Horse neglect cases alarm rescue groups

Posted: 3/12/2013

Chicago Tribune, March 2, 2013

Horse neglect cases alarm
rescue groups \ Illinois agency cites staff cuts in slow response; counties
handling more calls

By Vikki Ortiz Healy, Tribune reporter

The four horses hadn't been visited in weeks. There was no water in their
buckets, no hay in the stall. All of the animals looked dangerously thin.

The horses' caregiver apparently had stopped showing up. So even though the
horses were not hers, Joyce Benes, the owner of an Oswego stable, fed them her
own hay. But with hay prices as much as five times higher than usual because of
last year's drought, she couldn't afford to do so indefinitely, she said.

Desperate, Benes called the state Department of Agriculture in January for
help, then waited, she said. And waited.

"I must've jumped up and down for two weeks," Benes said. "I
said, 'I can't have you do this. I can't have you step in when they die. You
need to step in now.' "

On Feb. 15, the state impounded two of the abandoned horses and sent the other
two back to their original owners, who were unaware that the woman hired to
care for the animals had disappeared, said Jeff Squibb, spokesman for the
Agriculture Department.

State officials said the case was given top priority. The response, they said,
was as timely as possible for an agency with five investigators covering animal
abuse and neglect complaints in 102 counties, while also juggling other

But some horse rescue operators say a perfect storm of high hay prices, a bad
economy and ineffective government oversight has created a crisis. Dozens --
perhaps hundreds -- of horses and other large animals have been abandoned or
neglected with no consequences for the owners, according to several horse
rescue operators, based on complaints received.

"It's pretty rough out there right now," said Tony Pecho, president
of Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County, who estimates that 35 to 50 abandoned
horses are running free near his organization's base in Beecher. "I'm
very, very worried about it."

Horse rescue organizations such as Pecho's have picked up abandoned horses on
the side of the road and roaming through suburban neighborhoods. Their shelters
are crowded to capacity with sometimes three times as many horses as usual, and
operators have had to turn away new ones, they said.

At the same time, several county animal control departments in the Chicago area
say they have tried to cope with an unusually high number of horse abandonment
calls, which have to be handled by staffs and facilities mostly equipped to
deal with cats and dogs.

"I can't keep a horse on this property," said Julie Boudreau,
administrative director for Kankakee County Animal Control and Adoption Center.
"I don't really know of any animal control agencies that have the ability
to care for all species of animals."

In the past six months, the Kankakee center has received at least a dozen calls
asking for help with horses hit by cars, running at large or suspected of being
neglected, she said.

"I can only hope that it's not going to get worse," Boudreau said.

According to the state's Humane Care for Animals Act, cases of abuse or neglect
-- known as humane care calls -- can be investigated in several ways.

County animal control departments have the authority to issue citations and
work with owners on improving care. Rescue organizations and animal advocacy
staff and volunteers also may be approved by the state to handle abuse and
neglect calls. Similarly, sheriff's and police departments can investigate
cases and have the authority to seize animals when an owner is arrested.

But short of an arrest, permission to remove or impound animals must come from
the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare, said Dr.
Mark Ernst, the state veterinarian.

After ensuring that the owners had an opportunity to correct problems, state
officials must agree that an impoundment order should be issued, a policy that
protects owners as much as the animals, Squibb said.

"These are the same laws that prevent the Department of Agriculture from
kicking in your front door and taking your dog or cat," he said.

Budget cuts in the last six years, however, have made it a challenge to handle
humane care calls, state and local animal welfare officials acknowledge.

In 2002, the Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare had 32 employees compared with
12 now. The bureau's budget was slashed from $7 million to $4.6 million in the
same time period, Squibb said.

Today, five investigators handle animal complaints from across the state, with
each responsible for as many as 15 counties. Last year, 969 humane care
complaints were made to the bureau, Squibb said.

Investigators are responsible for other duties, including inspecting 2,500 pet
shops, kennels, stables and other facilities licensed to hold animals. They
also monitor the movement of all animals to be sure diseases aren't introduced
to the state.

"Everyone's resources are stretched thin, and there's a limit to what we
can provide," Squibb said. "If that's not good enough for people, I
suggest they contact their lawmakers and tell them to start providing
additional resources."

Shortly after the budget cuts, state officials sent a letter to county animal
control offices reminding them that they have the power to look into animal
welfare cases.

Then the recession hit, and a drought last year caused hay prices to skyrocket
from $2 to as much as $10 a bale, animal advocates said.

As a result, the Will County Animal Control office is handling three times the
usual number of horse calls, said Lorrie Callahan, the officer who specializes
in equine cases.

Although she tried to work with the Department of Agriculture to investigate
calls, Callahan now handles the cases herself, impounding horses the same way
she would a dog or cat, she said.

"Otherwise, there have been times that you sit there and wait
forever," she said. "There's no one coming to assist you, so you have
to do something."

Some horse rescue workers say county animal control offices are often
unresponsive or ill-equipped to handle horse calls because of staff shortages
or facility limitations.

"I know that lots of counties rely on us now because we do have the
expertise on horses," said Tracy McGonigle, executive director of the
Hooved Animal Humane Society in Woodstock.

The group has 58 horses today compared with 23 in 2011, McGonigle said.

At the Hooved Animal Rescue & Protection Society in Barrington, founder
Donna Ewing has had to turn away horses in need because she doesn't have space.

"What is happening now is creating the most hideously cruel situation for
animals I've ever seen," she said.

Other horse advocates worry that the lack of government oversight allows repeat
abusers to continue hurting animals without repercussions.

Some have called for a change in how the state, counties and animal advocacy
organizations handle cases of animal abuse. They have argued for an easier
process for residents to become animal welfare investigators, and for more
consistent communication among all the groups handling horse abuse cases.

"They just continue to neglect the animals, and the cycle is never, ever
broken," said Gail Vacca, president of the Illinois Equine Humane Center
in Big Rock. "We need to have a better working system."

Ernst, the state veterinarian, said that while the shortage of investigators is
"not optimum," his bureau works hard to prioritize the most pressing

Those needing immediate attention are handled quickly, he said.

Responding to recent concerns about the bureau's response in handing complaints
about abused and neglected horses, state officials are looking for ways to meet
with law enforcement, animal control and other groups to review laws regarding
animal welfare, he said.

"Every day people on our staff are trying to make the best of a horrific
situation," Squibb said. "There are no perfect solutions."