From the Sonoma County Horse Council's Horse Journal, Spring 2009.
IN A COUNTY with more than 20,000 horses, Sonoma County Animal Care and Control is stretched thin. It handles the needs of unwanted and stray dogs, cats and other domestic pets, as well as injured wild animals and livestock from the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, the city of Santa Rosa and the town of Windsor. It also responds to calls about abused, neglected and stray horses and livestock.
Small animals find safe haven at the county’s Santa Rosa shelter, but horses do not. Currently, Animal Control does not have facilities for horses, or the funding, personnel or training to care for them. Despite the best of intentions, the County of Sonoma has never had a solid equine care and control program in place.
That changed in 2007, with the founding of the non-profit organization the Sonoma County C.H.A.N.G.E Program, or Coins to Help Abandoned And NeGlected Equines. Concerned about Animal Control’s limited resources for handling horse cases, a group of community members formed CHANGE as a support network for the Sonoma County Animal Control department to call on for assistance with horse abuse, abandonment, or neglect cases.
CHANGE provides housing, veterinary care, farrier care and adoption services for horses that enter Animal Control’s custody. Since the organization’s founding, it has assisted Animal Control with 37 horses, 20 of whom ultimately entered the program as foster horses. Eighteen of those horses have been adopted by area residents. According to Petaluma veterinarian Grant Miller, simply caring for horses who are victims of abuse and neglect without addressing the root of the issue “enables the problem.” Miller, who helped found CHANGE after euthanizing an emaciated and severely dehydrated horse left tied to a fence in 100-degree heat, describes a multi-pronged approach to the challenge of horse neglect in Sonoma County. It all starts, and ends, with the law.“ The law is the bottom line,” says Miller, “and if you enforce the law, you pull the situation up by the bootstraps.”
"A journey of a thousand miles
begins with one step."
By offering intensive support and au-gratis expert witness testimony to Animal Control and the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office, CHANGE helps these organizations to more effectively build cases against and prosecute horse abusers. Several criminal cases have already made their way through the legal system, resulting in felony animal cruelty convictions in part because of the organization’s persistence. The Animal Control Department and the Sonoma County District Attorney have utilized CHANGE as a resource in handling cases effectively.
In October, 2008, former Bloomfield resident Salvador Barrera was convicted of felony animal cruelty by a jury and received county jail time for locking his emaciated, colicking horse, “Yiyo,” in a stall, where it died without medical care. Miller, who has forensic veterinary training, spent two days on the witness stand as he described the necropsy he performed on the dead horse. The trial played out before a courtroom packed with North Bay residents and attracted national media coverage, expanding community awareness of horse abuse issues. Barrera’s two surviving horses, “Jack” and “Katie,” were rehabilitated and placed into adoptive homes by the CHANGE Program.
Last September, one the county’s darkest and longest-running horse neglect and abuse cases quietly came to a head when Penngrove resident Pat Tremaine was convicted of two counts of felony animal cruelty. Tremaine, who kept two Thoroughbreds locked in 12 x 24 mare motel pens for upwards of 15 years, failed to provide the horses with consistent exercise or veterinary or farrier care. The horses subsisted primarily on a diet of stale bread and rotting produce. “Argus” and “Bobby” were relinquished to Animal Control and transferred into CHANGE foster homes. They were successfully rehabilitated by CHANGE volunteers and later adopted. Several more cases like these are pending. Before CHANGE, equine cruelty cases might never have made it to the courtroom at all, despite the best efforts of law enforcement and the District Attorney.
The organization recognizes that prevention of horse abuse and neglect before it occurs is preferable to prosecuting and punishing offenders. Knowing that Animal Control officers are on the front line in horse cases, CHANGE is working to offer education programs for officers in order to give them a better understanding of basic management and handling of horses, standards of care, and body condition scoring. In addition, CHANGE helps officers develop an educated eye that can alert them to abusive activities such as horse tripping. A component of underground Hispanic rodeo events, horse tripping involves making a horse run at high speeds and then roping it by the legs to pull it down. Horse tripping is illegal in the state of California.
Future plans for the organization include a traffic school-like program for offenders, offering education on animal cruelty laws and standards of horse care and management in place of a misdemeanor conviction.
It’s a tall order for a little organization that subsists solely on volunteer labor and donations from the community, but CHANGE is already showing Sonoma County that big changes can come from small efforts. “We’re taking a new approach to an old problem,” says Miller. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”