt it was too dangerous to continue, both to the mare and to the attending vet. Subsequent checkups showed all the horses to “look healthier and happier.” They had all gained weight and shed out to a shiny coat, and able to eat better. Dr. Cribley also stated that all the horses had significant problems with long and untrimmed hooves, with several estimated to have not received farrier attention or trimming for at least two years. Dr. Cribley is a vet with 44 years of experience.

The defense presented a Dept. of Agriculture study on worming published 17 years ago and quizzed Dr. Cribley on it. Dr. Cribley explained that worming protocol has changed significantly in the last 4 to 5 years, due to increased reporting of parasite resistance to worming medications. There was an exchange about worming, as 4 of the 10 horses came back with a positive parasite egg count after fecal testing. In the end, Dr. Cribley explained to the jury more about worming.

At 11:35, Jay Williams took the stand, a farrier with 22 year’s experience and the farrier that had done the hoof work on the Brunzell horses at Harmony Equine. We had seen the before-and-after photos on Wednesday, so the questions were more general about “slipper or elf” feet and neglect. He confirmed that, in his opinion, some of the horses hadn’t been trimmed in the last two years. He was questioned on the details of a few of the horses. He reported that Dual Peppy’s feet had been very recently trimmed, within a day or so of arriving at Harmony Equine Center. Coincidentally, this trimming happened after the sheriff’s deputies had made the initial visit on September 19th. He has now trimmed each of the horses three times since they arrived at Harmony and since it takes some time with these extreme cracks and length, etc, there had been time to do some repair gradually. In the beginning several had a difficult time walking, but he says they are all walking normally now. He stated that in his opinion as a professional farrier, “These horses were not getting appropriate hoof care.”

We returned from lunch and at 1:30 Holly Collela, DVM, took the stand. She had done some work for the Brunzells 8 to 12 years ago, but she had gotten numbers of calls from concerned people in the community asking if they could do anything to help in this situation. Dr. Colella had been active in organizing emergency response for horses during the Black Forest fire in the summer of 2013. Dr. Collela called Mrs. Brunzell and asked if they could come and make a welfare check, not in her capacity as a vet, but maybe get some hay to them or someone to help muck out the barn. Mrs. Brunzell agreed to the visit, but declined any help.
Dr. Colella testified as to the state of the barn, as each of the witnesses who had been there had in the past. Like the others, she described the large number of deceased horses, the huge amount of manure and poor condition of some of the horses. The descriptions of the barn were very consistent through all the witnesses. Dr. Colella mentioned a carcass in one stall with an attached outside run with a particularly disturbing appearance, as its legs appeared to be chewed off above the knees. She questioned Brunzell in a more personal way about how things got that way. Dr. Colella was concerned about the overall condition of the barn and the number of dead horses, as well as the thin horses. Brunzell told her that she had been busy, and that she did not have a tractor to remove the piled up manure.
This testimony/conversation was much harder to characterize; it was more of a personal account from someone who was actually there the day after the horses were discovered. After two days of clinical testimony, the tone was very different and the answers were not black and white. In cross examination, the defense asked if it was true that Dr. Colella said that she had seen horses in worse condition that Brunzell’s that the Sheriff’s office had not responded to in the past. Collella agreed that was true, but added that this in no way excused what was found at the Brunzell barn. In her testimony, she stated that “My feeling was that you bred them, you made them, and you should take care of them.”

At 2:15, Gail Peniak took the stand. She has been Dr. Colella’s vet tech for four years and had come on that same visit. She confirmed the same barn appearance and the conversation.

At 2:20 the Asst. DA, Shannon Gerhart said she rested her case and the defense called their first witness, Cheryl Glasgow, with the purpose of confirming the statement Dr. Colella made about seeing horses in worse condition. The attorneys were called to the bar and after consultation, the question was asked differently and the answer confirmed.

