ROGERS CITY - A Hawks woman will face a felony charge of animal neglect after a judge ordered the forfeiture of 37 animals seized from her farm.
Circuit Court Judge Maria Barton rejected her attorney's claim of an illegal search and seizure, and his claim that Thompson had been arrested before the animals were taken from her property. She cited the "Open Fields" doctrine in justifying the actions of Presque Isle County sheriff deputies when they looked for, but couldn't find, food on her property on Nov. 7.
Upon arriving, they found that a number of horses had gotten loose, according to testimony from two deputies who investigated the case. They could find no food at the farm with which to lure them back to pasture. Deputies found a number of dogs tied up in what they described as "deplorable" conditions. Of the five seized, none had food or water when officers found them. Three were in an open building with no dry bedding, surrounded by feces, and one was shivering and tied up in several inches of mud. The horses appeared to be underfed as well, as did three pigs discovered later.
Thompson said she was taking in rescue horses, as well as boarding horses for other owners. She'd recently taken in several, including three from the same owner in October. Of the three people she claimed had ownership of some the horses, one testified, although Barton said the court didn't find the testimony to be credible. Another was not called to testify, and the third never contacted the court or prosecutor's office, Prosecutor Rick Steiger said.
"I don't doubt, Ms. Thompson, that you love those animals ... but you have to take care of those animals," Barton said. "And when you take on animals, and when you take on rescue animals you have to be able to properly care for those animals and provide them with food and water and shelter. And I just don't think those things happened."
Thompson testified she moved her horses back and forth between her farm and land she leased nearby. On Nov.7, she moved 12 horses from the leased land back to her farm. She was arrested the next day under suspicion of animal neglect, according to her testimony and deputies Dave Tomas and Joseph Mulka. The animals were transferred to a number of farms in the county and the Cheboygan County Humane Society, except for two horses put down after two veterinarians determined they were beyond help.
Thompson told the court she'd recently taken in several, including three from the same owner in October.
Dr. Shanti Bhuyan, a veterinarian from Kingsley who sees mostly horses for his practice, assessed the 31 seized horses about a month after their seizure, giving 21 of them a Henneke Body Condition Scoring of three or lower.
Bhuyan described the BCS system, which ranks horses on a scale of one to 10, one being the thinnest, as a "hopefully objective way of evaluating how thin or how fat a horse is." He said scores can vary by a point from one veterinarian's assessment to another. If a horse has a disease or other condition, it could appear thin despite being well-fed, Bhuyan said.
Due to the recent economic slump, compounded this year by a drought that drove up hay prices, more owners are having financial troubles feeding their horses, Bhuyan said.
"I've had clients who went on a trail ride and when they came back they had horses tied to the trailer," he said. "That's how bad it's become."
However, Barton said when giving her ruling that these circumstances don't give Thompson "a year off." She also referred to the initial veterinary assessment of the horses after seizure, and to testimony from Bhuyan's overall opinion of the 31 horses he had evaluated.
"There were enough of them that were underweight that it gave me the impression there was long-term, chronic malnourishment," he said.
Autumn Blanchard told the court she had worked at the Thompsons' farm nearly every day since late June 2012. Along with watering and feeding the animals, she described an automatic watering system that kept the horses' troughs full, and said she could always find food in the upper part of one of the farm's buildings.
Tomas and Mulka had told the court on Tuesday they hadn't checked the upper story of this building. Tomas also testifed that Scott Thompson, Christine's husband, came to the farm some time after the investigation began with bags of corn and dog food in his pickup truck. He told the deputy he needed to feed the animals, and Tomas told him he needed to leave. Thompson complied, leaving the food before he did.
Rev. Jack Ferguson said he's leased land to Thompson under a verbal agreement for about four years. She uses his pasture and barns, and he's seen veterinarians and other hired help visit the horses. In return, they help to keep his fences in good repair, although he's been contacted by officers "about a dozen times" for animals getting loose from the land. He didn't believe Thompson was abusing or neglecting the animals she kept on his land.
Ferguson's neighbor, Lezlie Kranzo, disputed this testimony. His land shares a border with Ferguson's farm, and he's had horses cross through broken or beaten-down fences numerous times, he said. They're mostly to blame for eating his deer food plot as evidenced by the manure and hoof prints. He'd also noticed the horses looking thin, and said the pasture looked over-grazed.
"As more and more horses were put on the property, it became more evident," he said.
During questioning by Joel Bauer, Thompson's attorney, and Assistant Prosecutor Meghan Hurley, Kranzo said his relationship with Ferguson is "strained." He's a former member of Ferguson's congregation, and left after a dispute. He has since tried to mend the relationship.
After the ruling, Bauer said he believes the community could have helped Thompson. Horse rescuers are vulnerable due to a lack of legal framework protecting them from animal abuse laws.
"If they take on horses that have not been adequately fed, you know, have a BCS score of less than three, all the animals can be forfeited and confiscated by the county, and seized," he said.
Barton also ordered Thompson to pay more than $13,000 in restitution, an amount she would have to match with a bond within 72 hours before appealing the forfeiture.
Hurley said she was relieved the case was over, and thanked everyone who helped care for the animals.
"We look forward to getting good homes for all the animals involved," she said.
Jordan Travis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5688.