Chileno Valley breeders appeal

02/07/2013

An animal abuse case involving a Chileno Valley couple seeking to recover horses confiscated by the Marin Humane Society seemed all but decided late last week, when a judge once again ruled the society was justified in detaining a pair of horses it said were “affected to the point of near starvation.”

The ruling last Thursday brought an end to an administrative process requested by breeders Jill and Alex Burnell, who run Gray Fox Farms, to settle allegations of animal abuse.

Attorney Margaret Weems, who is representing the Burnells, filed an appeal in Marin County Superior Court to challenge the ruling, which she dismissed as based on “highly exaggerated” claims by animal control officers she said are unduly scrutinizing living conditions at the ranch.  

“These were pasture horses in winter time,” she said, attributing the health of the horses, which she conceded appeared “a little ragged,” mainly to inclement weather.

The outcome of the proceedings drew another lawsuit against the humane society from a Georgia woman, who purchased the stallion involved, named Romantic Star, in mid-December, before allegations against the Burnells emerged.

The decision affirmed that the horses required “liberation from their deteriorating condition,” humane society attorney Bruce Wagman said in a news release. “This should be a further wake-up call regarding the expectation in Marin, and under California law, that animals be treated properly.” It came nearly three weeks after the first of two rulings determined the humane society appropriately confiscated two horses from the ranch on Dec. 27, after initially responding to multiple claims of abuse. Animal control officers returned to the ranch on Jan. 4, when they seized two more horses, both mares, one of whose ribs were visible in a photograph posted on the humane society’s website.

“There were bushes stripped down to bark,” the humane society said of the property where, as of last month, stables were found without walls or floors—conditions violating standards enforced by the agency.

Three out of the four horses were sent to a treatment center at the University of Californian, Davis, where veterinarians released consecutive reports indicating poor health, the humane society said. The other horse, a mare, was taken to the humane society in critical condition. 

Ms. Weems criticized the process as “constitutionally suspect.” She noted that at the latest hearing, one of the lead investigators testified that the administrative judge, attorney Albert Burnham, has presided over some 20 cases in the past five years involving allegations of animal abuse brought by the humane society. Each ruling, Ms. Weems said, favored the agency. “It seems to be a stacked deck in favor of the humane society,” she said.

Under state law, government agencies are authorized to appoint a judge on a discretionary basis. Mr. Wagman said the humane society, which selects from a pool of judges, rarely calls on Mr. Burnham.

Ms. Weems is also seeking to negotiate a settlement with Mr. Wagman, who sent out two letters requesting the Burnells pay the humane society thousands of dollars in treatment costs. If restitution is not paid, Mr. Wagman said, the humane society is permitted under state law to take ownership of the horses.