When Rescues Go Bad, Veterinarians Should Be Ready To Help

by | 12.27.2016 | 1:08pm

As social media brings together more animal lovers and homeless horses than ever, authorities across the country are seeing an increase in the number of rescue situations gone bad. At the recent American Association of Equine Practitioners convention in Orlando, Fla., a panel of experts devoted an entire afternoon to helping veterinarians understand the legal and ethical implications involved in reporting cruelty cases and helping investigators document them.

There is no centralized authority keeping track of the numbers of horses reported neglected by owners each year, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals suggests the number is growing. ASPCA is often called in large-scale neglect cases of all species to provide volunteer manpower and veterinary expertise.

It's also becoming more common than ever to receive reports of large-scale neglect from farms operating as non-profit horse rescues. Dr. Jennifer Williams, president and co-founder of Blue Bonnet Equine Humane Society, pointed out the number of rescues has grown with the number of unwanted horses. When she began working in horse rescue 18 years ago, she was one of very few in that role in the state of Texas.

“Now you can't hardly walk down the road without stumbling into a rescue. They're everywhere,” said Williams, who noted there are now more than 400 organizations listed with the Internal Revenue Service as being a “horse” or “equine” rescue/humane society.

It's only logical that some of those organizations will be ill-equipped to handle the unending need for their services, the panel agreed.

This means veterinarians need to be aware of the laws governing animal cruelty and neglect in their state and county and have an idea of who to call before they need to report a case. Some vets hesitate to report cases because they assume if the owner is ordering medical care for an animal, they can't be considered to be abusing the animal. Others may believe they have to know who is responsible for abuse or neglect before reporting it (they don't), or feel uncomfortable reporting a case in which the animals belong to someone who's not a client. It's also important for veterinarians to know the language of their state's animal welfare laws, and the difference in “cruelty” (an act of commission, like beating an animal) versus “neglect” (an act of omission, like withholding feed).

“Just because you or I may feel something constitutes abuse, doesn't mean the law recognizes it as such,” said Dr. Rachel Touroo, director of veterinary forensics at the ASPCA. “Therefore, you need to familiarize yourself with these laws to form an opinion of what constitutes cruelty or neglect.”

In fact, the non-reporting of a potential abuse case can pose a legal problem for veterinarians; some 11 states require them to report suspicions of abuse. (Kentucky, Florida, and New York have no such requirement; California does.)

Touroo indicated neglect is seen more often in horses than outright abuse and can be attributed to a variety of factors. Some owners (or rescues) run out of funding, others don't have the necessary education to understand how to feed or care for animals. Others could experience depression or other emotional issues related to caregiver stress. Still others, Touroo said, have physical or mental health issues limiting their capacity to provide care. Mental health issues often manifest in the form of hoarding both animals and objects. In Touroo's experience, people involved in these cases have lost touch with reality, and insist their crowded, starving, or ill animals are happy and healthy, even if it's obvious they are not.

“They often will remain vigilant with this defense, all the way through court, even if they're found guilty,” said Touroo. “They will insist they were providing the best care for these animals and no one else could care for these animals like they do.”

Despite this odd defense, people with overcrowded farms can also be aware enough of the horse's physical appearance to hide the worst-looking animals on the back of the property, so veterinarians are encouraged to keep their eyes open. People operating rescues with this issue are sometimes known to refuse visitors to the facility, seem to focus on acquiring more animals rather than adopting out from their herd, and may insist upon accepting donated horses at a remote location.

Once a case has been identified and reported, veterinarians were encouraged to volunteer their support to local law enforcement. Some areas have dedicated animal control officers who may have training in identifying symptoms of malnourishment or untreated disease, but others are completely unprepared.

If veterinarians are brought in to help with an investigation, ASPCA has a suggested protocol for getting neglected horses treated without disrupting the legal case. Vets should take photographs of each horse throughout the treatment process from all angles, and establish identification numbers and descriptions of animals early on. Horses with contagious diseases should be quarantined and those diseases reported to the state's animal health department if required. Medical records belong to the veterinarian and cannot legally be released without a subpoena (or permission from the animal's owner), but should be maintained extensively for use in prosecution. This includes notes on normal findings or on vital signs and even means veterinarians shouldn't delete blurry or out-of-focus photos from their phones. Dr. Nicole Eller, field shelter veterinarian, noted this causes gaps in metadata which could provide a defense lawyer a line of questioning in court.

Law enforcement should be tipped to any unusual equipment on the property such as veterinary drugs or surgical supplies. Possession of these items could constitute additional charges and could help identify accomplices.

Vets should also not refrain from billing the appropriate party for their treatment of the animals, since this demonstrates to the court the financial impact of restoring animals to health (though they shouldn't expect speedy payment, either).

Ultimately, veterinarians' role is to provide clarity, and hopefully in turn, justice and safety for the animal.

“We are advocates, in these cases, for the truth,” said Eller. “We as vets are used to being advocate for the animal, and in a lot of cases it should probably be the same thing. You don't need to describe guilt or innocence; you just need to describe your findings.”

