A Kentucky Department of Agriculture council will consider changes to the law that would allow local officials to more quickly take possession of horses when they are determined to be abandoned.
The Kentucky Equine Health Welfare Council July 19 in Frankfort unanimously approved a motion to examine changes to animal welfare laws. The council, chaired by Rusty Ford, the equine programs manager for the Kentucky State Veterinarian's Office, meets on an as-needed basis, and Tuesday's meeting followed the alleged abandonment of 43 horses at a farm in Mercer County.
Officials with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture on June 29 charged trainer Maria Borell and her father, Charles "Chuck" Borell, each with 43 counts of second-degree cruelty to animals in connection with the abandonment of horses at the 121-acre farm in Central Kentucky.
Bradley Keough, deputy state veterinarian, attended the meeting and noted that the Mercer County investigation continues. Without specifically talking about the situation, Keough told the council Kentucky laws could be clarified to more easily allow officials to take possession of horses after they are declared abandoned. He said that could help officials more readily address any equine welfare issues that need attention.
Keough said current Kentucky statutes regarding the abandonment of smaller animals, like cats and dogs, more readily allow local enforcement officials to take possession of animals.
"Where it's not clear (on horses and livestock) in the statute is what I can do with that animal," Keough said before noting how the law played out in Mercer County. "Initially it was unclear if we could seize them, take them, what we could do. I think if it was more clear-cut to that county attorney that, 'Yes if you have the Department of Agriculture determining the horses are abandoned, then this law says you can go to the judge and get ownership relinquished immediately so that you can do something with them without repercussions and potential civil liability.' "
Keough and Ford both noted that because of quick support from the Thoroughbred industry and local volunteers, the horses' needs in the Mercer County situation were quickly addressed.
Council member Bob Stout, of the office of state veterinarian, said when dealing with larger animals it's important to consider the ramifications of new regulations and put protocols in place ahead of time.
"Going forward I think, yes, there is consideration for change in statute, maybe even developing more regulations. Some things that have been discussed are a facilitation for confiscation of animals thought to be in danger or proven to be in danger," Stout said. "If local authorities confiscate an animal, now what do they do with it? Especially in the case of large animals, especially horses."
Stout said increased sanctions also will be discussed. Ford said the council will consider establishing some type of an emergency fund to quickly address problem situations but he noted that a government entity may not be the best to facilitate such a plan. Ford said the needed approvals for a government entity to spend money from a special fund may take too long to quickly help ailing horses.
Ford said he will meet with Stout on some ideas and exchange ideas with the full council. The council could then present a formal recommendation to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. He said such a recommendation could be made by this fall.
Joe Bilby, general counsel for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, noted that it could be useful to separate statutes that define the criminal offense of neglect, abuse, and abandonment from the statute that allows officials to take possession of animals. He noted that in terms of defining the criminal offense, it's important to include language that addresses intent because it is not infrequent for such neglect cases to be tied to people who may be suffering dementia, mental illness, or who have simply gotten in over their heads. But such a standard may not be needed to step in and take possession of horses.
Kentucky commissioner of agriculture Ryan Quarles attended the July 19 council meeting and said some changes to the law are likely needed.
"We look to play a more active role with the signature industry in Kentucky, all (horse) breeds," Quarles said. "There was an unfortunate incident that more or less brought this group together to talk about allegations in Central Kentucky. We may need some guidance on how we can better address this in the future.
"Our top priority when we do get a call at the Department of Ag like this one that rises to this level is the welfare of the animals involved. We will more than likely have to consider some policy changes, and I look forward to the council's input as we respond to an incident that no one wants to see."