Stretched state Board of Animal Health looking for more local help

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Neighbors say this horse is evidence the property owner isn't properly feeding his animals.

INDIANA—Some people in Grant County are furious at the Indiana Board of Animal Health over a local horse’s Christmas Day death.

But the agency says its monitoring of the property over the last few years has been as effective as possible given limited resources. Each complaint from neighbors and everything they claim to see simply can’t be checked into around the clock, said Public Information Director Denise Derrer.

Neighbors say they saw a horse lying on the ground moaning for hours on Christmas Day. The day after, county investigators found the horse dead. That’s when they called BOAH again for assistance.

The horse was on a property owned by a man who the county has investigated for animal abuse before, following the deaths of two other horses in 2014, with the help of assessments and follow-up visits by the BOAH.

“It’s not just as simple as ‘Oh that horse looks skinny, let’s haul it away,’” said Derrer. “It just doesn’t work that way and it just can’t work that way.”

Derrer says they get emails, calls and complaints to their website from people frustrated that the board isn’t “doing something.”

She says it can take a day or more to assess every animal on a property.  Derrer says there’s no way to do that for every complaint they get.

“One of the big challenges is that we have 15 field people statewide and more than 60,000 farms,” said Derrer. “We can’t follow up on every individual one, but we work with local law enforcement who are working there to do that at a local level.”

Derrer says the BOAH has no authority to seize or confiscate animals. They can only assess them and turn veterinarian reporters over to county officials.

“We don’t confiscate animals, we don’t house animals, we don’t make those determinations,” said Derrer. “We don’t file charges. We don’t make arrests. We’re just there as a consultant and assistance to local law enforcement.”

Typically, Derrer says they come in to help when asked by local law enforcement like in the Grant County case. She says they prefer to have investigations start with the people who work where the complaint stems from.

“A lot of times they know the cases,” said Derrer. “They’ve been out on them before. We would go in green and wouldn’t know.”

In the Marion case, she says they’ve worked with local law enforcement for years to address problems on the property.

“There’s been some recommendations over time that maybe they need to change their feed rations or maybe do something differently like rearranging pasture arrangements, those type of things,” said Derrer.

Derrer says the property owner has cooperated fully, making the changes the veterinarian recommends. At no time did they find the animals on site at the time were in “imminent danger” of dying.

But people keep calling.

Neighbors say that’s because the changes made end soon after board staff leaves. Then they go back to trying to feed the horses as best they can from over the fence.

Derrer says that can backfire for two reasons.

If neighbors are throwing hay and other feed over the fence, when a veterinarian comes to assess the animals’ conditions and access to food, they see food. It doesn’t matter how it got there or who paid for it. It just has to be there.

Also, some of the horses are being treated for certain illnesses with special diets. The food neighbors are providing may not be helping them get better.

Still, she says she understands the frustration. They get a lot of calls for horses, she believes, because even though they’re legally livestock in Indiana, in most people’s minds they fall in a gray area.

“A lot of people consider them companion animals, versus cows or sheep that people look at them and think ‘livestock,’” said Derrer.

That’s a debate she believes will rage on for a while. Until it’s settled, the BOAH will likely continue to get many more calls for horses than other livestock.

In the meantime, BOAH staff is training local law enforcement to be able to better handle possible animal abuse investigations.

The hope is that if the board of animal health isn’t involved in as many situations where nothing is wrong, they’ll have more time to devote to legitimate cases.

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