  • Quilla

    Kentucky, horse capital of the world, leading from the rear…again.

    • Kathy Young

      And California, which has rules for (or against) everything, does nothing once the complaint is lodged. There are three scenarios to the lodging of the complaint. One, the officers drive by, assess the situation (as in, ‘Yes, there are horses in this field’) and then drive home again. The second, if someone does take in a horse with low body score to rehab it, the person is harassed by the AC, cited for abusing the animal and given something like 10 days to make the situation better. The third is, the person who calls to complain is told by AC that the agency is “aware of the problem.” And nothing is done.

  • Mindy

    “Some vets hesitate to report cases because they assume if the owner is ordering medical care for an animal, they can’t be considered to be abusing the animal.”
    and they probably also fear that, if it gets out that they report suspected neglect or abuse by people who call them for help, that owners will stop calling them, and just let the animal suffer & die, hoping to never be discovered, it’s a tough catch 22, there are people who get in over their heads, and don’t have the knowledge, experience, or money to properly care for horses, and, IMHO, if they call before the horse gets too bad, they should be helped & educated, not punished, if they really were trying to do their best, but for purposeful abusers, they should be punished as harshly as is possible

  • Mindy

    “Just because you or I may feel something constitutes abuse, doesn’t mean the law recognizes it as such,”
    …and that is why so many animals die long, drawn out, torturous deaths

  • pachyderm

    this may be hard to swallow for most of you. bring back the slaughter houses. they serve a purpose as all animal lovers understand. I understand. Unless YOU want to put up the dollars needed to keep these unfortunate animals alive. It is better for all concerned. What’s better? Letting those poor souls that can’t pay their way starve or letting the owners have a way out? That’s a tough one. It’s a tough question but one that needs to be addressed. every day horses die from neglect.

    • Terri Z

      Rather than slaughter the unwanted horses, why not painlessly euthanizing them? This is a much more humane solution. And when registering a horse for the Jockey Club, the Jockey Club should require that funds be set aside for the aftercare of each horse registered. And if 0.5 to 1% of the sale price, for each horse sold, went to aftercare this could really help. Australia is now addressing this.

      • Mimi Hunter

        So you would rather let those babies starve to death in Africa and elsewhere? Doesn’t make sense.

        • Pop N Go

          Horses as food? Yes that actually happens almost everywhere but the U. S. They are good clean eaters should be fantastic source of protein.

        • Yes Master

          The meat goes to wealthy countries, Japan, the EU (or what comprised the EU) not to third world countries. Some parts go to rendering plants for animal food. But please, starving Africans, no, and I don’t know where you get those facts. It is not used to feed starving people. The price per pound of horse right now is less than beef per pound so its economics for slaughter.

          • Mimi Hunter

            Sure, it goes to the wealthy countries. But if you add protein at the top of the food supply, there is more protein left at the bottom to be sent to anywhere it is needed. Simple logic. I just watched bred cows go through auction, bringing $2,000 to $2,500 each – the calf/feeder market is also holding up. Horses have more meat left after slaughter than a cow/ steer/ bull does. The price of horses around race tracks is lower than else where because the killers have to figure in the ones that won’t be accepted because of medications.

      • Pop N Go

        Have you ever seen a horse put down? In most cases its way more vialant than a bolt to the head or a well placed bullet. Then you also get to pay anywhere from $200 on up to have the horse removed from your property. Instead of having a few hundred dollars to buy hay.

        • OldRN

          That’s a complete lie. I’ve euthanized several horses via competent vet in the course of my 72 years. There was nothing violent about it. Every one of them laid down from the tranquilizer, then gradually stopped breathing, and that was it!

          If an owner or trainer can’t cough up $200 to euthanize via vet, they have no business owning or training, period!

        • Yes Master

          I have not only seen euthanasia, but was standing with my horses as I had my broodmares, weanlings and aged horses euthanized. It is not violent. Unless of course you if use Rocal a disinfectant as the killing agent, which has been used by vets because its cheap. As to the vet and removal fee 200.00 keeps the horse out of the slaughter pipeline and provides a humane end at home. And evidently you really have no knowledge of how horrific travel to slaughter plants and the actual slaughter procedure is. Have you seen them screaming and scrambling and mortally wounded? I think not. I have and its a vision no one wants to remember.

        • susanmeanslily

          A well-placed bullet or bolt kills instantly. Many people can’t take the “sound” of it, though…and if the horse isn’t going to harvested for the meat, it is best to do the shot to the brainstem (back of head, where it ties into spinal cord) A head shot to the fore-brain is used to bleed out for harvest, but because it enables the heart to continue beating for a couple of minutes, (to help the bleeding out) and also the body has some nervous system activity, people don’t understand that the horse is brain dead…it is completely oblivious. the people who see the videos of twitching horses get freaked out.
          Chemical euthanasia is a worry to me due to the contamination. It has been known to kill birds and wildlife if not buried immediately and can poison the water table. I’m sure the microbes in Mother Earth aren’t happy about the poison, either…but it is all about people’s delicate sensibilities…

    • Mimi Hunter

      I agree. Look at the before and after pictures of American Mustangs. Often the slaughterhouse is the more humane way to treat a horse. I’ve seen them ‘rescued’, brought back to being a useful horse again, and then drop right back down to the bottom again. With people starving to death every day for want of a little protein in their diet, it seems inhumane to limit the food chain quite that much. Horses who kill, injure, or maim people should be removed.