At 3pm Defense attorney Bryant called Sheri Brunzell to testify. She began by telling the jury that she was brought up with horses; that her father taught her and her brothers that their horses ate first; their care came first. The Defense counsel asked questions, but the testimony sometimes wandered as Brunzell said that she studied hoof care with an elite farrier and that her feeding system was working well. She did her own vet work. She’d had bad farriers and bad vets and she didn’t believe in floating teeth, and that “I have not seen a mandate that requires me to brush a horse, pick out his feet, or dispose of a carcass.” She stated that the dead horses had all coliced and died overnight, over the course of time, after originally telling Dr. Colella that they had all died of old age. She testified that she won’t euthanize a horse as a general rule, preferring instead to “let nature take its course.”
Frequently the Prosecution objected that there was no question that had been asked by the Defense counsel that was pertinent to the far-ranging discourse by Mrs. Brunzell. The Judge instructed the Defense counsel to ask a specific question, but the answers by Mrs. Brunzell soon veered away from the subject of the question. Eventually she disagreed with most of the expert testimony by the professional vets and farrier and had complaints about Dr. Parker and others. She felt that Dual Peppy had contracted laminitis while at Harmony and that was misdiagnosed as the stifle problem and she was very concerned for their health while in the care of Harmony. She acknowledged that it was unusual to have six stallions in a barn, but they didn’t pace and got along because of her feeding program. When questioned about the dead horses, she explained that they planned to eventually bury them, but that they didn’t have the heart to take the carcasses to the dump, and that with a tarp over them they decomposed quickly.
There was a testy cross examination as the Asst. DA asked when Mrs. Brunzell quit putting her horses first, as Mrs. Brunzell had stated at the beginning of her testimony that she had a ranching background and had been taught that “Horses got fed before we did.” The Prosecutor asked if Mrs. Brunzell went without food for two days- as her feeding program involved going to the barn every other day. Brunzell affirmed again that she disagreed with the experts. Brunzell said that her horses required shelter, food and water, but upon firm questioning, admitted that their comfort was “not a major concern.”

The jury was excused and the Judge gave directions for a meeting with the attorneys before beginning final arguments at 9:30 am, Friday. The case will be given to the jury after that.

Final Trial Report: The Brunzell/ Dual Peppy Trial, Day Four

Chief Deputy District Attorney Shannon Gerhart began her closing statement in the same methodical way she presented the case by first posting the cruelty statue by Powerpoint presentation and stressing the definition of neglect. She continued with a page summarizing the physical condition of each of the ten horses and four llamas, listing their foot condition, the dental issues and their weight gain while at Harmony. She repeated that they were not asking for a high standard of care, just the basic standards. She reminded the jury about Brunzell’s testimony, as well as her attitude that “she knows more than anyone else.” She repeated that the barn conditions were undisputed and asked the jury to follow the court instructions and find Brunzell guilty on all counts.

Defense attorney Andrew Bryant began by saying that none of the horses were that bad. That Deputy Murphy and Det. Boggs, the first on the scene told Brunzell only to get the horse’s feet taken care of and clean up the barn and not calling for the vet that Friday shows that the condition of the horses was not worrisome. He added that Brunzell had trimmed one or two of the horses by Monday and that proved her intent to comply. He held that the lameness Dual Peppy experienced at Harmony was as a result of getting him too fat. The intake evaluations at Harmony stated that all the horses check-ups showed clear eyes, ears, nose, and no sand in their guts. He summed it up by saying that all the horses were “healthier than the DA wants you to believe.”

The final summation was made by Asst. DA Ashley (apologizing for not getting her last name, she was a very valuable asset through the whole trial) gave an emotionally charged conclusion, saying that Brunzell had put her business on hold, and as such stopped caring for the horses. That just because they were no longer showing or selling to the public, the basic standards of care where still required. That the horses suffered, not having turn out and living in four feet of manure. She reminded the jury that one of the expert witnesses had sunk to her knee in wet manure trying to get the llamas out of their pen. She asked the jury to find Brunzell guilty on all charges.

The jury was given final instructions and left to begin deliberations just before 11 a.m. The verdict came in just before 6 p.m. and the judge read the results: Brunzell was found guilty on 8 changes of Animal Cruelty. She was found not guilty on two of the horses and the 4 llamas.

Press later reported that a juror said they considered whether Brunzell “got in over her head.” The financials, what Brunzell spent for these horses, or the income they brought her, were not disclosed in testimony.

The DA was happy with the verdict, and after spending the week watching, I concur. The jury focused on each witness, taking notes and asking good questions. I felt it was a huge loss that the lab tests done on the deceased horses had no results, and as such, no way to say how they died. I do believe that with the evidence available that the prosecution gave a very strong case. Brunzell had a good attorney as well. This is how our adversarial justice system works and it was valuable to follow that process through the course of the trial.

