This decision has been designated as "Supreme Court of Vermont Appeals Disposed of Without Published Opinion or Memorandum Decision." table in the Atlantic Reporter
Appeal from: Superior Court, Cal. Crim. Division. DOCKET NO. 288-4-14 Cacr. Trial Judge: Robert R. Bent.
Dooley, Robinson, and Eaton, Jr., J.J.
In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter: Defendant appeals pro se from the trial court's order requiring him to forfeit twenty-one horses that had been taken into custody in connection with an animal-cruelty investigation. We affirm.
The record indicates the following. In June 2014, the State asked the Caledonia Superior Court to order forfeiture of twenty-one horses owned by defendant and seized pursuant to 13 V.S.A. § 354(d). The State asserted that defendant had deprived the horses of adequate food, water, and necessary medical attention, thereby committing the crime of cruelty to animals. At the outset of the first day of the hearing, the court denied defendant's motion to continue, noting the statutory requirement that a hearing be held within twenty-one days of a seizure. Id. § 354(e)(1). But on the second day of testimony, approximately two weeks later, defendant had an opportunity to and did call witnesses of his own. Following a hearing, the court granted the State's request.
The trial court made the following findings. Defendant owns and operates the " Bona Ranch" in Lyndon. In February 2014, a deputy sheriff who had training in animal-cruelty investigations was asked to investigate concerns about horses at the ranch. On February 11, 2014, the deputy sheriff went to look at the animals. He observed a number of very thin horses with protruding ribs, back bones, and pelvic bones. The deputy sheriff noted 1-2 feet of manure in some stalls without bedding. He also noted some animals with cracked hooves. Defendant told the sheriff that he stopped watering the horses when the outside temperature fell below freezing. Defendant also stated that he performed his own veterinary work. The sheriff discussed relinquishing some of the horses with defendant. The deputy sheriff later received a report of a dead horse on the property, and decided to take more comprehensive action. He obtained a search warrant on March 1, 2014.
On March 1, the deputy sheriff went to defendant's property with the search warrant. A veterinarian and other volunteers accompanied the sheriff. The deputy sheriff informed defendant that he had a warrant and that defendant could relinquish the horses if he chose. The deputy sheriff explained what relinquishment entailed and was satisfied that defendant understood his explanation. Defendant stated that he would relinquish the horses. However, he refused to sign a voluntary ownership relinquishment form.
The animals were each assigned a number, inspected by the veterinarian, and photographed. The veterinarian evaluated the horses' physical condition and level of hydration. He also noted any apparent hoof problems. The inspections started at approximately 4 p.m., and because of the large number of animals, some inspections were conducted after sunset using either ambient or artificial light. The veterinarian testified, and the court found, that there was adequate light to evaluate the animals.
Large animals such as horses are assigned a body condition score, which is a commonly-used scale in animal husbandry. The scoring scale is designed to note horses that are either too fat or too thin. An ideal horse is assigned a score of 5; horses fattier than the ideal are scored up to 9; horses thinner than the ideal are scored down to a 1. The scoring sheets used by the veterinarian on the scene in this case called for the scorer to evaluate individual components of each animal, such as the condition at the neck, withers, loin, crease, tailhead, ribs, and behind the shoulder. A horse's total body condition rating is, according to the structure of these forms, derived from the average of the individual component scores. The veterinarian here did not break down his scoring into the individual parts, but rather assigned an overall body condition score based on his assessment of the animals' overall health. The court found that, while the veterinarian's evaluation was not as detailed as the court might wish, the work performed was adequate for an evaluation of defendant's horses. It also found that the corresponding photographs were, in most cases, insufficiently detailed to provide any assistance to the court.
Six of defendant's horses scored a 1; seven horses scored a 2; seven horses scored a 3; and one horse scored a 4. Based on the scale, horses with a body score of 1 and 2 are showing signs of emaciation. A score of 3 is still regarded as thin, but if some explanation is given for a horse being that thin, such as a work schedule or having recently foaled, there might be no health implication for the horse. Absent an explanation, however, a score of 3 indicates that a horse was not being given enough nutrients.
The veterinarian also noted when he concluded that a horse suffered from dehydration. The veterinarian indicated that the snow banks in the horse yard had been eaten back, indicating that the horses were satisfying their hydration needs by eating snow. The veterinarian also found that sixteen horses were approximately 2% dehydrated and one horse was 4% dehydrated. This confirmed that the horses did not have a free choice of water. The veterinarian had used a pinch test of the horses' skin to determine the state of their hydration. The skin of a 2% dehydrated horse will not return to shape promptly when pinched.
The court added that after the veterinarian left, three dead horses were found in a Quonset hut on defendant's property. No cause of death was determined, and there was no testimony as to the animals' cause of death. The court thus could not reach any conclusion about the cause of death with respect to any individual horse. Given that three horses died, however, the court concluded that the overall conditions at the ranch, including lack of adequate food and water, at least contributed to these animals' deaths.
The court also found that seven of the seized horses had cracked hooves, and a number of the horses had tails that were very heavily matted with burdocks. While not linked to any particular health issue, the veterinarian testified that the matted burdocks can lead to skin problems and tail injury. The only fully healthy horse in the herd, #4, which was adequately hydrated and had a body score of 4, had matted burdocks in its tail. One horse, #3, was rated with a body score of 3 and had no evidence of dehydration. There was no information provided to the court that suggested that the horse was being worked or had some other explanation regarding why it was thin. The court thus concluded that ...