Horse neglect reaches alarming level across Georgia

Overwhelmed rescue group pushes for reform as state Department of Agriculture is under new leadership; Waverly Hall farm highlights difficulty of enforce

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 27, 2011 

  • The Georgia Humane Care for Equines Act, passed in 1992, states in part that it is unlawful for the owner of any equine to: • Fail to provide adequate food and water • Fail to provide humane care • Unnecessarily overload, overdrive, torment, or beat any equine or to cause the death of any equine in a cruel or inhumane manner • Interfere with or hinder the agriculture commissioner or his designated agent or any sheriff, deputy sheriff, or other law enforcement officer in carrying out his duties under this law • Violate O.C.G.A. 16-2-4 relating to cruelty to animals Source: O.C.G.A. 4-13-3
  • The Tennessee Walking Horse, or Tennessee Walker, was originally bred in the South and was preferred by plantation owners for its leisurely gait. Known for their smooth gait and stamina, the horses originated from the Narragansett Pacer and the Canadian Pacer, which were blended by breeders seeking a horse that could be ridden all day. Today, they often are noted for their unique four-beat “running walk” and their calm, forgiving demeanor. The annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration is held each year in Shelbyville, Tenn. The event draws participants from all over the country.

In her heyday of horse breeding, Linda D. Crowley counted among her equine companions a legendary stud named Pride’s Generator, the sorrel once considered the envy of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry.

A world grand champion, Generator awed crowds and judges year after year in Shelbyville, Tenn., with an unmistakable flaxen mane and high-stepping gait. His success as a show horse propelled him to a prolific career as a sire, during which he produced more than 2,300 progeny before his death in 2001.

Today, Crowley owns about 100 horses and a farm just east of Waverly Hall that has quietly drawn a much different kind of attention. Neighbors and local animal rights advocates have increasingly voiced concern that some of the horses roaming the sprawling pastures aren’t getting enough to eat.

“These people have been perpetual violators for the last six to eight years,” said Van Hendricks, a Waverly Hall horse owner who said he has seen underweight horses on Crowley’s farm on many occasions. “The horses were just not taken care of.”

The Georgia Department of Agriculture has maintained an open file on the farm for years and regularly sent inspectors to the property. Citing the pending case, officials would not release documents related to the farm or discuss the inspections in detail. But agency officials acknowledged they have repeatedly asked for improvements on the farm because some standards haven’t been met. During an inspection this month, “six or seven” horses remained underweight to some degree, said Venessa Sims-Green, the agency’s interim director of equine health.

While it is by no means the most extreme case state inspectors have encountered, the Crowley farm highlights some of the challenges inherited by the administration of Gary W. Black, the newly minted agriculture commissioner. Fueled by an ailing economy, horse neglect across Georgia has reached an alarming level that has stretched the state’s already-thin resources and overwhelmed horse rescue groups.

Widespread abuse

Black replaced Tommy Irvin, who decided to step aside last year after leading the agency for nearly 42 years. The changing of the guard has prompted calls for stricter enforcement of the laws written to protect the state’s horses.

Patty Livingston, president of the Georgia Equine Rescue League, said lower horse prices, unbridled overbreeding and the disappearance of slaughterhouses have contributed to an unprecedented amount of horse neglect.

“It’s rampant,” Livingston said. “We’ve got more horses right now than we’ve ever had in our 18 years of existence.”

Livingston recently met with Black and urged him to tighten the reins on neglectful animal owners and impose more fines to deter violations and return much needed dollars to the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Currently, violators of the state’s Humane Care for Equines Act often receive a mere “slap on the wrist,” Livingston said, even when the state has to impound a malnourished horse.

Georgia law requires owners to provide adequate food and water to their horses, and grants state inspectors and law enforcement officials the authority to investigate reports of abuse. Violations are typically misdemeanors, but can be prosecuted as felonies in aggravated cases.

“Let’s go after the people who are causing the problem,” Livingston said. “I’m pushing for change. I’m pushing for prosecution. Let’s make this profitable.”

Black did not return calls from the Ledger-Enquirer last week, but according to Livingston, the new commissioner was receptive to her presentation.

The Crowley farm

The farm, located off Ga. 208, has been on the radar of the Georgia Department of Agriculture since at least 2003, when three malnourished horses were impounded and Crowley and her companion, John E. Weaver, received citations for animal cruelty and failure to provide adequate food, which led to probation.

In April 2004, the entire herd of horses was quarantined due to an outbreak of strangles, a contagious disease.

At the time, Irvin, the former agriculture commissioner, described the situation as “a real problem.”

“We’ve had them in hearings and under a consent order. We’ve rescued horses,” Irvin told the Ledger-Enquirer in a 2004 interview. “They’ve got horses that have been neglected.”

Irvin said last week he was pleased to hear his former colleagues were still checking on the Crowley farm.

“I’m delighted to know that the current commissioner is following up on things that we were working on,” he said. “It’s a controversial program but it’s a program that needs to be in place.”

State officials have continued to keep an eye on the Crowley farm, but the follow-up visits -- at least six since March 2009 -- have yielded no violations, Sims-Green said.

Weaver, 66, a horse lover who said he has ridden since he was 6 years old, acknowledged there have been challenges on his farm, but he said the seven horses that officials said had questionable body scores this month have been moved to a new location on the farm and are doing better. He denied accusations that he has neglected the horses, and said he moved most of them away from the front pasture to avert complaints from passers-by.

Several details about the case remain unclear. After the Ledger-Enquirer filed an Open Records Request seeking documents related to the Crowley case, the Georgia Department of Agriculture took two weeks to verbally deny access to any records. Georgia law allows custodians of records “a reasonable amount of time” to determine whether requested information is public, but states the time shall “in no event” exceed three business days.

