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Sheriff's Office investigates reported animal abuse

By Jessica Priest
April 9, 2013 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated April 9, 2013 at 11:10 p.m.

A mare named Skeeter on property on Leary Lane. The photo was taken Friday.

A Victoria man reluctantly gave away a mare he bought for his 9-year-old son and its foal this week after area animal lovers reported to law enforcement that the horse looked emaciated.

Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor is still investigating whether the horses' owner, Jerome Leita, 37, should be charged with animal abuse, cruelty or neglect.

O'Connor said Monday that he disagreed with the Victoria County Animal Control's assessment that no abuse had occurred at the estimated 15-acre property in the 3400 block of Leary Lane but would not say why until he further reviewed documents in the case.

Ashlee Cooper, 30, of Victoria, went to check out the situation Thursday while running errands after she noticed people posting it on a Facebook group called "Crossroads Classified Pets, Animals & Rehoming."

"She (the mare) looked like a walking bag of bones, a walking skeleton," Cooper said. "There was no water, food or hay there."

Leita said he "does not know why everyone is raising a stink" about the state of the mare, which he purchased six years ago and named "Skeeter."

He said while pregnant in November, Skeeter ran into some barbed wire fence possibly because she was spooked by some passers-by.

He and a friend nursed Skeeter back to health with medicine because her leg was cut so severely you could see bone.

Skeeter gave birth to her foal in February.

Leita and his brother-in-law kept 10 horses and a handful of donkeys at the rental property. He said he fed them hay once a week and asked neighbors to fill up a nearby water trough.

"It's because she had a colt, and that's the only reason," Leita said about how the birth diminished Skeeter's nutrition. "If she was being starved and had no food, all the horses would be skinny."

Leita said the grass in the pasture was cut recently, and the drought limited grazing options.

"They (the complainants) need to worry about themselves. They probably don't even know anything about a horse, you know?" Leita added.

Leita's friend, David L. Hudler, who lives in a house next to the horses, said he regularly fills up the water trough and cleans leaves out of it as a favor.

"I don't see them starving. I really don't," Hudler said.

Stacie McKinney, to whom Leita gave Skeeter and her foal Monday, said she did not have any personal vendetta against Leita nor does she wish for any legal action against him.

McKinney, an area barrel racer, handed Skeeter and the colt over Monday to a woman residing on five acres in Edna. McKinney declined to identify the woman now caring for the horses because that woman did not want to get involved.

"This doesn't have anything to do with him (Leita) or his character. I would say something if it was the president of the United States, and his horses were like that," said McKinney, 41.

She guessed Skeeter was about 200 to 300 pounds underweight and also did not like how the other horses' manes were not groomed.

"An animal to me is no different than a child. They rely on you to take care of them. If their owner is not doing it, who else will?" McKinney said.

Leita's father, James Leita, meanwhile, said a law that prohibits the slaughtering of horses should be repealed. He said since it was enacted, there are so many horses and donkeys on the market that cannot be sold.

"They eat horses in Europe, but over here they act like it's a cardinal sin ... yet we can mistreat dogs and cats. That's OK," he said, adding that he believes dogs should be left wild and roaming free.

The 64-year-old retired Victoria rancher said he once had to shoot some cows that got stuck in the mud to put them out of their misery. He said his son would take a different approach.

"Jerome is a good person. He is not a cruel person," James Leita said. "If it had been my horse, I would have put it away, but he would not have even thought about that."

Dr. John Beck, a veterinarian at the Hillcrest Animal Hospital, said the slaughter prohibition had some undesirable effects.

"Logically, that was kind of a mistake," he said.

He administers an injection when he must put a horse to sleep, and generally that occurs if their leg is broken because that significantly lowers their quality of life.

He said horse owners should consult both with a vet and their area feed store to see in what ratio and what kinds of feed or hay they should provide. Hay needs to be less than a year old and a finer consistency than hay fed to cows. Grass in a pasture for horse grazing should also be at least 8 inches tall, he said.

"In a normal year, there should be one horse per 15 acres, so overall, they have too many horses on too little land," he said.

He added that with proper nutrition, there is no reason a mare should drop a lot of weight after its 11-month-long pregnancy is completed even with foal nursing for a few months.

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