Last fall, the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture asked state police to follow up on a pair of complaints received by the state veterinarian’s office about suspected cruelty at the St. Francis Farm Sanctuary, in Langdon. After a monthslong investigation, 26 allegedly maltreated horses at the farm were either surrendered or seized, and the sanctuary’s operator was arrested on suspicion of animal cruelty—all thanks to a tip.
Indeed, most equine cruelty investigations begin with a tip to law enforcement. And whether those cases are successfully prosecuted can depend largely on how tipsters share their information.
“We are animal lovers and we want to help, but what we see as neglect may not be what it seems,” said DeEtte Hillman, equine programs director for Days End Farm Horse Rescue, in Woodbine, Maryland. “If you don’t gather information and report it properly, you can upside the process.”
Take detailed notes.
Start by documenting what you observe. “If you can see (the animal) from your window or from public property, write detailed notes of what you see weekly, daily, hourly,” Hillman said.
Those notes should also contain detailed descriptions of the horses involved, said Jim Boller, of Code3 Associates, an organization that trains law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and veterinarians to spot and respond to suspected animal cruelty.
“There might be four sorrel horses in a field, but each of them has unique individual markings,” he said. “Make sure you make notes about those markings.”
No matter how detailed the written notes, the best information often comes from photographs of the animal and its environment. But, Hillman warns, images must be taken from public property—safely from the middle of a public road, for example—without illegally trespassing on private property. Photographs obtained illegally could ultimately jeopardize the entire case.
“If the court can throw out evidence, (it) can throw the case out,” she said.
Boller stressed that those who suspect equine cruelty should never try to rectify the situation themselves.
“It’s easy to misinterpret a situation—for example, a horse might be on a special diet or older and hard to keep weight on,” he said. “Also, there may be an (ongoing) investigation involving the horse, so don’t bring in hay or feed for it.”
Know who to contact.
Finally, anyone reporting suspected animal cruelty can facilitate a viable investigation by just knowing who to notify.
“Sometimes the (state) department of agriculture is the agency that asks the sheriff’s department or animal control to begin an investigation, sometimes it’s animal control, sometimes it’s the sheriff’s office that investigates,” Boller explained.
Because protocols can vary by state, county, city, or town, contact your local officials and pose the question: “Who should I contact if I think a horse is being neglected?”
Ultimately, law enforcement relies on information provided by tipsters to identify cases of neglect.
“A lot of people get horses for whatever reason but don’t know anything about them; they have no intention to hurt the animals, so a big part of our job is educating people,” Boller noted. “But often we don’t know unless someone alerts us when they suspect animal cruelty.”
Be prepared to step aside and let authorities do their job once you’ve reported the issue. Interfering with a neglect scenario without permission can derail investigations and prosecution, which can leave truly maltreated animals at risk.