Is Vermont Failing Its Livestock? A Tale of Two Animal-Abuse Cases
One of Rick Fletcher's horses, photographed in September
A well-known Burlington chef made headlines recently when he was hauled into court on animal-cruelty charges. Vermont State Police said that Kelly Dietrich, the former chef and owner of Souza’s Brazilian Steakhouse, starved hundreds of farm animals at a culinary kids camp he runs in Highgate, a charge Dietrich has vehemently denied.
Police and “humane agents” who investigated the farm on November 9 reportedly found calves standing in their own feces; hens and roosters living in poorly ventilated coops; and a dead horse lying behind a pile of debris, its throat slit.
Another horse was so malnourished that a veterinarian accompanying the team rated its condition 1.5 — between “poor” and “very thin” — on a 9-point scale that measures horse-body health. The animal was seized and brought to an undisclosed location for treatment and rehabilitation.
Surprisingly, Vermont animal welfare advocates say the Highgate case was an all-too-rare example of the right way to handle large-animal-cruelty cases. Police and humane agents worked collaboratively and a dangerously thin animal was removed and quickly rehoused.
Justice in these cases is not always so swift, as revealed by an ongoing horse-abuse investigation in Jeffersonville that has garnered far less attention — and fewer headlines — than the alleged cruelty on Dietrich’s farm.
On July 21, state police investigated a report of horse neglect on Canyon Road in Jeffersonville. According to a press release, a large-animal vet was called in to examine four malnourished horses and concluded that their “lives and health were not in jeopardy.” The animals would be monitored over the next month, the release said, but their owner, Rick Fletcher, would not face criminal charges.
A month later, pictures sent anonymously to the Vermont Humane Federation showed the horses were thinner than ever, their ribcages bulging from shrunken frames. Peggy Larson, a Colchester veterinarian, observed the horses firsthand from the roadside in late August and wrote up her findings for the federation.
The animals were “headed toward starvation,” Larson wrote, with no grass in the pasture and no hay or grain to eat. Vertebrae near their tails and heads were “very prominent,” she continued, and the horses were extremely lethargic.
“Those poor horses were so hungry they were eating the branches off birch trees,” says Larson, who was Vermont state veterinarian in 1984 and spent six years as a veterinary medical officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Larson’s report and the new photographs went to the state police in early September, but it wasn’t until mid-October that authorities mobilized horse trailers for a possible seizure. With his horses still underweight, Fletcher was issued a civil ticket on October 14 under Vermont’s animal cruelty statute. Fletcher agreed to put the horses on pasture with adequate grass, but they remained in his care and custody.
“If I were state veterinarian, I would have had those horses confiscated,” Larson says today. “No ifs, ands, or buts.”
Larson, however, was not the official veterinarian of record on the case — so the call was not hers to make. That decision fell to David Sequist of Sequist Large Animal Veterinary Service in Morrisville.
"What should happen to the underweight horses in Jeffersonville?"Post your answer below
When Sequist visited the horses in July, he found them “ribby” and covered in botfly eggs — indicating a lack of deworming, according to a report he made of the visit. Because it was summer, Sequist concluded the horses weren’t in imminent danger. But he warned that the coming fall weather would put the horses in “dire straits.”
“These horses probably do not have enough body fat to maintain themselves through the upcoming winter,” Sequist wrote on September 8.
In an interview, Sequist explains that in neglect cases, authorities would rather work with owners to address the problem than seize animals. Fletcher’s horses were making gains by October — albeit very slowly — so seizure wasn’t warranted, he says.
State police Sgt. Julie Cooper, the investigator in the case, acknowledges that no one checked up on Fletcher’s horses for at least a month after that initial July visit. And while the animals’ condition had worsened in that time, Cooper says Fletcher was “cooperative” and “responsive” after a second visit from police.
“At that point, we deemed we would work with him and monitor him more frequently,” Cooper explains, adding, “Animals don’t make miraculous recoveries within a week. You have to give them time. You can’t just all of a sudden dump all this food, because then it makes them sick.”
Fletcher spoke to Seven Days at length about the case in a phone interview last week, but he asked that his comments not be used in this article. Sequist recalls that Fletcher “wasn’t able to get enough pasture and evidently he didn’t have much money.”
To animal welfare advocates, the Jeffersonville case highlights critical gaps in Vermont’s system for investigating cruelty involving large animals and livestock.
“Vermont has a real problem,” says Gina Brown, who runs Spring Hill Horse Rescue in Clarendon. “I’ve been doing cruelty investigations for 10 years now and seen a lot of cases similar to the Jeffersonville one.”
Vermont doesn’t have a single authority responsible for investigating livestock cruelty cases. That duty falls to individual police agencies and municipalities with varying levels of expertise, plus a network of humane agents, many of whom are volunteers. And as the Jeffersonville case shows, veterinarians can look at the same animals and come to vastly different conclusions about their health and welfare.
Under state law, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets must be consulted on all large-animal seizures, but the agency’s approval is not required. Unlike neighboring states, Vermont doesn’t have a chapter of the ASPCA, or American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And unlike Maine, which budgets roughly $2 million a year for enforcement against animal cruelty, Vermont sets aside no money for handling livestock abuse, Brown says.
That leaves nonprofit organizations like Spring Hill Horse Rescue to pick up the hefty expense of sheltering seized or neglected animals. And with the recession forcing many owners to give up their horses, organizations such as Brown’s are feeling the squeeze.
“We did a large hoarding case, 62 animals that we took in on one shot,” says Brown. “Think about the vet care, hoof care, blankets, nutrition and feed. There’s just so much involved, and we rely solely on donations to cover those expenses.”
For that reason and others, seizing animals is actually a last-resort option, says Deb Loring of the Vermont Humane Federation, which coordinated logistics on the Highgate horse seizure last month.
“We don’t send people out there who are looking to take everyone’s animal away,” Loring says. “We’re trained to differentiate what our personal opinions are from what the law says. There are objective body-condition scores for bovine and horses. With dogs and cats, there are specific requirements about leash length and shelter.”
The Vermont Humane Federation receives hundreds of reports of animal cruelty every year through its website ReportAnimalCruelty.com. In 2010, the organization logged 343 complaints concerning almost 1600 animals. Of those, 857 were companion animals, such as dogs, cats and lizards, and 721 were farm animals, such as horses, cows and sheep.
Seldom do these tips result in criminal charges or seizures — last year, not one of the 343 reports did, says Joanne Bourbeau, northeast regional director of the Humane Society of the United States.
According to state police records, 31 individuals have been criminally charged with animal cruelty since 2009; an additional three were arrested for the more serious “aggressive animal cruelty.” What’s not known is how those cases break down between companion animals and livestock; Vermont law shields police reports of ongoing criminal cases from public disclosure.
Sequist, the large-animal veterinarian, continues to check up on Rick Fletcher’s horses about once a week, he says. With winter approaching, it’s important that horses are well fed. “The horses are doing all right now. They wax and wane, but they’re basically doing well,” he says. “We’ll see how they do in the middle of winter.”
While he can’t speak to Fletcher’s case specifically, Sequist stresses that cases of horse starvation often involve people who can no longer afford their animals, but can’t bear to give them up, either.
“There are crazy horse people,” says Sequist. “They really feel such a strong bond that they just can’t get themselves to part with them, even though they starve them.”