Michigan Horse Abuse Debate Rages On

A Web site designed to refute allegations brought by Jackson County, Michigan, Animal Control authorities against Matthew Mercier and James Henderson Jr., both accused of felony animal torture in Grass Lake, Mich., is the latest twist in a case that has been embroiled in controversy since its onset.

The site contains photos of the horses seized in the case and conditions around Turn-3 Ranch, where the alleged animal torture took place, along with a synopsis of events, information about search and seizure procedures, and a discussion forum. As of Aug. 3, the www.glhorsetruth.com visitors counter had logged 3,198 hits.

Mercier Horse

Mercier's Web site, GLHorseTruth.com, includes numerous photographs of the horses and farm. This image is dated March 22.  

"There is always controversy over cases such as this," said Michigan Department of Agriculture's V.S. Chickering, DVM, who examined the horses involved in the case the day before their seizure. "I think he's trying to get the media on his side."

At press time, Mercier's attorney, Michael Dungan of the Jackson, Mich., law firm of Dungan, Kirkpatrick and Clark PLLC, was unavailable for comment on the case.

On July 20, Jackson County District Court Judge Joseph Filip ruled that evidence was sufficient to support trial on the animal torture charges involving 69 horses managed by Mercier and owned by Henderson. He awarded ownership of the horses to animal control.

According to Mark Blumer, chief assistant prosecutor for Jackson County, if convicted, Mercier and Henderson each face up to four years in prison on the felony animal torture charges and one year in prison on animal neglect charges.

The horses were discovered in a state of alleged neglect on March 14, when Jackson County Animal Control officers responded to a complaint about the horses and initially visited the farm. According to their report, investigating officers found "about 50% of their horses to be thin and another 10% to be emaciated." The report also indicated the horses--including Paints, Quarter Horses, and Thoroughbreds--had no access to water or grain; that their sole apparent feed source was a round bale "consisting of tree leaves and grass;" and that general debris accumulation and disrepair rendered conditions around the farm hazardous. Investigators also reported finding a dead horse in the farm's driveway.

Chickering visited the farm on March 20 at the investigating officer's request. Her findings, she said, concurred with Animal Control officers' initial report.

"The conditions were awful," Chickering said. "There was sheet metal around the property from buildings that had blown down, and the hoses were stepping over boards with nails in them. The property conditions were extremely hazardous."

Chickering also said her examination of the horses revealed one horse with a serious, untreated leg wound, and food in short supply, leaving the majority of horses to compete for feed and available hay.

"Feed was put out," she said, "but only the dominant ones got the most, and they looked pretty good. But as you went through the herd, the body conditions got worse--especially the geriatric horses and any of the horses under a year and a half old. The best horses were average. None of them was obese."

Chickering recommended that facilities around the farm be improved according to state agriculture and management guidelines, that injured horses receive immediate medical attention, and that a long-term management plan be developed by county animal control and a consulting veterinarian. Recommending the removal or seizure of the horses is not, she said, within her jurisdiction.

"Animal control has the legal charge to do that," Chickering said. "The Department of Agriculture is there to provide them support. They had to go through their legal channels to make the seizure."

One day after Chickering's visit, Jackson County Animal Control officials impounded the horses. Jackson County Animal Control Department Director Kimberlee Luce did not respond to requests to comment on the seizure process or on the case in general.

Robert Sray, DVM, who had provided veterinary services for Jackson County in the past, said that while conditions at Turn-3 Ranch were far from ideal, the situation there could have been resolved without impounding the horses and pressing severe criminal charges.

According to Sray, Mercier requested his presence at Turn-3 Ranch on March 14, when animal officers asked Mercier to call his veterinarian to the site. Sray said he was familiar with Turn-3 Ranch from a handful of previous visits for Coggins testing and to confirm pregnancies, but he had never toured the entire property and was unaware that 69 horses were located there. During the animal control site visit, he was simply an observer, he said.

"I was not there to examine the horses," he emphasized, "and I did not examine the horses."

Sray said he did observe (March 14) two of the three horses deemed emaciated were 28 years old and showing typical signs of weathering a rough Michigan winter.

"We'd just come off of six weeks of really bad weather, and it was tough on them," Sray said. "Also, I noticed that the horse eventually found to have a fractured pelvis was gimpy. I recommended that they take him to the University or another clinic to be X rayed."

But, Sray said, Mercier expressed willingness to work with authorities to improve conditions at the site. According to Sray, the offer was declined by animal control investigators.

"I think between the work and the weather, things just got ahead of these guys," Sray said. "They're (animal control officials) calling it torture."

Meanwhile, the horses remain on the property, which Mercier and Henderson had leased. According to Laura Steenrod, spokesperson for the Leelanau Horse Rescue (a Leeland, Mich., non-profit rescue group brought in to provide financial support, food donations, and volunteer caretakers for the horses), some $20,000 in repairs were made to facilities on the property, including the construction of new foaling stalls, fence mending, and debris removal.

Steenrod said the horses are improving, and that Jackson County animal control officials will determine when the horses will be available for adoption or foster care.

But the controversy surrounding the case isn't likely to soon disappear.

"I believe this case could have been handled differently with the outcome being their same; that being the health and well-being of the horses involved," said Pam Patterson, Sray's veterinary assistant. "Animal control could have said they would give Mercier 30 days to clean up the property and work with a veterinarian on nutrition. In those 30 days, an officer could have made daily visits to be sure progress was being made.

"All of this could have been at the expense of Mr. Mercier and not the county," Patterson said.

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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