Sentencing will take place August 13th, at 10 am. At that point the judge will consider the evaluation ordered on Sheri Brunzell and sentence her. Until that time, the animals will remain in their respective locations and Brunzell will continue to pay for their monthly upkeep.

Horses Trying to Survive the Legal System: Two Cases

Horse Advocates of Colorado’s goal is to be a voice for horses, especially in the legal system. We’ve been a bit quiet these last two weeks. The Dual Peppy case was a long week for us; it’s hard for horsewomen to sit inside all week and emotionally exhausting to listen to the horrible details of neglect and the excuses offered from the defense.

At the same time, there are other cases moving forward in El Paso county. One of them involves two minis named Cookie and Misty, and Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue. These two minis originally came from a hoarding/neglect situation. Misty is younger and larger; the dominant mare of the pair. Cookie is older, smaller and more passive.

When animals are adopted from a rescue, there are usually a few pages of information given about the individual animals, as well as vet information and directions for the ongoing required care. In the case of this pair, directions went past healthy management to some special ongoing dental concerns for Cookie. Adopting from any rescue also includes signing a contract, agreeing to give the care needed, allowing the rescue to check up on the animals, and reclaim them if the contract agreements are not met.

The adoption process, for horses, dogs or cats, is more involved than a simple purchase because in rescue there is a “never again” commitment. That once the animals are rescued from the initial neglectful situation and returned to health and emotional well-being, the rescue and the adopter promise that the animal will never again return to the pain and stress of neglect and cruelty. This situation is different from most cases in court because of this legal contract. The usual case is like Dual Peppy; the owners make no legal promise for care once the purchase is complete.

Last November, 2014, a welfare check was done and Cookie and Misty were in trouble. Both had lost substantial weight, promised vet work had not been done, and in Cookie’s case, she was barely able to eat and looking quite frail. Ruby Ranch reclaimed the horses, with the understanding and agreement of the adopter. Over the next three months the minis got the needed health care and were on put a refeeding program and the adopter changed her mind and wanted them back. The board of directors at Ruby Ranch declined to return them after vet findings confirmed the physical condition of the minis was as bad, probably worse, than when they first came into rescue.

In February of 2015, the Sheriff’s Department ordered Ruby Ranch to return the minis to the adopter, because the she held the brand inspection. Most rescues generally keep the brand inspection for a few months, but then send it along as the adoption is finalized, knowing that the contract is binding. In the case of Misty and Cookie, the Sheriff decided to uphold the brand inspection instead of the contract. (In other cases, they have upheld the contract.)

Again, what makes this case different is there was a signed, legal contract that was broken. And being forced to return Misty and Cookie to adopters who had not cared for them was doubly heartbreaking knowing the horse’s previous history. During the Dual Peppy case, the public outcry that the horses not be returned to Brunzell has been the most common comment, and in this case that is exactly what happened.

But rant and scream all you want. You can say the abusers deserve to go to jail forever or never be allowed to own a horse again. Sometimes an angry rant feels pretty good, but in the United States, we are bound by the order of law from both the sheriff’s office and the court system. Horse Advocates supports our legal system, as we work to improve it.

One more big difference in these two cases is the location of the animals during the court process. The Dual Peppy herd was seized and taken to a facility where they are being given the best of care, paid for by Brunzell. By the time sentencing comes in August, she will have paid over $60,000 for their care in the months the trial has gone on, and as we saw in court, the horses have really improved in weight, hoof condition and dental care. Our hope is that they not be returned but go through a rescue, like Misty and Cookie did, to have a contract and a “never again” promise. And we pray that their potential adopters will keep their word–even as we know the court may return the horses to their owner, found guilty on 8 counts of animal cruelty.

In civil court, where Ruby Ranch is working to get Misty and Cookie back, they are told it can take up to a year to get a trial date. They are faced with pointless motions to dismiss, or requests for extensions of time, both actions feeling like stall tactics from opposing counsel. The result is increased expense for the rescue, decreased ability of the rescue to continue its mission statement.

Adoption contract language is simple and easily understood. Breach of contract is clearly established by loss of weight and lack of veterinary attention in a timely manner, resulting is pain and suffering for both minis. What possible reason could be given in a court of law to defend the weight loss and neglect of the dental issues of these minis?

