April 2014 | Boarders Charged, Horses Seized from Former Lycoming County Rescue
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Boarders Charged, Horses Seized from Former Lycoming County Rescue

April 2014 - Suzanne Bush

Boarders Charged, Horses Seized from Former Lycoming County RescueEight horses were seized from the former Back in the Saddle Horse Adoption, which has operated as a boarding stable since 2012, by the Lycoming County, PA Humane Police in late February. Three of the seized horses were owned by boarders, who were also charged with neglect so that their horses could be removed from the premises. The farm’s owners have voluntarily forfeited ownership of the five owned by them and their daughter.

On February 20, Lycoming County Humane Police Officer Larry Woltz seized eight horses from a farm in Linden, PA. It was the culmination of an investigation that Woltz says began in 2007. From beginning to end, the story of these horses is a chronicle of everything that is wrong and many things that are right about the business of protecting animals from the things people do to them.

The eight horses taken from the farm owned by Joni and Ted Fink were neglected, starving, suffering from open sores on their backs and rotting feet. Two dead horses had been buried under manure between two barns on the property.

Absent Owners Unaware of Neglect
Woltz says that the Finks were running a boarding operation at their farm. He has filed charges against them, but also against the owners who were paying the Finks to take care of their horses. “In order for us to possibly secure all eight horses I filed citations on everybody—Joni, Ted, the boarders,” he explains. He said he was following legal precedents in equine law. Legally he could not seize horses that were not owned by the farm, unless he charged the absent owners of the horses that were also seized.

Among the horses taken from the farm were two that belonged to the Finks and three that belonged to their daughter. The Finks and their daughter have voluntarily forfeited ownership of their horses.

Two of the horses—stallions—belong to a man from West Chester, who Woltz says had not seen the animals in more six months. He had been paying monthly board to the Finks. A woman from South Carolina claimed ownership of another horse. She, too, had been paying board to the Finks, but had not seen her horse in a long time. Both of these owners retain ownership of their horses.

“There’s a hearing scheduled for April 10,” Woltz says. “We’re hoping to have everybody there. So our normal procedure is that we try to get forfeiture, which is written in the law.” Forfeiture would permit the farm that is now caring for the horses to find new owners and get compensation for all they’ve invested in the care and rehabilitation.

Legislation passed last year in Pennsylvania permits rescues and humane organizations to seek compensation for care of seized animals from the farms where the animals had been neglected and abused. But that legislation ultimately provides leverage that persuades owners to forfeit their animals. Too often the neglect and resulting starvation of animals arises from farm owners’ inability to pay for proper care.

The horses that Woltz took from the Fink farm were in desperate condition, three of them were scored a 1 on the Henneke scale, according to Pamela Koch, who operates Appalachian Horse Help and Rescue in Linden. “Every day they seem to be improving,” she says. “Three of them are really, really bad yet. It takes about a year for them to recover. Their feet were rotted. They had no frogs.”  Koch says that the horses have been receiving veterinary care, hoof care and a lot of compassionate attention.

A Long, Sad Story
The Finks had been operating a horse rescue at their farm from 2007 until 2012. “I had continuous issues with that rescue,” Woltz says, “and for every year from 2007 to 2012 I went to their place; and the situation would be like nothing serious to a point where you felt the law was being broken and we had grounds to seize animals.” He says that it is not as easy as people like to think for the police and Humane Police Officers to go into a farm and start taking animals.

“It was an open file for all that time because I felt eventually it would come to a point where it was severe neglect.” He said that when the rescue, which was called Back in the Saddle Horse Adoption closed, the Finks started boarding horses, and they also started buying and selling horses through auction. He said that the Lycoming County SPCA was alerted to eroding conditions at the farm by a man who had taken three horses there for boarding. “They were there for about a month and he saw conditions deteriorate,” Woltz says. “Two horses had died. He removed his horses immediately and called here. That information is what I used plus past experiences with that particular property to obtain a search warrant.”

He says that the conditions at the farm were bad, but that the private property rights of individuals must be respected. He points out that Humane Police Officers and the organizations they work for are frequently criticized by the public when animal abuse cases are not solved and fixed quickly. But these cases must be resolved using very precise legal remedies. Too often when the documentation is faulty and warrants are not properly obtained, animals wind up being returned to the people who abused them. It’s a methodical process that tries the patience of everyone who wants to protect animals.

“This case, I’ve been working on this case since 2007. Everything’s been documented over and over again, so they hung themselves, in essence.”  He says that the rules of evidence, and respect for property rights must remain paramount. “Whether it’s one dog or 15 horses, when it gets to a point where legally and without question they should be seized, then we do that.”

Dead Horses Buried in Manure
When word got out that the two dead horses at the Fink farm had been buried in manure, many people were horrified that these animals would be disposed of so callously. But Woltz says that Pennsylvania’s laws regarding disposal of large animals permits owners to “manure pack” them. “By law it’s okay to manure pack large animal carcasses, as long as there is no local ordinance that prohibits it. It has to be 150 yards from any stream.” He said that, done correctly, manure packing is an efficient process, similar to composting. “In this case it was between two barns, but it wasn’t near a running stream, and there was no local township ordinance prohibiting it.”

Although it’s possible the dead animals may have provided additional information that could be used in prosecuting the farm’s owners, Woltz says it was unnecessary. “I just felt there was enough evidence because of the conditions of the horses, I didn’t need to dig them up.”

It’s About the Horses
Woltz is curious about why people would pay someone to take care of their animals, and not pay attention to how those animals are being cared for. He says that people are accountable for the animals they own, whether they have direct control of those animals or not. “My whole thing is that even though five of them (the seized horses) have been signed over, the owners are still subject to the citations and any penalty the court deems appropriate. The horses themselves are the main concern.”

He says that one of the horses was so sick that it went down in the trailer. That horse, along with the others, is doing well at Appalachian Horse Help and Rescue. He says that Koch runs an outstanding rescue operation, and provides the animals on her farm the best of care. He’s worked with her for more than 20 years. The contrast between her farm and others where he’s had to rescue horses, cows and other large animals, always amazes him.

There are thousands of horses caught in these horrible situations every year in the United States. And news about humane seizures of abused and neglected horses has become so commonplace that for many people the horrific details no longer register. In Pennsylvania, humane law enforcement is, for a variety of reasons, not high on the list of priorities for municipal, county and state police. It is left to Humane Police Officers who are employed by non-profit humane organizations like the SPCA. But in recent years, many humane organizations have redirected their resources to other priorities, and they’ve eliminated the Humane Police Officer positions.

This leaves many counties in Pennsylvania with no one, not one investigator, to look out for the dogs, cats, horses, and cattle on the state’s farms and in homes and dog breeding operations. A lot went wrong for the horses on that farm in Linden; but their lives were saved because a lot of things also went right. Lycoming County SPCA has a Humane Police Officer who did not give up on those horses, who has developed effective partnerships with police and with a credible, well-run rescue farm.

“It’s the training, it’s the reputation, it’s the working relationship you have with the code people, the District Attorney, the working attorneys, the police,” Woltz says. “We’ve been around so long, they know if we come with a problem, it’s a problem and we’re doing it because it’s necessary.” He says the Lycoming County SPCA is an institution that has gained the respect of the community. “We’ve been here 120 years, and we have local board members who are interested and participate.”

He has seen the worst of what people are capable of doing to animals—especially horses. He doesn’t understand why horses are not given greater protection in Pennsylvania. “Horses are more important. Think of what horses have done for people,” he says. “When you think about what horses have done for humanity throughout history, it’s unbelievable. But for some reason they’re not looked on as positively as a dog or a cat.”