Horses' deaths illustrate larger cruelty problem in Victoria County

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Sept. 11, 2013 at 4:11 a.m.
Updated Sept. 12, 2013 at 4:12 a.m.

Debbie Bennett Green's camera phone is ready.

Green photographed what appeared to be malnourished horses during one of the sheriff's deputies 10 visits to the 400 block of Raab Road since June.

She deleted the images because deputies photographed the scene, and she thought they would handle it.

On Sept. 4, two horses housed on the property died. A third horse went missing.

"You can only imagine our disappointment," she said.

Officials declined to release the horse owners' name as the investigation continues, and no arrests have been made.

Neighbors, meanwhile, are growing frustrated with the responding agencies' apparent disconnect in the animal cruelty reporting process for Victoria County.

"The deputies were great," Green said. "They said this was sad and that something needed to be done, and then I don't know what the procedure was after that. ... I don't know what has to happen, but obviously whatever it is it needs to be corrected, updated or something."

"There has to be advocate for large animals," Green's friend Deanna Jacob said.

The agencies disagree about who should initiate animal cruelty investigations in the county.

"If it is livestock in the county, the sheriff's office needs to be notified first. In the city, if there's a problem with livestock, they (residents) can call our department," said Heather Kern, assistant supervisor for the Victoria County Animal Control.

But Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor offered a different opinion.

"I'd like to see the policy or statute that says you have to get a hold of the sheriff first. I haven't seen it," he said.

Deputies responded appropriately and considered many complicated factors for this case, O'Connor said.

Residents should urge their elected officials to not only clarify who is responsible for what but also allocate more resources to the agencies that house the large animals, he said.

The Victoria County Animal Control already keeps large animals in a 6-acre pasture and three pens by the airport and works with rescue organizations to adopt them out, Kern said.

O'Connor said the limited space means he must take livestock to his ranch and rehabilitate them at his expense. At one point, his ranch was home to seven horses and eight donkeys he did not own.

"Sooner or later, my family is going to say quit sending them," he said.

Kevin Janak, Precinct 2 Commissioner, stressed animal owners need to be responsible but couldn't say whether the county should pick up the slack when they are not responsible.

Officials have not yet made plans to accommodate larger animals, nor are they scheduled to discuss it at upcoming public meetings, he said.

"But we're always looking for ideas and solutions. We never turn our back on them," Janak said.

In the 2012 budget, animal control's operating expenses were $71,100. The bulk of that money was spent on utilities, $26,000; fuel, $15,000; and shelter supplies, $10,000.

Animal cruelty cases also do not typically make it to a jury, said Stephen Tyler, the criminal district attorney.

His office has not filed any felony animal cruelty cases since 2008, District Clerk Cathy Stuart said.

And there are three misdemeanor animal cruelty cases pending, Chief Deputy County Clerk Betty Tovar said.

The only pending case the sheriff's office investigated involves a man accused of shooting and killing his neighbor's cat with a 12-gauge bird shotgun, according to court records.

Most cases, like the one that occurred Sept. 4, involve a lack of food or water, which are harder to prove because state law says the defendant must have acted unreasonably. The case will be complicated if residents become involved, like providing hay to the starving animals out of pity, Tyler said.

"Someone might come to rely on the goodwill of their neighbors," he said. "If he or she came to rely upon the goodwill of their neighbors, if all of the sudden their neighbors became less gracious, was it unreasonable of that person not to have predicted that? Because I'm going to have to prove that it was unreasonable."

An expert must also testify the owner's actions led to the animal's death.

Texas animal rescue organizations, meanwhile, want to lend a hand, but are tightening their belts in the face of a drought and a struggling economy.

Brighter Days Horse Refuge in Pipe Creek houses 66 rescued horses but is now struggling to adopt them out.

Pat Johnson, the secretary and treasurer of the nonprofit, estimated it costs $200 a month to keep the horses healthy.

A 1,000-pound horse should receive 20 pounds of feed a day. Three-fourths of the feed should consist of roughage, or hay and grass; and one-fourth should consist of grain, such as oats and sweet feed. They need to drink 10 to 12 gallons of water during that time, too, said Dr. Bob Horton, of the Town and Country Veterinarian Clinic.

"But horses are like people. Each one is a little different," he said of adjusting their diet.

During a drought, some horses get sand colic, which is caused by eating in a pasture with scant grass.

"They ingest dirt, which causes an obstruction in their intestinal track that could be fatal," Horton said. "If one horse dies, that's one too many."



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