But these minis are not as “lucky” as the Dual Peppy horses. They will spend the time the legal system takes in the poor care of their adopter. We have had eyes on the minis very recently, describing missed feedings, lack of attention to one or both, water buckets not filled, too much dry lot time, not enough enrichment. In other words, things there have not changed.

Cookie before adoption.

There is nothing Ruby Ranch can do as Cookie and Misty languish, waiting to be rescued one more time. The sheriff’s office does not use any of these criteria as determination of the welfare of the horse. The sheriff uses criteria such as water availability, hay on the property, and whether the horses “look” healthy.

And at the time of their return, after three months of professional care at Ruby Ranch, they were both looking better…but they are on a roller coaster of care. There is deep concern for Misty and especially for Cookie, not as resilient due to age and physical condition.

Horses have rather short and fragile lives. As the court system drags on and attorneys do battle for their human clients, our concern is always for the horses involved. As the Dual Peppy horses are having some of the best care of their lives, for Cookie and Misty the time passes much too slowly, and the prime of their short lives slips away. The costs to their physical and mental condition, as well as to Ruby Ranch financially, are much too high.

We will fight in our legal system to see that legal contracts protecting animals are upheld. All rescues are watching this case with profound interest and concern for these horses and the future of rescue as a whole.

The sad part is that we, as a community of horse owners and advocates, all made a “never again” promise along with Ruby Ranch, to provide the best life possible going forward for Misty and Cookie. The fight to keep that promise will not stop.

Please encourage Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue with your supportive words and please donate to Misty and Cookie’s legal fund on the Ruby Ranch site (here).

The Sherri Brunzell/Dual Peppy Trial Begins May 26th.

DualPeppyAs I write this, we’re just over a week away from the beginning of the Sherri Brunzell/Dual Peppy trial. Remember the first news report on that Friday afternoon, September 19, 2014? A neighbor had followed her dog into the barn to find ten acutely neglected horses and another fourteen dead on the ground, in various states of decomposition. Just to be clear: more than half the herd dead, sharing the same barn as the survivors.

Then the best/worst thing happened: one of the horses was recognized from photos on the news. He was the famous stallion, Dual Peppy. The local community was outraged already, but this drew the attention of horse owners around the world. The Sheriff’s Office told the public that the situation was in hand, although no vet had been called in. The community outrage grew; untold numbers of calls and emails were sent to the Sheriff’s Office from all over the country and parts of Europe. Three days later, a vet was called in and the survivors were transported to a safe place.

I think the second reason this case inspired so many emails and calls from the public was because the scene in the barn was easy to visualize. Reports said the manure was several feet deep, skeletons were left where they fell, some partially covered by tarps. The majority of the herd was dead–some reportedly as young as 3 years old. Photos were few, but the descriptions were so ugly that people outside the horse world were inflamed as well.

These victims were well-bred Quarter Horses with an estimated worth of over 1.5 million dollars, which is not to say their lives were worth more than a backyard horse, but it was more shocking and drew extra press attention. It’s a case that could help swing public opinion on horse welfare and eventually have an impact on horses with names like Blackie and Molly; horses with no famous relatives.

When the first explanations from the owner were made public, every horse owner in the county knew the excuses were as lame as these horses who needed emergency farrier care. Brunzell’s husband admitted “she doesn’t have a regular veterinarian due to expense and ‘unsatisfactory results.'” And “She felt it would be better to spend the money on feed for the horses than on veterinary bills.”

I remind you of the details of this horrific case because eight months have passed, including one postponed trial date. Outrage dims as time passes–after all, there are new atrocities every day. But these horses still remain in Limbo–they are still waiting.

Until the case is decided, the horses (and four llamas) are under the control and care of the Colorado Humane Society. They have gained weight, had veterinary care, and overdue farrier work. They have been safe from their owner who denied them the bare essentials required and left them hidden in a barn.

Our District Attorney feels the county has a good case, but if Ms. Brunzell wins, these horses will be returned to her.

Please stay tuned to the Horse Advocates Facebook page for locations, times, and updates. We will be in court from start to finish–please join us there if you can. A full courtroom sends an important message. Watch the news reports on television and post comments or call the station. Write a letter to the newspaper articulating your thoughts on this case. Talk about this story with your friends and share posts online.

