You won't see them on Highway 90 as you drive past fast food chains and gas stations. But beyond the tree line and around a few corners are horses grazing in green spaces and small barns. Some belong to well-tended stables and loving homes. Others are lame and left to starve with their hooves deep in mud and filth.
Since July 2010, the Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter (JPAS) has responded to dozens of horse neglect cases on the West Bank, where many makeshift stables are in disrepair, and horses are unattended, underfed and in dire need of medical attention.
In the last year, the parish seized 12 adult horses and two foals, including five horses in June 2011 alone. One of the horses was euthanized after a colic outbreak and one of the foals died, but the parish successfully adopted out eight other horses and one foal. Two other seized horses are still in its possession. In addition, hundreds of other potential cruelty and neglect cases have been pursued. Kim Staton, who the parish hired as a JPAS consultant and animal cruelty investigator, and animal control officers have dedicated themselves to the cases, but Staton says they are dealing with a "bigger problem than we ever imagined." The parish has spent several hundred hours on cruelty cases and Staton hasn't been involved with any cases on the East Bank of Jefferson Parish at all — stable inspections there begin this week.
"We don't want these issues to be ignored," Staton says. "We have a real serious problem in Jefferson Parish."
Jeff Dorson, director of the Humane Society of Louisiana (HSL), says the state has a "surplus of horses." Staton says it's more OF an "overabundance." Anyone with $25 can buy a horse at a barn sale, Dorson says. "They're almost giving them away. ... Shodding, teeth, worming, overall health maintenance, health care, vaccinations, feed — you're looking at $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 per year," he says. "People buy a horse for $50, put it out to pasture and call it a day. It becomes a yard decoration."
The biggest hurdle is ignorance, Staton says. Many horse owners don't know the kind of investment required when they buy a horse. "They think if they put them out to pasture and leave them, they're going to be fine, that that's all they need," she says. "Animals get really thin when they are out to pasture. A lot of the pasture we have on the West Bank is weeds and dirt — it's not a lot of good-quality grass, and people aren't supplementing with hay." They also aren't providing adequate veterinary care.
In June, a palomino named Thunder was found cramped in a Waggaman barn without hay and covered with flies. Under parish care, the horse gained 100 pounds and last month found a new home.
Allison Barca, a veterinarian of more than 20 years who works closely with the parish on horse abuse, says she frequently sees cases like Thunder's — "flat-out starvation and lack of health care," she says. Many horses she treats have overgrown hooves, which make standing too painful for the horse. Hooves need to be filed down every six to eight weeks.
"If they were on rocky roads, rocky terrain, they would probably file their feet to a degree," Barca says. "But they keep horses in little paddocks, and most of them stand in little ... enclosures filled with slop."
Horses are everywhere during Carnival — whether they're carrying mounted police or krewe royalty handing out doubloons. Those horses need to be in good shape to walk the miles-long routes. Barca says her office is flooded with calls for last-minute veterinary care (and requisite blood tests) for horses each Carnival season: "Doc, how do you make it prettier? Doc, how do you make him fatter? He's lame, he's this, he's that," she says.
Several horse owners investigated by the JPAS keep horses for Mardi Gras — but put them out to pasture for the rest of the year.
Visitors have to be buzzed into the JPAS office in Westwego. The building is surrounded by barking dogs, out of sight behind a brick wall topped with barbed wire. It's quiet inside as Staton arrives with a plastic Mardi Gras cup filled with coffee.
The shelter has six animal control officers and one humane officer, who works primarily with cruelty cases. The officers work 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., in shifts, covering both the East and West banks. They also respond to emergencies at all hours. Staton has led the charge, but her contract is up next month. She says the parish is "just now starting to understand the severity of the problem."
Staton signed a contract with the parish to assist with sanitation, disease prevention and other issues, mainly to help the shelter, which came under fire in 2007 after 13 dogs at its East Bank location died following exposure to undiluted insecticide. (A Humane Society of the United States report followed and found improper staff training, inhumane conditions and premature euthanasia practices.)
Staton's original contract started in October 2009 and was for six months; she's now leaving later this month.
The parish's momentum in investigating horses and makeshift shelters began last year following a case in Waggaman. The parish seized Cheryl Brown's three emaciated, malnourished horses and a rail-thin foal — "the thinnest horse I've seen," Staton remembers. Brown later was charged with three counts of simple cruelty to animals. A filly rescued that day died later. "People don't realize just how fragile these strong creatures are," Staton says.
Barca provided health care for the filly's dam, now named Promise. "That was the skinniest animal I've ever seen," Barca says. "We went through hell the first few weeks getting her fed. ... Truly this mare had one foot in the grave."
Promise is now a healthy weight, but Barca says Promise's story isn't new. "There has always been a problem in our area where people tend to own more horses than they can afford to keep," she says. "That's it in a nutshell. ... I've been seeing this a long time, and I've been spinning my wheels a bit because there just isn't anything the various municipalities seem to do about it."
