Response to North Dakota horse neglect case reaches across state, country
GRAND FORKS - People from around the country are reacting to the discovery last week of 99 dead horses and more than 150 others starving and ailing while in the custody of a western North Dakota landowner.
A 6-year-old girl in New York sent her $177 in savings to help care for the horses seized at properties in Burleigh and Morton counties. A Bismarck woman, hearing about the girl's donation, offered a $177 donation so the girl could get her savings back. The girl said no, she wanted her money to go to the horses.
In Fargo, a woman rallied members of her riding club to donate blankets, halters and other gear for the recovering horses and hauled a truckload to a Bismarck shelter where more than two dozen of the weakest horses were taken.
And in Milnor, a man who raises quarter horses said he regrets selling a prized mare to the man under investigation, and he is desperately searching for Pepper, the 8-year-old mare he rode in roping competitions.
Gary Bernhardt said he sold Pepper last year to raise money for the Roger Maris Cancer Center.
"You could crack a bull whip off her or swing a lariat off her and she'll stand right there," Bernhardt said. "You don't even have to hang on to the reins.
"It tears at your heart, all the garbage going on out there with the horses. I can't talk about it without having tears come down my face."
The Burleigh County Sheriff's Office said investigative reports "have been turned over to the state's attorney's office and are being reviewed for possible criminal charges."
The owner of the properties where the horses were kept has not been charged and has not been identified by local authorities, but the Bismarck Tribune reported last week that area residents identified him as Bill Kiefer, who lives part time near New Salem and also has a home in Fargo. Efforts to reach Kiefer were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the North Dakota Legislature is considering a bill that would increase penalties for animal abuse and neglect, raising the most egregious cases to a felony. The state is one of just two in the nation without a felony penalty for animal abuse.
An amendment to the bill was passed Tuesday that would make any violation to an entire herd or group of animals count as only one offense.
An initiated measure seeking to establish a new penalty for severe abuse of a dog, cat or horse was defeated in the November 2012 election. Opponents said they preferred to leave the issue to the 2013 Legislature.
Bruce Strinden, chairman of the Morton County Board of Commissioners, said the existing misdemeanor penalty for animal abuse "is not nearly severe enough for what has happened here." Conviction on a Class A misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a fine.
Strinden said the extent of the neglect in Morton County "is the worst I've ever heard of."
Christine Panther, of Fargo, said she sent an email to members of her regional riding club when she heard about the dead and dying horses, asking for help in responding.
"I think we bought up all the horse blankets in a three-state area, and people at the club were pulling things out of their lockers with tears in their eyes," she said. "We had the blankets and things out there in 12 hours."
Panther said she and others "asked if we could take some of the horses off the property," feed and care for them and arrange for veterinarians to check them out, but that wasn't possible to arrange.
She said members of her group were frustrated about a lack of information concerning what's happening to the horses left on the property.
Alison Smith, of Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue in Bismarck, said 27 of the worst-case surviving horses were brought to her facility. Veterinarians determined that a few had to be put down over the past few days, but "things are going pretty good" with the remaining horses.
"Their eyes don't look as hollow and lifeless like they did," she said. "I think we're on the right path. They're relieved to be where they are, and they're getting a little bit of confidence back. They seem to have a will to live."
Like Strinden, she said the scope of the neglect was unusual.
"You just don't see this magnitude of an issue, at least in North Dakota," Smith said. "I think this is the largest case of neglect this county has ever seen, and maybe the state."
Madi Georgia, the 6-year-old from Whitney Point, N.Y., inspired at least two matching contributions.
"That little girl made an impact on these horses that was pretty special," Smith said. "What she did for the horses was so touching, so very heartfelt."
Extent of crime
Morton County officials seized 119 horses on Jan. 28 from a property owned by a New Salem, N.D., man. They also found 96 dead horses there. At the same time, Burleigh County officials seized 38 horses on another property, where they also found three dead horses.