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Horses Removed from Squalid Conditions

Posted on Jun 15, 2007 - 1:17 PM
Deerfield Valley News
By Christian Avard

READSBORO- On Thursday, June 7, representatives from Animal Control of Bennington County, the New England chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, Readsboro dog office, the Vermont State Police, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, and the Windham County Humane Society were called to a home on Route 100 in Readsboro after a case of animal abuse was reported.

The horses belong to Judith Page and her husband, Doug Nicklien, of Readsboro, and this is not the first time they’ve been involved with horses. Their story goes back a couple years when the Deerfield Valley News covered Page and Nicklien saving horses from slaughterhouses. It began when Page’s doctor prescribed Premarin after major surgery. Premarin is an estrogen pharmaceutical used in hormone therapy and is often used to treat symptoms associated with menopause. Page learned that a chief ingredient came from pregnant mares’ urine, and later found out that up to 20,000 foals are born annually as a byproduct of this process and auctioned off at slaughterhouses. Page felt compelled to do something and contacted the Foal Acquisition Network, Inc. (FANI). After FANI’s rigorous screening process, Page and Nicklien were approved and adopted two foals. Later, Page and Nickelien adopted six more mares from Canada.

When officials arrived, they found nine malnourished horses (two stallions, two foals, and six mares) in substandard conditions.

“The mares were (so thin) down to bone with sores on their backs, and hooves so overgrown, that they had no hoof care that I know of,” said Sue Caviola, shelter manager and humane officer for the Windham County Humane Society. The Windham County Humane Society was called in because their facility serves large animals. “You knew they were eating dirt too because they dug their own holes and (you could tell) they were trying to eat old manure. They only had two bales of hay, which were both moldy, in the stall for nine horses, and the water was pumped from a brook, which is not ideal. We also noticed the tubs were empty, but they each need 15 gallons of water per day to live on. I’m sure the nursing moms require more and it was not good water. One of the foals had severe diarrhea and we weren’t sure if it was going to make it. No veterinarian had been called by the owners.”

But according to Page, she and her husband were doing everything they could to get them back to health.

Nicklien arrived when officials were at their barn and after some discussion, he willingly gave the horses over. But according to Nicklien and Page, they were going to take all the necessary actions to take care of the horses after they received a letter from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture on Monday June 4.

“I was in the process of getting in touch with the veterinarian, getting things set up, and while I’m trying to get this arranged, I’ve been working full time in Lenox, MA,” said Nicklien.

Susan Kelley was the veterinarian who arrived on the scene and noticed more problems with the horses.

“I saw in the stalls there was several inches of manure topped with urine and the ones outside were also in a foot of manure and out in the paddock area was three feet of mud.”

Page claims she did not see any of that in the stalls but also believes the mares were already unhealthy when they took them in.

“The two rescue mares in question, came pregnant when we got them last fall,” said Page. “They had some cracks in the hooves and were thin when they got here. So we worked with them to get their weight back up when they were pregnant, and were in pretty good weight when they gave birth. But then (as is common with nursing mares) they dropped a lot of weight really fast. They did look thin but it was because they were nursing their new foals. Given enough time, we would’ve been able to get their weight back up.”

Nicklien and Page said that the horses were being fed regularly and there were also ample amounts of hay on the property.

“I was bringing home the hay when the officials already took the horses. We were bringing home bales just about every day. The moldy bale was probably one I brought home and then figured out we were not going to be able to use. But we were also feeding them hay-stretcher, a supplement when there’s a hay shortage or the quality isn’t perfect. We had been buying them by the bag, including alfalfa. We also keep the grain and hay in our garage because we didn’t want mice getting into them,” said Page.

Page maintains the horse’s conditions took her by surprise.

“We noticed the mares were getting thin about two weeks ago. They dropped the weight from nursing and I think they also finished losing their winter coat, which coincided with the weight loss. So it seemed kind of suddenly,” said Page.

The suspected neglect had been going on for some time and authorities have been contacted before about the horses on the property. But according to Readsboro Dog Officer Karl Moon, getting the humane society and other state officials to do something has been a long and frustrating process.

“I’ve known it’s been going on and I reported it several times,” said Moon. “But it’s not easy. You have to go through so much and jump through a lot of hoops before something can be done.”

According to Joanne Bourbeau, New England Director of the Humane Society of the United States, an investigation can happen at any time but each one is its own separate case.

“Under Title 13 of the Vermont Animal Cruelty Statute, the requirements (for horses) are the same as with dogs and cats. They must be given proper vet care, adequate food and water, and proper shelter. Those are the basics that must be provided,” said Bourbeau. “There’s no standard protocol. We look at each case individually. But in this case the horses were signed over to the humane society and if they hadn’t been, we would have gotten a search warrant to seize the animals.”

In addition, a 28-year-old stallion was later found behind the house, tied to a tree and looking unhealthy.

“The older stallion was hidden from view and we didn’t know it was there until we heard it in the silence of the night,” said Caviola. “The stallion was hidden behind the house. They claimed they were holding it there for the owner, who disappeared. So we all went up with our flashlights and found it.”

According to Nicklien and Page, the owner abandoned the horse and they had been trying to find the owner ever since.

“The owner basically abandoned him (to us). He was not keeping weight on no matter what we fed him. He had some behavioral problems and kept breaking loose and we didn’t think it was safe to keep him here but we have not been able to find his owner,” said Page.

As for the unsatisfactory living conditions, Nicklien and Page said the poor weather conditions made it difficult to clean out the barn.

“We had a lot of rain, and yes, the mud was deep. That was one of the reasons why we were actually concerned about it and we made the arrangement to move the horses ourselves,” said Page. “We were aware that our pasture was unsatisfactory and we were really trying to get the horses moved but in order to clean it, we had to get the horses out and let a truck in there, which was difficult.”

But Tom Harriman, an animal control officer for Bennington County, queries that if they had those horses since the beginning of winter, why the horses looked the way they did.

“If those horses were there for any amount of time, if they came in December say, five-six months down the line, if you’re giving them all the care they needed, they wouldn’t be in the shape they were in,” said Harriman.

Nicklien and Page have indicated that they will no longer be involved in horse rescue but wanted to assure that they have been good horse owners.

“We’ve had about 40 horses come through here, all have gone on to new homes. We were a drop point for adoption groups in New England for a few years, and we’ve been instrumental in saving horses from slaughter,” said Nicklien.

Page added, “We feel that it’s tragic that it ended this way and it was not our intention to have anything like this happen and we want people to know we were taking steps to correct the mud, to get a vet, and apparently we didn’t do it quick enough.”

Kelley said she was impressed by how the community came together to save the horses and that this is usually how things get taken care of.

“This doesn’t happen until people speak up. It depends on the community to do something and and it was great to see the community come together and all the goodheartedness in the people who came to rescue them.”

But for Page, the community now leaves a sour taste in her mouth. “I wish that people felt like they could approach us with what they thought they were seeing. It wasn’t nice of them to go behind our backs and complain to authorities when I’ve always tried to be approachable. We could’ve used some help,” said Page. “If someone would offer their tractor to clean our pasture we would’ve accepted. We were not keeping the horses that way because we’re mean people. We never wanted it to end this way. It’s saddening and it’s going to be very hard to trust people from now on.”

The horses are now being nursed back to health at a facility in Windham County and no decision has been made whether or not the Bennington County State’s Attorney will press charges.

For more information on how to help the horses contact the Windham County Humane Society at (802) 254-2232.

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