March 8, 2012 | Vol. 42 10

Troopers investigate cop's care of horses

Vet: Three animals were 'barely alive'

The veterinarian who treated three ailing horses belonging to a Haines Borough police officer said the animals in mid-January were suffering “extreme neglect” and “barely alive.”

“I worked many years on neglect cases and I’ve seen lots of starved animals and those were the worst-looking horses I’d ever seen. They were completely emaciated… The first few days were really touchy. I didn’t think they were going to make it,” Dr. Elizabeth Lyons said this week.

A local retiree, Lyons said she worked 24 years in animal care compliance for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, investigating animal care at places like ranches and zoos in Alaska, Hawaii and the Pacific.

Manure in the stalls was knee-deep and covered the horses that were rolling in it attempting to stay warm, Lyons said.

A report Lyons wrote and photos of the horses are part of an Alaska State Troopers investigation into care of the animals owned by officer Cassandra McEwen. Trooper supervisors suspended the investigation this week on an apparent technicality: The investigation of a fellow peace officer had not been approved by the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, as required.

Haines Borough Police Chief Gary Lowe, who forwarded the investigation to Alaska State Trooper Josh Bentz on Jan. 27 to prevent possible appearance of conflict, on Tuesday said he would make the request to the commissioner.

McEwen did not return messages left on her phone and at the police station this week.

Officials with Haines Animal Rescue Kennel first checked on the animals Nov. 25, in response to a complaint about their care, said executive director Steve Vick. Vick said “there was not enough evidence to intervene” in the horses’ care until his next visit, Jan. 14, when HARK called in Lyons.

Vick, Lowe and Bentz this week declined to discuss the details of the horses’ condition, or to provide or comment on photos of the horses, or on a written report by Lyons dated Feb. 23.

By Jan. 18, Lowe had arranged a deal with McEwen for HARK to care for the animals. By that date, police had also received from HARK a complaint report, three internal reports, photos of the horses, and a verbal report by Lyons, Vick said.

Trooper Bentz said this week he had not yet spoken to horse owner McEwen and was planning to speak to a district attorney about the matter.

McEwen wrote a letter to the Chilkat Valley News last week, acknowledging “difficulty keeping the horses’ weight stable this winter,” which she attributed to bad hay.

Stable owner Bob Henderson this week said McEwen repeatedly missed feedings and the horses’ condition became grave. “Their ribs were sticking out so much you could put a finger around them… I thought they were going to starve to death, but I didn’t have authority to treat them because they weren’t my horses. They were in my barn, but I couldn’t stand the way they were being treated.”

Henderson said he came forward because he was concerned that McEwen planned to move the horses to a barn at 26 Mile this week and that there was no regulatory mechanism for ensuring their welfare.

But on Tuesday, the day McEwen was to pick up the horses from his Comstock horses from his Comstock Road farm, she called him to say she and her husband were moving to Montana and that she would return two horses to him and sell the third, Henderson said.

Police chief Lowe said Tuesday that McEwen had not resigned and he was unaware that she was leaving.

Lowe said he’d await the trooper investigation before taking action against McEwen. State law prohibits cruelty to animals, a definition that includes “failure to provide the minimum standards of care.”

“Any time a police officer is involved in anything, they can be subject to administrative disciplinary action. I’m waiting for the outcome of the trooper’s investigation before I do anything further,” he said.

Besides formally requesting the trooper investigation, Lowe said he wanted to consult with the district attorney over the matter, including learning the state’s experience prosecuting cases involving horses. “Is this the kind of case they prosecute? It’s certainly different for us.”

Lowe said HARK didn’t ask the borough to take possession of the horses. “They just wanted to see that they had the ability to care for the horses for a three-week period, which was agreed to by (McEwen), based on the veterinarian’s recommendation. I mediated that between (HARK and McEwen),” Lowe said.

Lowe said that based on the veterinarian’s recommendation, he didn’t believe the borough should seize the animals, which by then were being cared for by HARK. “Where do you take them to? At that point, they’re in the best place they could be to get the care they needed.”

Henderson said that the horses’ stalls went uncleaned for long periods. Henderson is a former Haines Borough Mayor who operates a small farm and kept horses for decades. Two of McEwen’s horses were ones he previously owned.

Henderson said he doesn’t harbor any ill will to McEwen, and said heavy snow and family issues likely kept her from taking better care of the animals.

“(McEwen) is too good of a horse person to do this on purpose… I don’t hold anything against her, but I don’t trust her at the same time to handle those horses as well as she should. She’s a Texas cowgirl and what you can do in Texas, you can’t do here.”

If it had the same authority over horses as it does over dogs, HARK could check on the horses at 26 Mile, to make sure they were keeping weight and their stalls were clean, he said. “The problem is that right now, there’s no follow-up,” Henderson said.

According to Henderson, McEwen arranged to keep four horses at his stables last fall. One of the animals was euthanized after it developed hoof rot, he said. He said he didn’t blame McEwen for the animal’s demise, but became concerned that a second horse subsequently developed the same condition.

Henderson said he felt compelled to contact HARK in mid-January, after witnessing what he described as continuing neglect, including McEwen’s failure to provide daily water and feed. HARK provided care and stall cleanings for three weeks, and, using a feed schedule prescribed by Dr. Lyons, brought the horses back to health, he said.

In winter, horses need water twice daily and to be fed and have their stalls cleaned daily, he said. McEwen last fall set up a stable chalkboard to help keep tabs on feedings and care, and also bought hay so Henderson could care for the horses on days she couldn’t make it.

“She stopped writing on it and she stopped bringing hay. It was an ideal set-up, but she stopped,” Henderson said.

Chief Lowe said HARK’s contract with the borough limits the agency’s authority to canines, but police can bring charges of cruelty to animals and the court can place conditions on care of an animal as the result of such a court case.

HARK director Vick said his agency can investigate animal abuse cases but borough police hold authority to enforce its recommendations. “We give them reports and they determine the law. Whether HARK should have that authority, there are pros and cons.”

A lot of evidence is required in neglect cases, Vick said. “We have to make sure our cases are rock solid… I think the system worked in this case. We got the horses rehabilitated.”

The case surfaced publicly as a police blotter item Jan. 19 that the department was investigating a “possible animal neglect case.” Questioned by a reporter at that time, Lowe and Vick declined comment, including what type of animals were involved.