      • peggy conroy

        people can learn to control their numbers, horses owned by irresponsible people cannot…big difference here

      • OldRN

        You do realize that “people starving to death for want of a little protein…” do not live anywhere even close to where North American slaughter houses are, and would never receive anything?

        And no, slaughter houses are far from humane. Hence why the meat I eat comes from what I/my family hunt.

        Certainly horses can be removed, via licensed vet. Can’t afford it? Then you can’t afford a horse.

        • Mimi Hunter

          Adding protein to the top of the food supply means more would filter down to the bottom. There wouldn’t be a market for horse meat if it wasn’t needed.
          You hunt? So do I. Ever have to shoot an animal twice? Or have to track it for more than about 50 feet after it was hit? I haven’t.
          A horse that’s down or so badly injured or hurt that recovery is impossible [and that’s the Vet’s call] should be put down where they are or loaded in a trailer and taken to a place where that’s done [ie: like is done at the race tracks].

    • Pop N Go

      You got that right horses are livestock not companion animals.

      • OldRN

        That depends on the owner and the treatment of the animal. Treat them like mere livestock, and that is how they will behave. Treat them like a partner, and that is how they will behave. Amazing the amount of success I’ve had with my partners, over the course of my life. They were more than willing to earn me a very comfortable retirement.

        • Mimi Hunter

          Agree totally. But not with the one that went up and over – killing a 5 year old boy. I am also an old RN, I did about 80% of my horse buying at auction. The ‘killers’ aren’t usually interested in the horses I like. Horses with dangerous habits or chronic ailments don’t need to go anywhere except to the killers. When decent riding/driving horses started going for slaughter, the ones left for people to buy were: 1] expensive, 2] healthy, and 3] no really bad habits. It’s been a long time since I rode or drove a horse, but my opinions haven’t changed much – I broke a guys jaw for crippling a horse I sold him, so she had to go to the killers.

    • Cure

      Yes non profit horse rescues some are very bad inspected slaughter house are a good answer to the problem years back they were sent there and no more worries about the future of the animal . If I think back what a friend said it’s part of the food chain for other animals and not the abusers at some of these rescues

    • Mr. Moo

      We should extend that to prisoners the old and infirm and the habitual offenders …soilent green.. (old move google it)

      • Larry Ensor

        lol, I don’t have to Google it. Saw it as a kid and many times since. Soilent Green, IMO it is a great metaphor, analogy.

        Pretty sure it was the last movie Edward G Robertson did. A swan song, in the same way The Shootist was for John Wayne

      • Quilla


        “Soylent is an open source meal replacement, advertised as a ‘staple meal’, available in liquid and powdered forms as a beverage, and as a solid-form meal bar. Its creators state that Soylent meets all nutritional requirements for an average adult.”

        They probably should have another committee meeting to discuss this name.

  • Larry Ensor

    I let my mares mane get long and shaggy. Have always felt it is what nature intended. Helps keep their neck warm in the winter, sheds water, etc. In the summer shades from the hot sun, bugs when they shake it back and forth.

    Had a Vet in repro KY tell a partner the mares arrived from my out of state farm in poor condition with long shaggy manes and coat. One cultured “dirty” even though she was checked and cultured “clean” days before she shipped. Threw me under the bus which cause a falling out with a partner. A person who knew little to nothing about about horses other than paper pedigrees.

    • Probably the vet did I wrong and didn’t use a proper guarded uterine swab. Touch anything outside the cervix and heck yes it will culture bad, not that uncommon a mistake, lack of knowledge or not paying attention

      I have a few wolly mammoths myself this time of year. Clipping ears nope.. looks nice but it’s there for a reason

      • Larry Ensor

        I hear you and feel the same. I don’t like cleaning up, clipping their nose/muzzel these hairs are there/used for a reason. I have found if you don’t clip their fetlock “feathers” they are less prone to “scratches”. Those “feathers” wick, allow the water to drip off fetlock instead of down the back of their pastern creating, maintaining a nice “growing medium” for bacteria.

        I understand why it is done for the look. We won’t win best turned out in the show ring with our re-schools but I don’t care. The person who buys them can do what they want.

        The mare I referenced turned out to have other reproductive issues that had nothing to do with her care at my farm. Never the less I was thrown under the bus. What was VERY disappointing was the farm she went to in KY a farm I suggested the owner/manager didn’t call me first to discuss. He through me under the forking bus. VERY BAD form. Nor was a call made to the attending Vet here. I owned 45% why would I “abuse” her?????

  • susanmeanslily

    The USDA is quite capable of keeping our food supply safe. They are the ones testing every single food item you buy in a store or restaurant. Why would you believe they aren’t capable of testing horse meat? They are scientists and specialize in that.

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