Attorneys Continue to Fire Salvos in Horse Neglect Case

Four horses were confiscated from a West Marin ranch in December and treated for emergency medical reasons. The ranchers' attorney said it was an unjustified move.

The rift continues between the Marin Humane Society and a West Marin horse breeder accused of neglecting animals, with each side fingering the other for wrongdoing.

The attorney for Jill and Alex Burnell of Gray Fox Farms, which has had four horses hauled away for emergency medical treatment, has accused the Novato-based Marin Humane Society of releasing photos of underweight horses to spur fundraising efforts and humiliate her clients.

"I don't know what horse that is a photo of, or when it was taken, and at this point I am pretty skeptical of everything that originates from their offices," said Maggie Weems, the Fairfax-based attorney who represents the Burnells. "This is Photoshopped clip-art for all of its value, especially when they are using the scandal they have created by their own faulty investigation as a fundraising technique, which also strikes me as inappropriate." 

The humane society's lawyer counterattacked Wednesday.

"Nothing is so obnoxious and absurd as to think that Marin Humane Society, which has been around 100 years taking care of the needs of Marin, has decided to pick on this one woman," attorney Bruce Wagman said. "... People have called us congratulating us for pursuing this issue."

And as for making the horse neglect case a for-profit pursuit, Wagman added, "Marin Humane Society is a nonprofit organization and tells people about what it's doing and asks for donations. That's part of being a nonprofit. It's so laughable to say we're doing it to raise money. If that's what we're doing, we're doing it pretty badly because we're not making any money doing this."

Earlier this month, the Burnells tried to sue the Marin Humane Society to get four confiscated horses returned and prohibit animal control officers from their property off Chileno Valley Road near Petaluma. But Marin Superior Court Judge Roy Chernus dismissed the suit on Jan. 8, saying the humane society was justified in addressing reports of horse starvation and untreated injuries.

On Jan. 24, the Burnells tried for the second time to have horses returned from temporary homes where veterinarians are watching their progress. A hearing officer has yet to rule about the status of two mares, but Weems said the odds appear long. She said the hearing officer, Albert Burnham, is hired by the humane society.

"This guy is 20 for 20 in favor of Marin Humane Society," she said. "I'm not holding my breath. ... He has never returned an animal to an owner or caretaker, so this is not an independent review by any means."

One horse taken off the property last month was Romantic Star, a stallion known nationally among warmblood breeders and in dressage circles. Weems said Romantic Star was just muddy and slightly injured from a fight with another stallion. He is being treated at a veterinary clinic on the campus of UC Davis along with two mares from the farm. The Marin Humane Society is caring for the fourth horse.

Just prior to the December Romantic Star has been sold to a woman in Georgia who wants custody, but the horse is seen as evidence in a criminal investigation, Weems said.

Weems has maintained the confiscated horses that appeared thin were not neglected, malnourished or mistreated and that they should have been returned to the Burnells' custody immediately after they were evaluated.

"If a horse really is starving or has medical conditions that perhaps causes an unsightly or thin appearance, there are blood panels and chemical tests that will reveal whether or not a horse is in a metabolic condition so that somebody could objectively say a horse may not be receiving sufficient calories," Weems said. "But all the blood tests were normal for these horses and scored better (on a body condition scale) than the scores given by the Marin Humane Society."

Wagman said the animal control officers acted accordingly after receiving calls of concern from people who saw ribs showing prominently on the bellies of several horses at pasture.

"There's a difference between being thin and being in a state of near starvation and suffering," Wagman said, "and these horses were in the latter category. People who are facing charges of neglect ... they always try to put it over that it wasn't that bad. But the spaces between these horses' ribs were not normal. ... In both situations, there was a need for prompt action."

Wagman the confiscated horses are recovering well. Animal control officers have not many additional visits to Gray Fox Farms, he said.


What's your reaction to the case? Tell us in the comments!

T McDermott February 01, 2013 at 05:13 PM
I have seen this womans horses and she works in a feast or famine system. The Humane society was called by neighbors many times over many years to her ranch in Petaluma for overcrowding, under feeding, no shelter, unsanitary conditions. Each time they would visit she hire laborers to rush around and clean up the pens then would feed the horses for 2 or 3 weeks until the final Humane society visit. After that it would invariably fall off and go back to feed lot status. The only time things were in any way acceptable was the one month when the foals were being shown for sale, then every one was fed and the pens were cleaned. Her prize stallions were rumored to be kept a Riverside but the breeding stock was warehoused in severly overcrowded un-sheltered paddocks.


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