When asked about the horses last week, Crowley denied any knowledge of the state inspections and declined to be interviewed at her business in Ellerslie. After learning of the newspaper’s inquiries, Weaver on Wednesday invited a reporter and photographer to the farm for a tour, but he canceled the arrangement the next day.

For his part, Weaver insists he has bent over backwards to provide for his animals at a time when the breeding industry is nowhere near as profitable as the days of Pride’s Generator. He said he spends at least $1,000 a week on 13,000 pounds of hay. State inspectors have only come to his farm because of the bevy of complaints, Weaver said, not because of a concern for the well-being of the animals.

“I’m in good standing with the state,” Weaver said.

Hendricks, the Waverly Hall farmer, said Crowley and Weaver have dealt with the state long enough to know how to “skirt the issue” and provide enough sustenance for the horses to appease inspectors following up on the case.

“These people know how to play the game,” said Hendricks, who added he has eight horses and has never received a visit from state inspectors. Another Waverly Hall farmer who has had up to 30 horses recalled just one visit from the state in 13 years.

Local law enforcement

Some animal rights advocates said in interviews they would welcome stricter enforcement, but worried it would be cost prohibitive for the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

“They’re so overloaded and underfunded that it’s ridiculous,” said Rhonda Jackson, founder of the Begin Again Farms equine shelter in Ellerslie. “They don’t have enough investigators to go out there and even check on neglected animals.”

The agency’s website last week showed inspector vacancies for three regions, including a 16-county swath in the southern part of the state.

Jackson said she rarely pursues the prosecution of violators, even in the most egregious cases, because her main concern is saving neglected horses.

“We try to approach whoever it is and bite our tongues,” Jackson said. “If I start to actually get nasty with them and say they’ll get prosecuted, they’ll slam the door in my face and the animal will die.

“There’s nobody fining them, and they can do basically anything they want to,” she added. “There’s a special place in hell for those people. I hate that they don’t get punished.”

Livingston, the rescue league president, said local authorities have the legal power to put people in jail and impound horses, and should intervene more swiftly in cases of abuse.

“We have laws on the books, but they’re not being enforced,” she said. “I know that the inspectors are totally ticked off and sick about what’s going on in Waverly Hall, but when they try to get the cooperation of the local law enforcement, they get nothing.”

A Georgia Department of Agriculture official responded to a recent inquiry about the Crowley case by explaining it was “halted in Atlanta,” and that the inspector’s “hands r tied,” according to a copy of the e-mail provided to the Ledger-Enquirer. An agency spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the e-mail.

It isn’t uncommon throughout rural Georgia for people worried about animal neglect to encounter reluctance on the part of local lawmen, said Joan Sammond, the former executive director of the Muscogee County Humane Society and founder of the Georgia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“Sometimes we run into these small-town, rural counties, and it’s the cousin to the sheriff and they don’t want to get involved,” said Sammond, now affiliated with the Georgia Humane Society. “I know Talbot is a county that doesn’t always want to work with you when you’re dealing with the animal stuff.”

Jackson, the Ellerslie equine shelter owner, said she is careful not to “push the authorities too much, because you don’t want to have problems for your shelter.”

“Everybody knows everybody, and they’re just not going to step in and rock the boat,” she said of small towns.

Talbot County Sheriff Herman Howard didn’t return calls for comment last week.

Bill Johnson, the retired Talbot County sheriff, said he remembered the Georgia Department of Agriculture seizing animals from the Crowley farm, but he could not recall any complaints during his tenure about the well-being of the horses.

“We never got involved,” Johnson said. “It was strictly handled by the state, and that was the end of it.”

Johnson said he is friends with Weaver and that they were about three years apart in high school. Weaver last week referred to Johnson as his attorney, but Johnson said their relationship did not prevent him from looking into the farm because there was no reason to investigate it.

Ignorance or neglect

Dr. Bryan M. Waldridge, a professor at Auburn University in 2004, visited the Crowley farm after a state inspection and made feeding recommendations.

“There were horses that needed to gain weight for sure,” said Waldridge, now a veterinarian at Kentucky Equine Research in Versailles. “But I don’t think it was a terrible case. To me, the horses were taken care of. There was concern for the horses, but it just was a situation where they needed more to eat.”

Waldridge added he didn’t sense anything malicious about the underfeeding of the horses.

“I think what happens in a lot of these cases is it’s ignorance, which just means lack of knowledge,” he said. “The other thing is outright neglect -- and I don’t think that was the case there. I don’t think anyone was doing anything to hurt the horses.”

Jackson said she consistently encounters horse owners who don’t know what they’re doing, especially as the price of equines has fallen.

“When someone adopts a horse from us, I’m a real stickler about ‘You have to know what it actually takes,’” she said. “People need to understand it’s not like purchasing a dog.”

Though they cringe at the notion of killing horses, several equine enthusiasts said they supported the re-opening of slaughterhouses. Amid pressure from animal-rights groups, the last slaughterhouses in the U.S. closed in 2007 after lawmakers pulled funding for inspections, which were required for the export of meat to foreign markets.

“Now they have no place to send these horses, and if they can’t afford to feed them and they can’t get rid of them, they’re just starving,” Jackson said.

Despite the widespread neglect of horses, Livingston said she is optimistic about the new administration and the months to come.

She said the Georgia Equine Rescue League plans to dispatch volunteers to educate law enforcement officials around the state about the warning signs of horse abuse.

“If you think that animal advocacy has gone away, you’re wrong,” Livingston said.

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