Attorneys Continue to Fire Salvos in Horse Neglect Case

Four horses were confiscated from a Chileno Valley ranch in December and treated for being malnourished. But the ranchers' attorney says the Humane Society is lying...in order to spur fundraising efforts


The rift continues between the Marin Humane Society and a horse breeder in Chileno Valley accused of neglecting animals, with each side fingering the other for wrongdoing.

Last month, Marin Humane Society removed four horses from Gray Fox Farms, located west of Petaluma, for emergency medical treatment. But the attorney for the owners, Jill and Alex Burnell, says Marin Humane Society is releasing photos of underweight horses to spur fundraising efforts and humiliate her clients.

(The ranch's address is in Petaluma, although the area is technically Marin County.)

"I don't know what horse that is a photo of, or when it was taken, and at this point I am pretty skeptical of everything that originates from their offices," said Maggie Weems, the Fairfax-based attorney who represents the Burnells. "This is Photoshopped clip-art for all of its value, especially when they are using the scandal they have created by their own faulty investigation as a fundraising technique, which also strikes me as inappropriate." 

The humane society's lawyer counterattacked Wednesday.

"Nothing is so obnoxious and absurd as to think that Marin Humane Society, which has been around 100 years taking care of the needs of Marin, has decided to pick on this one woman," attorney Bruce Wagman said. "People have called us congratulating us for pursuing this issue."

And as for making the horse neglect case a for-profit pursuit, Wagman added, "Marin Humane Society is a nonprofit organization and tells people about what it's doing and asks for donations. That's part of being a nonprofit. It's so laughable to say we're doing it to raise money. If that's what we're doing, we're doing it pretty badly because we're not making any money doing this."

Earlier this month, the Burnells tried to sue the Marin Humane Society to get four confiscated horses returned and prohibit animal control officers from their property off Chileno Valley Road near Petaluma. But Marin Superior Court Judge Roy Chernus dismissed the suit on Jan. 8, saying the humane society was justified in addressing reports of horse starvation and untreated injuries.

On Jan. 24, the Burnells tried for the second time to have horses returned from temporary homes where veterinarians are watching their progress. A hearing officer has yet to rule about the status of two mares, but Weems said the odds appear long. She said the hearing officer, Albert Burnham, is hired by the humane society.

"This guy is 20 for 20 in favor of Marin Humane Society," she said. "I'm not holding my breath. ... He has never returned an animal to an owner or caretaker, so this is not an independent review by any means."

One horse taken off the property last month was Romantic Star, a stallion known nationally among warmblood breeders and in dressage circles. Weems said Romantic Star was just muddy and slightly injured from a fight with another stallion. He is being treated at a veterinary clinic on the campus of UC Davis along with two mares from the farm. The Marin Humane Society is caring for the fourth horse.

Just prior to the December Romantic Star has been sold to a woman in Georgia who wants custody, but the horse is seen as evidence in a criminal investigation, Weems said.

Weems has maintained the confiscated horses that appeared thin were not neglected, malnourished or mistreated and that they should have been returned to the Burnells' custody immediately after they were evaluated.

"If a horse really is starving or has medical conditions that perhaps causes an unsightly or thin appearance, there are blood panels and chemical tests that will reveal whether or not a horse is in a metabolic condition so that somebody could objectively say a horse may not be receiving sufficient calories," Weems said. "But all the blood tests were normal for these horses and scored better (on a body condition scale) than the scores given by the Marin Humane Society."

Wagman said the animal control officers acted accordingly after receiving calls of concern from people who saw ribs showing prominently on the bellies of several horses at pasture.

"There's a difference between being thin and being in a state of near starvation and suffering," Wagman said, "and these horses were in the latter category. People who are facing charges of neglect ... they always try to put it over that it wasn't that bad. But the spaces between these horses' ribs were not normal. ... In both situations, there was a need for prompt action."

Wagman the confiscated horses are recovering well. Animal control officers have not made additional visits to Gray Fox Farms, he said.

Longest Family in Electrical in Petaluma February 01, 2013 at 02:40 PM
My question would be why would animal control make this up? They did not find these horses themselves, someone must have called. The owner of these horses should be responsible for all of their expenses. The Animal Control should be monitoring the rest of the horses to make sure they are being taken care of, and charging the owner. Does this owner have receipts for monies spent on the feed and care of these horses? It looks like she just hid them out and was going to let the poor animals fight it out and die one by one. Domestic animals do not know how to survive on their own. Let's starve this owner, leave her out in a field without a coat! Animal Control and the District Attorney you go get her!
Joe Selstrom February 01, 2013 at 03:59 PM
How can a nonprofit be allowed to enter private property? Let's give people who seem to be starving or neglected the same kind attention.
Louise Gordon February 01, 2013 at 08:43 PM
The MHS hold jurisdition to govern over animal welfare Joe. In laymen's terms Animal Control It is their job and duty to investigate and prosecute animal abuse. I think it is vile that Mrs.Weems is attempting to justify Jill Burnells animal abuse. I wonder how many horses she is being paid in. Seems suspect to me that the lawyer might be just as vested in seeing the horses returned as Jill Burnell. Which ones did she promise you Mrs Weems are those being cared for and fed or did you move your "payments" off property because you know Jill isn't going to or capable to care for them properly.
Louise Gordon February 01, 2013 at 08:46 PM
Furthermore its fairly poor reporting on the Patch's part to publish random photo's of the horses provided by the lawyer no less without comparing them to the animals impounded. Jill Burnell has over 20 some head of horses at current ....where is the proof those two photo's provided are in fact the confiscated horses and their condition at time of removal vs a few random photo's provided.
Longest Family in Electrical in Petaluma February 02, 2013 at 01:58 PM
Check the breeding records of the (2) stallions for the past years and you will know, who owned the mares. Or ask some of her neighbors on Center Road in Petaluma where she lived and kept her horses. Check the internet, nothing is removed from it. Check with other horse breeders. She had at least one worker at the farm, perhaps he should be found and interviewed? I know she rented additional pasture space on Center Road from her neighbors to house additional horses. Maybe she still has those horses there? GO GET HER, AND ANYBODY WITH INFORMATION PLEASE COME FORWARD! THESE ANIMALS NEED HELP!


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