A new law signed by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin this week is being heralded as a “step in the right direction” toward improving the state's laws on animal cruelty. HB 200, which was passed unanimously by both the Kentucky House of Representatives and Senate, will allow courts to order a person convicted of animal cruelty in equine cases to pay restitution costs associated with the animals. A judge may also terminate the convicted person's right to ownership or possession of a horse involved in the case (which was not previously guaranteed under Kentucky law).
“Kentucky's love and passion for horses is one thing that continues to make our Commonwealth special,” Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said. “I was proud to work with the General Assembly and leaders in Kentucky's horse industry on HB 200. This bill gives our judges and prosecutors two new tools to use following a criminal conviction for animal abuse involving equines.”
Kentucky's laws have consistently ranked among the worst in the nation for animal cruelty, as highlighted by a few high-profile cases in the past year. The most well-known in racing circles was a case of abandoned horses believed to be the responsibility of Breeders' Cup-winning trainer Maria Borell and her father, Charles. The 43 horses left on a property in Mercer County, Ky., were cared for by local non-profits and individuals working off donated funds and supplies, as well as money from the state. Charles Borell ultimately entered an Alford plea in the case, while a warrant is out for Maria Borell, who is believed to have left the state.
Rep. David Osborne watched the horses' bills pile up on the local equine community and saw an opportunity to tighten state laws.
“The reason that became a different issue over what we'd dealt with in the past was it was not so much about defining abuse or creating all-new abuse statutes or animal welfare statutes. We were faced with the dilemma of we know the situation, now what do we do about it? We've got to give these organizations and counties more tools to deal with this,” said Osborne.
When it comes to animal welfare law, changes must come slowly, if at all, for Kentucky legislators. Although Kentucky is known to the nation as a horse-centric state, many of its rural counties derive significant income from other types of farming. For many constituents in those places, a reform to animal cruelty law can sound a little too close for comfort to 'animal rights,' a viewpoint that doesn't mix well with many farmers these days.
Osborne said he was pleased HB 200 passed both the House and Senate unanimously. In this case, he credits agricultural and sportsmen's interest groups with cooperation to make a needed change.
“I was a little bit surprised, and I will give a tremendous amount of credit to the folks over at [Kentucky] Farm Bureau. They were very engaged, and while they did not publicly endorse the plan, the mere fact they were silent on it was a huge signal,” he said. “I'll also give a shout-out to Sen. Robin Webb; she's a horseman but she's also head of the national sportsmen's caucus. She took a real vocal lead on it and helped in writing the bill, which was incredibly important.”
Ellie Troutman, owner/operator at Windy Meadows Equestrian Center near Louisville, testified on behalf of the bill and said it's a good start toward improving the state's legal protection for horses.
“[The law] has to get stronger and HB 200 was a step in the right direction,” said Troutman. “I think really, ultimately, when you saw the politicians come together to make that happen was fabulous. But do I see it deterring people [from neglecting horses]? No, because they get into a financial crisis … they don't know how to get out of the situation. They need help, animal control needs help, and law enforcement needs help. Having the ability to help the people around the situation will be crucial.”
Troutman is called in by local law enforcement or county animal control programs periodically to help in large seizures of horses in neglect or abuse cases. Most recently, she stepped in to take 13 horses seized from a farm in Trimble County, Ky., where 19 horses were also found dead. Most of the 13 horses taken were in various states of malnutrition, and many of them were mares that had been turned out with a stallion and may be pregnant. The group is recovering at Windy Meadows while the case against the owner works its way through the courts, and that reminds Troutman there's still a need for reform. For one thing, the horses are technically evidence in the criminal case until it's adjudicated, which means the person sheltering the horse could be in trouble if one dies from a preexisting condition in her care and their owner is ultimately found not guilty. This limits the number of resources available to horses in many cases, since law enforcement would also prefer to keep horses in large seizures together.
Troutman is also aware of how vastly underprepared many county law enforcement and animal control offices are to deal with equine neglect cases. Many have no large animal training, and nowhere to house or feed seized animals besides house pets. In the Trimble County case, she recalled the animal control officer standing in the property's driveway, awaiting a warrant to allow the horses' removal with no halters, lead ropes, or tranquilizers to help load horses up until he got help from Troutman.
She also hopes that one day orders blocking horse ownership for those convicted of animal cruelty will become reciprocal across state lines. Currently, Troutman said she is unaware of a database people can check before selling or leasing a horse to someone, or before leasing their property to someone with animals.
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