Most of all, remember the 14 good horses who did not make it out of that dreadful barn. Remember those lost, as well as those who survived; remember this crime like it happened yesterday. Join Horse Advocates of Colorado in asking for a conviction with sentencing to the full extent of the law. Speak out and be heard.

To Rest In Peace.

WMGrandfatherThey aren’t getting any younger. Most of us spend a certain amount of time between riding and mucking, just watching our animals get older. If you are like me, you have a few elders of different species right now who are on borrowed time. Every time the Grandfather Horse lies down I squint to see if he’s still breathing.

We wish for some sense of order, hoping that they will pass chronologically, oldest to youngest. That plan never works. Still, as we watch them age, we always imagine ourselves saying goodbye, one at a time, for years to come.

What narrow vision. The truth is it’s possible they’ll outlive us. What if you die first?

The world lost a good horsewoman recently. She and I hadn’t met, but we shared the same friends. Her passing was unexpected and she left a horse behind. She is mourned dearly.

I didn’t know her except for one small detail: She was 61 years old. My age.

This is how animals get in trouble. They are beloved by their owner, but that person dies. Family members mean well, but maybe they live far away or are unfamiliar with horses. Sometimes these good horses languish in neglect, with no one wanting to make a hard decision. Maybe in the end they get thin, finally go to auction, and in the worst case, get aboard a truck heading south, more frightened than they have ever been. Can you imagine anything worse?

Do you have a plan written down for your horse?

Our horsewoman-friend was forward-thinking with the best interests of her mare’s safety at heart. Her papers were in order, with directives and money from the estate to support her horse. She was blessed with good friends who stepped up to help immediately.

Current statistics say that about 55% of American adults do not have a will or other estate plan in place. Probate can take a long time: even a simple estate takes six months, with many taking over two years. During that period, no money can be disbursed for the care of animals.

Past that, not all of us come from close-knit families with similar lifestyles, or if we live in a different area, it’s our friends we will need to rely on. Have you talked with them about your animals in the case of your death? If you have a plan written, is it time to update it and check-up with your caretakers?

When I was younger I didn’t take this topic very seriously. I had a vague plan that my horses be given to a committed 4-H girl. I passively felt good about it, but the truth is that I didn’t even write it down. Thinking about that now, it’s laughable.

We all want our animals safe when we are gone and it takes more than good intention. But it’s emotional and we often aren’t all that good at asking for help in the first place. It’s the part of our estate that is most challenging. Animals are family members but without the same legal considerations. The more animals we have, the more complicated it gets.

If asked to take a pet in the past, I would have waved an arm and nodded–I certainly didn’t want to talk about it. The thought of losing a friend is never easy; it takes courage to even have the conversation. At this age, it’s a much more serious question and I’m much more cautious about volunteering. We all should be–it’s a huge responsibility.

Perhaps your horse could be donated to a rescue. Is it an idea, or have your actually gotten their permission? Choosing a specific rescue has risk involved: suppose that rescue no longer exists or there has been a change in management and it no longer has that credible reputation. Or suppose that rescue was exceedingly full when the time came. Do you have a back-up plan?

Some areas have Perpetual Care Programs (here) where agreements are made and paid for in advance, for the long term well-being of your dogs, cats, and horses in future foster care or permanent homes. It would give such a sense of peace to be able to keep companion animals in our last years and know at the same time that they will be safe when we’re gone.

What about euthanasia? It might seem simple on one hand, but if the animals are young or in good health, the courts will rule the decision invalid. Still in the case of an elderly horse, or one with chronic health concerns that require a high level of care, the euthanasia option should be considered. Too many times at the end of a horse’s life they are devalued and fall into neglect as the cost of care continues to increase. Perhaps allowing them to rest in peace is the best option.

What about forming an intentional community of animal lovers who work together sharing care for each other’s animals? Is now time to look into nursing homes that allow pets?

And have you noticed that I have more questions than answers? Have you come up with a plan that you would like to share? The more comfortable we can get talking about this difficult topic, the more we can help each other and our animals when the sad time comes.

This is a great resource on Will Planning and Pet Trusts (here). It has information on all aspects and options available to animal owners who want to be responsible for their fur family in the event of their death. It’s a place to start and then thoughtfully consider all the options.

For those of us who share our lives with loyal dogs, kind-hearted horses, and cats who may pretend indifference at times–we put their safety first. They are part of our legacy. After that we can rest in peace.

Anna Blake for Horse Advocates.