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Humane Society Cleared in Seizing of Neglected Horses

Independent hearing officer rules against Chileno Valley ranch owners who had four horses confiscated and treated after being found injured or malnourished.

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.

hope herndon January 16, 2013 at 07:23 PM
Perhaps the owners would like to spend a few days in the stalls where they kept the horses. And as for food and medical care they can skip that. If the horses did not get it why should they?
Maggie January 16, 2013 at 08:19 PM
Well said Hope! Also it's disgusting that they charge these high fees to exploit their horses, but do not give them proper care. I wish the judge would rule that these horrible people have to pay the $7000 it's costing MHS to care for the innocent horses they abused and neglected!
Mark Warnick January 16, 2013 at 10:17 PM
Kudos to the Marin Humane Society!
Kelli January 16, 2013 at 11:27 PM
What would we do without the Marin Humane Society? Let's hope the owners are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Christina McNair January 17, 2013 at 02:31 PM
What can be done about the other horses left there? They need to find new homes! Does MHS have any plans with that??
Leaf January 17, 2013 at 03:46 PM
What has happened to Aloha? The fourth stallion owned by the Burnells. He was also a leading sire in his area. The patch list three, but there was 4 stallions.
Darris January 17, 2013 at 06:31 PM
Years ago my husband and I reported dire conditions at this farm. MHS met us out there and were concerned about the conditions but not sure of the outcome. If these folks are financially unable to care for these horses properly they should let them go. Adopting them out would be best. They should also be financially responsible for the care of the horses confiscated by MHS. If that means selling the farm then so be it. These are tough times but that doesn't excuse the lack of care and compassion for these animals. Anyone who would allow the condition of an animal to deteriorate so that they are emaciated and suffering should not have ownership of any animal, period. These horses are not just a commodity, they are sentient beings that deserve to have their basic needs fulfilled. Thank you to MHS for stepping in to help these animals and for all you do.
Lisa Ohman January 18, 2013 at 03:56 AM
Thank you MHS.... too bad the process takes sooooo long. These poor animals....I reported this concern as well, many months ago while out there riding our bikes... A questions for the Burnells: What the hell is wrong with you????
JSFLA January 22, 2013 at 10:46 AM
"Perhaps the owners would like to spend a few days in the stalls where they kept the horses." There are no stalls. Just pasture. "Years ago my husband and I reported dire conditions at this farm. MHS met us out there and were concerned about the conditions but not sure of the outcome." The Burnells just moved to that farm in the fall of 2012, so not sure this is the same owner of the place you reported.
Craig Belfor January 22, 2013 at 03:35 PM
Horses need a lot of room to run, and putting them in a small area, without letting them have the advantage of running the open range is like keeping a dog in an apartment. It's a cruel way to exploit an animal for our own pleasure. Wanna be good to a horse? Stop penning them up. Stop riding them. Stop keeping this vestige of a prehistoric time. Grow up. Move on. The average horse stall has less room than Auschwitz.

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