When it comes to animal cruelty cases in Vermont, there is a fine line between abuse and neglect.
"I think there is a difference," Gina Brown said.
Brown is one of the founders of Spring Hill Horse Rescue in Clarendon.
"We can get a very neglected horse in, but they have not been abused, they don't show they are not afraid, they love people still, even though they have been horribly neglected. So, to me that is the difference," Brown explained.
Brown is also a certified Humane Investigator for the state, dealing with horses mostly, but she has taken in a menagerie. To become certified, she took a four-level course offered by Vermont State Police. She often accompanies officials who get search warrants to seize allegedly abused animals. A veterinarian is also on scene. Each animal must be carefully checked and evaluated as evidence. One of her most recent cases was in Shelburne. Prosecutors say it crossed the line into abuse.
"This case in particular to me was horrible neglect on the owners' part," Brown said. "They were, their hooves were not trimmed; they were not socialized with people. They were kept in the ban for a lot of years and that goes against everything that a horse likes to do."
Also in the barn were several bulls, they went to another rescue shelter. The animals were found among other animal skeletons and mounds of manure.
George Wilson, a former Channel 3 News employee, and his wife voluntarily surrendered the three horses to Spring Hill Rescue. He faces cruelty charges.
Deb Loring is also a volunteer Humane Investigator and helped remove the horses from Shelburne. She is a member of the Vermont Humane Federation, a unified network of organizations and individuals dedicated to promoting the welfare of all animals. They have an online and hotline for animal cruelty complaints. Loring is the administrator of that database.
"So, Vermont Humane Federation in conjunction with law enforcement set up an online cruelty reporting system where there is a lead agency for every county in Vermont where complaints can go into either by phone or online," Loring said.
The Vermont Humane Federation can track calls and emails that have come in since 2008. The organization keeps track of all reports, most are from Chittenden County. The lead agency for Chittenden and Grand Isle counties is the Humane Society of Chittenden County, the only humane society in Vermont that employees its own investigator."
"Once we receive the call, it's my responsibility to make sure the call gets looked into. Sometimes that is by contacting the local animal control officer, sometimes I do the call myself and provide support for animal control officers depending on the situation. Sometimes I have a vet go with me to look at animals," said JoAnn Nichols, an investigator with the Chittenden County Humane Society.
Overall, the three investigators say the number of actual substantiated abuse cases are very low.
"Actually the large parts of the complaints are unsubstantiated," Loring said. "That does not mean what the person was seeing didn't happen, it just means the investigator or animal control officer that went to look at the complaint could not substantiate that complaint."
"It's a vast minority of cases that actually result in seizures and other dramatic enforcement action," said Dr. Kristin Haas, the Vermont state veterinarian
Inspectors in Haas' office deal mostly with livestock. They investigated approximately 150 cases of alleged abuse over the past three years.
"More often than not it's a matter of needing to either educate the animal owner or provide some minor technical assistance or put them in touch with experts who can help them with regard to animal husbandry practices and then the situation gets resolved," Haas said.
Brown agrees the emphasis is on educating the animal owners.
"First and foremost that is what we like to do with people and 99 percent of the cases we go in and we can fix and we can help the owner fix the problem," Brown said. "It is that 1 percent that you see in the news."
But images from that 1 percent are haunting. Pictures from 2008 of the largest animal cruelty case in Rutland County show malnourished horses, dogs, cats, ducks and chickens. Also in 2008 in Bellows Falls, a terrier was almost beaten to death and left in a snow bank. His owner was charged with cruelty to animals. In 2009, undercover video of a slaughterhouse at Bushway Packing in Grand Isle resulted in the business being shut down for cruelty and abuse.
"For me there are two issues. First, it's horrific when people abuse animals," said Sen. Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden County.
This case prompted Ashe to introduce legislation calling for a statewide registry for those convicted of animal cruelty, as a way to ensure abusers can't own animals again.
"I think every time particularly large animals are in abusive or neglecter situations it has a bad effect on the brand, Vermont's agricultural industry, meat industry and we need to protect that," Ashe said.
The bill did not pass this year. There was debate over whether this kind of registry would be effective and who would have access to it. Ashe says he will bring up the issue again in the next session.
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