ELIZABETHTON — Carter County Commissioners heard some gruesome tales Monday evening about starving and abused horses and other livestock, but the most depressing part of the discussion was that things could get worse.
The discussion was held by the Health and Welfare Committee. Carter County Agricultural Extension Agent Keith Hart discussed how animal neglect and animal cruelty cases are handled in the state.
Hart said he is called to nearly all the cases in the county where large-animal cruelty is suspected. Under state law, an expert must determine whether there is probable cause to bring charges. He said state law specifies that only agricultural extension agents, veterinarians specializing in livestock or a graduate of an agricultural institute who majored in large animals can make the probable-cause determination.
By default, Hart is the man who is called to the scene when a deputy finds a horse or other large animal in very poor condition.
“My role is to support the sheriff or deputy (when an animal neglect case is found). I drop everything I am doing and go there because when a deputy calls, it is bad,” Hart said.
He said he had just been on such a call recently. “They are tough. They are not good for anyone. I know the deputy didn’t go home that night and just forget it.”
Hart said state law says a person commits animal cruelty when he or she “intentionally or knowingly tortures, maims or grossly overworks an animal (or) fails unreasonably to provide necessary food, water, care or shelter for an animal in the person’s custody.”
To assist an extension agent in assessing the animal, Hart said they are trained to use a scale that runs from 1 to 10, with a scale of 1 being very close to death. He said a horse in the Kentucky Derby would be about a 4. He said most of the horses in Carter County would be higher. “Most horses in Carter County are fat,” Hart said.
But Hart is called to see the worst in the county. He is called to horses that are at the lowest end of the scale. Even when horses reaching a 1 on the scale are found, there is no easy answer.
“It’s complicated and there are not good answers,” Hart said of some of the legal cases he has been pulled into. An agricultural extension agent acts as an expert witness under state law, but a conflicting opinion from a veterinarian creates problems.
Hart recalled a case where horses at the lower end of the scale were found. A veterinarian was called in. Hart said the veterinarian said it was a case of stupidity, but not cruelty. Hart was called again a year later and the horses were so bad they had to be put down.
Many times what looks like cruelty or neglect is not. Hart said the horse could be suffering from cancer or other natural cause.
He said the end for many large animals is terrible. “Every horse, mule or donkey is going to die on a hillside (if someone doesn’t put them down).” He said it was the owners choice to put them down or not. “We don’t even want to talk about a natural death at this table,” Hart said.
Committee member Ken Arney asked if the owner couldn’t put the animal down.
“Yes, but it is not easy,” Hart answered. “These are family animals, and it is not easy to put a large animal down and these animals can really suffer.”
Hart said the situation has gotten worse since horses are no longer being slaughtered for consumption in the United States. Committee member Buford Peters, who owns horses, said he remembers when farmers could take old and sick horses to auctions where they could be sold for a few dollars.
As for the future, Hart said “I see it getting worse instead of better.” He was hopeful that the legislature would bring in the Agricultural Crime Lab to work the cases, but he said that bill died in committee this year.
If agricultural extension agents remain at the forefront of the state’s animal cruelty cases, Hart sees a time when many of the agents will be coming into their jobs with no previous experience of even feeding large animals.
“I am going to retire in a few years. What happens if a young person comes in with no capacity (in determining cruelty or neglect)? The court doesn’t care. ... You are the agricultural extension agent. You are the expert.”