Following several seizures this year, the Jefferson Parish Council requested JPAS and code enforcement officers conduct barn sweeps. They inspected 18 barns and found only building code violations for inadequate housing for the animals, says Loren Marino, chief administrative assistant to Parish President John Young.
"At that time we didn't find any additional horses in bad shape or stables that needed to be shut down," Marino says. "The stables did receive code enforcement violations, and they're now proceeding on their normal course. There's another sweep that'll be scheduled soon. We really haven't found any additional outrageous incidents."
But Staton says the parish is only beginning to scratch the surface: "This is a potential catastrophe."
Horse neglect isn't specific to Jefferson Parish. Dorson says it's more problematic in rural areas throughout the state. In June, the HSL and the Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Office rescued two horses found tied to a tree without food or water. The horse's owner, Oris Lee, now faces three animal cruelty charges, and animal rescuer Pamela Brown has adopted the horses.
In 2007, the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LA/SPCA) seized 31 starving, dehydrated horses from Dave Williams' property in Algiers. Another two horses were found dead from starvation. Williams was charged with 33 counts of aggravated cruelty, but in November 2009 was convicted instead of 10 counts of simple cruelty and was given a six-month suspended sentence, 40 hours of community service and a $600 fine. The LA/SPCA spent more than $200,000 rehabilitating the animals and finding them a new home, a figure not budgeted in the organization's tight $3 million annual budget to serve the entire New Orleans area that year.
HSL receives five to eight calls a month about horse abuse and neglect cases. To help parishes with the costs of seizing and caring for the animals, HSL is opening a chapter to handle cruelty investigations concerning large animals. "Most shelters and sheriff's offices don't have the resources to care for impounded large animals, so we've got to carry the cost of the trailer, the hitch — it gets compounded very quickly," Dorson says.
Potential cruelty-case calls made to JPAS are sent to dispatch, which forwards tips to JPAS officers; cruelty investigations are their highest priorities. Officers visit the property where the animal is living, try to contact the animal's owners and obtain search warrants — unless the animals are "literally dying," Staton says. Properties can be difficult to find — some have dozens of barns with different owners for each stable, or horse, while others are empty lots with little to no shelter. Officers follow up with frequent monitoring and perform "courtesy stops."
JPAS has investigated hundreds of horse cases in which the parish didn't seize the animals but instead worked with the owners. "Most people are receptive to changes — most won't argue with that," Staton says. "We try to respond to calls when people have concerns about these animals. We go out and try to assess the animal the best we can, try to talk to the owners, explain the legal requirements in terms of care and housing, and try to work diligently with people to give them the opportunity (to take better care of their horses)."
But the last thing the parish wants to do, Staton says, is seize a horse — an expensive, time-consuming process. Fourteen may not seem like many horses, but the cost and time spent to get to the point of seizing an animal exhausts JPAS's resources, Staton says. Not only does the parish have to provide medical care for the horses, it doesn't have room to shelter them. The parish currently rents space at a private West Bank stable, but the owner declined Gambit's request to visit.
"What (the parish) needs ... is a nice, clean, secure location where we can bring these animals while they're being rehabilitated, and more publicity to get these animals adopted out," Barca says.
Meryll Bergeron owns two rescued horses she stables in Belle Chasse. From the bed of her husband's truck, she has taken dozens of photos of barns and horses on the West Bank and sent them to Marino's office and to JPAS. ("I have no fear," she says.) Bergeron also has appeared at Jefferson Parish Council meetings armed with photos to show council members, calling attention to what she says is an "epidemic" of abuse.
"Do I think there is an epidemic or a pandemic? No," Marino says. "This is something new. Attention had not previously been paid to this." Futhermore, she says, the sweeps seem to be helping. "Once we do the proactive sweeps — we truly compiled a list of every stable we can find — we just didn't find anything come up."
JPAS interim director Diane Guichard says the parish is handling the problem, but calling it an epidemic is a stretch. "It's always a serious issue when you have someone saying there are unsanitary and unsafe conditions," she says. "That's always serious. But we are out there."
Staton has trained an animal cruelty officer to fill her shoes when she leaves this month, and other shelter employees have received additional training for larger animals, including horses. ("It's not just cats and dogs — it's all kinds of animals," Staton says. "We have to be pretty versatile.")
"Now that the word is out there, that we're proactively looking for instances of horse cruelty at horse stables, people are ... on guard," Marino says. "The same thing was probably out there last year, but nobody was uncovering it. We're out there, and we're trying to actively root out these problems and go out and look for them. The most egregious people have been addressed. It's not to say it won't pop up again."
More than half the animals at JPAS are relinquished by their owners — they simply can't afford to keep them. "Dogs, cats are now a 20-year commitment," Staton says. "Horses are more like 40 years."
But adoption fees are inexpensive. Fees for horses begin at $10. "We're more concerned with their environment," Staton says. "We look at where the animals will be kept. The parish typically won't let the animals be adopted to inexperienced horse owners. ... (They look for) someone who has a passion for horses ... and make sure they can manage.
"They're sweet animals that just need to be taken care of."