Monday, September 22, 2014

Older horse’s death findings go to county attorney

By CRYSTAL HERBER, Herald Staff Writer | 11/28/2012

POMONA — The death of an elderly horse has prompted the horse’s owners, concerned residents and local officials to weigh in on the situation.

One group of people are claiming the horse was treated inhumanely and not cared for properly, while the owners say he was given a loving home for almost 33 years. Meanwhile, complaints from concerned citizens caused Franklin County law enforcement to forward the investigation’s findings to the county attorney.

POMONA — The death of an elderly horse has prompted the horse’s owners, concerned residents and local officials to weigh in on the situation.

One group of people are claiming the horse was treated inhumanely and not cared for properly, while the owners say he was given a loving home for almost 33 years. Meanwhile, complaints from concerned citizens caused Franklin County law enforcement to forward the investigation’s findings to the county attorney.

“Jet,” a 32-year-old former barrel racer, made his home in Pomona, but traveled throughout the country in his long lifetime, Carmen Willford, the horse’s owner, said Tuesday. He was a gentle horse, treated as part of the family, she said.

“I’ve had Jet since May 5, 1982. He was part of the family. I’ve had Jet since he was 11 months old,” Willford said, struggling to hold back tears as she described the pet she spent so much time with over the years.

She rode Jet, who’s registered name was Katies Rapid Jet, in many horse shows, rodeos and contests, but his true passion was rounding up cattle in the Flint Hills. Jet was a member of the Kansas State Horse Association, the American Quarter Horse Association, the National Barrel Horse Association and the Kansas Quarter Horse Association, she said. She described times when she and Jet would lie in the pasture together in the sun.

On Monday morning, after suffering complications from old age, as well as kidney failure, Jet was euthanized by Dr. Adam Smith, of the Ottawa Veterinary Hospital, according to both the owner and a report from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.

“He died in my arms yesterday morning,” Willford said, tears streaming down her face. “He tried and tried to get up but he just couldn’t.”

The normal lifespan of a horse is between 25 and 30 years, according to M.E. Ensminger’s “Horses and Horsemanship.” Jet’s condition took a turn for the worse about a year ago, Letha Willford, Carmen’s mother, said. Since that time, family members did all they could, she said, to ensure his last days would be comfortable.

“He started going downhill and we could tell he was going downhill, and I went and saw the vet and asked him what I could do and he said, ‘There’s nothing you can do. It’s like a 90-year-old person,’” Letha Willford said. “They’ll eat, but it doesn’t do any good.”

Jet was fed twice a day on a diet of ground alfalfa, sweet feed and feed pellets, the sheriff’s office confirmed through the animal’s veterinarian. When asked if there was anything more they could have done for Jet, Letha said, the veterinarian told her no, but if there was something they could have done, they would have tried.

“I asked and asked and they said no, just feed and take care of him and love him and well, of course, that’s what we did always,” Letha Willford said. “We would have done the best we could for him, and we always did.”

Painting a very different picture as to the condition of Jet, people have taken to social media in recent days, uploading grainy photos of a horse with ribs visible and complaining of the horse’s alleged neglect. Nona VanDamme, Wichita, was one of the many people concerned about the horse’s conditions, which caused her to make the drive to Ottawa for the Franklin County Board of Commissioners meeting Wednesday.

“Jet was put aside because he was old, and he was 32 years old,” VanDamme said, adding she sponsors two horses of that age in New Jersey and California and they are thriving. “That 32-year-old horse did not need to die just because he was 32 years old.”

VanDamme did not see the horse in person, she said, but received information and photos about the animal from friends in the area. After repeated attempts to contact the sheriff’s office about Jet this past weekend, VanDamme said she contacted County Attorney Stephen Hunting, who told her they would take steps to help, but by then it was too late. Jet was dead.

“That horse was not only starving since the sheriff was called in September, he was starting to shut down,” she told the board. “They will take all the nutrition from their organs to try to sustain standing up. It is a painful, slow death that Jet suffered.”

Indicating photos of the horse that she gave to the commissioners, VanDamme said those show that Jet was not eating, therefore not being taken care of properly.

“Because Jet was 32 years old he was just thrown out to the wolves, and the owners should have been asked how often do they feed him. Did he actually eat that feed? Because if he ate that food he would not have looked like he did,” she said.

VanDamme told the board that Franklin County Sheriff Jeff Curry would benefit from attending classes on animal neglect and cruelty statutes in Kansas.

The sheriff’s office first received calls about Jet in September, Sheriff Curry told the county board Wednesday. In that time, deputies have made several trips to the Willfords’ residence to check on the welfare of the horse. Each time, Curry said, it was determined that the animal had plenty of food and water, meaning no statutory laws were being broken. Willford confirmed that sheriff’s deputies had been to the house several times without prior notice to check Jet’s welfare.

The sheriff’s office confirmed with the veterinarian that the horse was healthy but very old, and after the kidney infection was having trouble maintaining weight, Curry said.

“Thirty-one, 32 years old is pretty old for a horse, and its time had come and they were doing the best they could,” Smith, the horse’s veterinarian, said.

The veterinarian is expected to provide the sheriff’s office with a report of his findings as to the condition of Jet, Curry told the board.

“I would agree that with a loved animal we want to provide the best care possible, but I think it’s important that we also recognize that the sheriff only has so much authority in this matter,” Curry said. “The only authority I have is to ensure that the horse is not abused or neglected by the definition or standard of a veterinarian.”

The bad blood between the Willfords and the people Sheriff Curry called the “activists” is just compounding the pain that is being felt by a family who lost a pet so loved that he received Christmas presents, Carmen Willford said. Her opinion, she said, is that those people need to mind their own business. She also thanked the sheriff’s office for its handling of the situation. Her mother said if people had been willing to communicate, they could have explained Jet’s condition.

“I think they should have at least had the decency to at least come and ask why the horse looked like he did,” she said.

It is not likely that the Willford family will face charges of animal neglect, Jerrod Fredricks, with the sheriff’s office, said, but the investigation materials have been given to the county attorney. County Attorney Hunting told the board his office received many of those materials Tuesday and has seen the official report from the veterinarian.

“I won’t go into any additional details at this time,” he said. “From the standpoint of the county attorney’s office, this is a pending, ongoing investigation.”

The office is looking over the material and will make a determination of whether to file charges based on that investigation, Hunting said. Hunting did not indicate if charges would be filed.

Both the sheriff and county attorney’s office are following up on the legality of the disposal of the horse’s carcass, Curry said. If it is found that the carcass was buried within city limits, the Willfords could face a fine. Another issue, Curry said, is the family has faced harassment in the past weeks relating to this issue. This is something his office takes seriously, he said.

“Although I’ve found nothing that rises to the level of crime concerning the horse, we are finding things that rise to a level of a crime concerning that family,” Curry said, “and the sheriff’s office will investigate that and forward reports to the county attorney’s office if we find that someone is harassing that family.”

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