The Marin Humane Society was acting in the best interest of neglected horses when it seized four malnourished or injured animals from a West Marin ranch during two raids over the past month, an independent hearing officer ruled Tuesday.
After a three-hour hearing in Marin County Superior Court, appointed independent officer Albert Burnham said Humane Society personnel were justified in taking four horses from Gray Fox Farms on Dec. 27 and Jan. 4, including a nationally known stallion named Romantic Star, who was found Dec. 27 with untreated injuries at the ranch.
Acting on several tips from concerned parties, MHS Animal Services officers visited the ranch — which has a Petaluma address but is located in Chileno Valley on the Marin side of the Marin-Sonoma county line — and discovered what they termed as severe neglect, injuries and inhumane living conditions for horses, including Hanoverians and thoroughbreds.
A post-seizure hearing was held Jan. 8, where ranch operators Jill and Alex Burnell demanded the return of the horses an explained that Romantic Star had been hurt in an altercation with another horse. At that hearing, MHS officials presented lengthy testimony about the dangerous and unhealthy conditions on the property, the physical appearance and suffering of the horses, and the lack of visible means of sustenance and support for the horses, according to an MHS release.
On Tuesday, Burnham ruled that MHS and its officers acted in the "best interest of the horses and the public by stopping the ongoing suffering and taking them to safe havens to recover," according to the release. The ruling also cited a lack of care for the horses who were taken, as well as for the horses still remaining, and that the Burnells are not in a position to properly care for the horses.
Bruce Wagman of the Schiff Hardin law firm, who is representing the Marin Humane Society in the proceedings, described the situation as "a terrible display of chronic neglect; I shudder to think how that horse suffered while she was deteriorating to the condition she was in at the time of seizure."
Wagman said even if the seized horses recover, the Burnells would have to demonstrate an ability to care for them plus all the other horses on the property before the confiscated animals are returned.
"We don't believe the Burnells are in any position to care for those horses and have demonstrated an inability to care for any animal," he said.
It would be up to the Marin County District Attorney's office to decide if it wants to pursue criminal animal cruelty charges against the Burnells, said Wagman, who added that he's dealing with the civil side of the issue.
"We certainly could provide evidence" if there is a criminal case, he said.
In addition to Romantic Star, a mare named Pookie was impounded Dec. 27 and taken to the MHS facility in Novato. Romantic Star was taken to the University of California at Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital for treatment.
On Jan. 4, two mares known as Nutsie and Blackie were seized from the property. Both were found to be nearly emaciated and are receiving rehabilitative care at UC Davis Large Animal Clinic, MHS said.
Gray Fox Farms has made a national name for itself with Redwine as its lead stud. The stallion, which has has nearly 3,800 likes on its own Facebook page, is wildly popular in the sport horse world. In 2010, Redwine earned the U.S. Equestrian Federation award as a national leading breeding sire for hunters, a type of sport horse competition. The ranking is based on points earned in competitions.
On the Gray Fox Farms website, Redwine's stud fee is listed as $1,700. The 2012 leading hunter sire, Beste Gold, has a listed stud fee of $800. In addition to Redwine and Romantic Star, Federalist — another nationally known stallion — is at stud at Gray Fox Farms.
As of Wednesday, the ranch's website had a prominent notice that said, "ROMANTIC STAR BREEDING SPECIAL: First 5 breedings booked to Romantic Star are $600. Breeding can used anytime in the next 5 years."
The Chronicle of the Horse reported that Romantic Star was purchased by Ronda Stavisky and Rising Star Farm in Silver Creek, Ga., on Dec. 18. She said in a phone interview as well as stated on the Rising Star Facebook page that she had arranged for a shipping company to pick up the stallion on Dec. 28.
Wagman said the Burnells remain in care of about 20 other horses that were of concern to MHS officials. Those officials are not visiting every day because of the amount of territory under their jurisdiction, Wagman said.
"All I know is that the last time we left there, the conditions were not good," he said. "We are trying to keep track and monitor the, but we have to be mindful of the civil rights of the Burnells and the limits of the law."
Cost for the care of the seized horses has already surpassed $7,000 and is expected to climb, according to MHS spokeswoman Carrie Harrington. The public can help by making a donation or providing horse-related assistance. Anyone with information concerning this case is encouraged to contact MHS Animal Services at 415-506-6209.