Judge rules against horse breeder

01/17/2013

The Marin Humane Society was justified in removing two horses from a Chileno Valley ranch late last month, according to a ruling on Monday by an administrative law judge.

The decision by judge Albert Burnham involves the seizure of an injured stallion and a malnourished mare on December 27, when animal welfare officers followed allegations of animal abuse to Gray Fox Farms on Chileno Valley Road. The judge did not rule on a subsequent seizure of two more horses, however.

The hearing came hours after a Marin County Superior Court Judge rejected a civil lawsuit brought by breeder Jill Burnell, who sought to recover the four horses her attorney, Margaret Weems, contends were not in life-threatening conditions.

“What’s happening here is wrong,” said Ms. Weems, who plans to appeal the decision. She has requested another hearing related to the removal of two more mares that humane society officers said appeared underfed.

Ms. Weems said Ms. Burnell, who recently moved her breeding operation from Petaluma for financial reasons, is facing unrelenting criticism of her alleged mistreatment of horses in a county “accustomed to horses having a lot more hands-on care.”

It is a legal battle, she said, to determine whether “native people can treat horses like horses.”

But humane society attorney Bruce Wagman, a partner of law firm Schiff Hardin LLP, said financial insecurity is “no excuse for animal abuse.” “Our purpose and our duty is to make sure these animals are treated well in the county,” said Mr. Wagman, who teaches animal law as an adjunct professor and characterized the civil lawsuit as a “frivolous” attempt to retrieve horses he said were exposed to shoddy living conditions.

The proceedings unfolded on the same day a county code enforcement official visited Ms. Burnell’s property, where she lives in a trailer with her husband. Ms. Burnell was found to be in violation of two county codes, including housing restrictions in agriculturally zoned areas.

Robert Harris, a code enforcement specialist, sent a letter to Ms. Burnell on January 7, giving her 10 days to respond to “discuss the violations to make arrangements to correct them.”

“Humane officers have discretionary authority to seize an animal if it is…required to protect their health or safety, or if they believe animal cruelty is being committed and a seizure is necessary,” a press release from the humane society said.

All horses in custody remain under 24-hour observation at unspecified locations.