for CHANGE, One Horse at a Time
In a county with more than 20,000 horses, Sonoma County Animal Care and Control
is stretched thin. It handles the needs of unwanted and stray dogs, cats
and other domestic pets, as well as injured wild animals and livestock from
the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, the city of Santa Rosa and the
town of Windsor. It also responds to calls about abused, neglected and stray
horses and livestock.
Small animals find safe haven at the county’s Santa Rosa shelter,
but horses do not. Currently, Animal Control does not have facilities for
or the funding, personnel or training to care for them. Despite the best
of intentions, the County of Sonoma has never had a solid equine care and
program in place.
That changed in 2007, with the founding of the non-profit organization the
Sonoma County C.H.A.N.G.E Program, or Coins to Help Abandoned And NeGlected
Equines. Concerned about Animal Control’s limited resources for handling
horse cases, a group of community members formed CHANGE as a support network
for the Sonoma County Animal Control department to call on for assistance
with horse abuse, abandonment, or neglect cases.
CHANGE provides housing, veterinary care, farrier care and adoption
services for horses that enter Animal Control’s custody. Since the
organization’s founding, it has assisted Animal Control with upwards
of 200 equines, many of whom entered the foster care program and were subsequently
placed for adoption.
According to Petaluma veterinarian Grant Miller, simply caring for horses
who are victims of abuse and neglect without addressing the root of the
issue “enables the problem.” Miller, who helped found CHANGE
after euthanizing an emaciated and severely dehydrated horse left tied
to a fence in 100-degree heat, describes a multi-pronged approach to the
challenge of horse neglect in Sonoma County. It all starts, and ends, with
the law. “The law is the bottom line,” says Miller, “and
if you enforce the law, you pull the situation up by the bootstraps.”
By offering intensive support and au-gratis expert witness testimony to Animal
Control and the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office, CHANGE helps
these organizations to more effectively build cases against and prosecute
Several criminal cases have already made their way through the legal system,
resulting in felony animal cruelty convictions in part because of the organization’s
persistence. The Animal Control Department and the Sonoma County District
Attorney have utilized CHANGE as a resource in handling cases effectively.
In October, 2008, former Bloomfield resident Salvador Barrera was convicted
of felony animal cruelty by a jury and received county jail time for locking
his emaciated, colicking horse, “Yiyo,” in a stall, where it
died without medical care. Miller, who has forensic veterinary training,
two days on the witness stand as he described the necropsy he performed on
dead horse. The trial played out before a courtroom packed with North Bay
residents and attracted national media coverage, expanding community awareness
abuse issues. Barrera’s two surviving horses, “Jack” and “Katie,” were
rehabilitated and placed into adoptive homes by the CHANGE Program.
That same year, one the county’s darkest and longest-running horse
neglect and abuse cases quietly came to a head when Penngrove resident
was convicted of two counts of felony animal cruelty. Tremaine, who kept
two Thoroughbreds locked in 12 x 24 mare motel pens for upwards of 15 years,
to provide the horses with consistent exercise or veterinary or farrier
care. The horses subsisted primarily on a diet of stale bread and rotting
produce. “Argus” and “Bobby” were
relinquished to Animal Control and transferred into CHANGE foster homes.
They were successfully rehabilitated by CHANGE volunteers and later adopted.
Several more cases like these are pending. Before CHANGE, equine cruelty
might never have made it to the courtroom at all, despite the best efforts
of law enforcement and the District Attorney.
The organization recognizes that prevention of horse abuse and neglect before
it occurs is preferable to prosecuting and punishing offenders. Knowing that
Animal Control officers are on the front line in horse cases, CHANGE is working
to offer education programs for officers in order to give them a better understanding
of basic management and handling of horses, standards of care, and body condition
scoring. In addition, CHANGE helps officers develop an educated eye that can
alert them to abusive activities such as horse tripping. A component of underground
Hispanic rodeo events, horse tripping involves making a horse run at high speeds
and then roping it by the legs to pull it down. Horse tripping is illegal in
the state of California.
Future plans for the organization include a traffic school-like program for
offenders, offering education on animal cruelty laws and standards of horse
care and management in place of a misdemeanor conviction.
It’s a tall order for a little organization that subsists solely
on donations from the community, but CHANGE is showing Sonoma County that
big changes can come form small efforts. "We are taking a new approach
to an old problem," says Miller. “A
journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”