The attorney representing a Petaluma couple in a case of alleged neglect of prized horses said her clients are being unfairly smeared and has threatened a class-action lawsuit against the Marin Humane Society.
Margaret Weems, a Fairfax lawyer with an extensive background in horse-related issues, said Jill and Alex Burnell of Gray Fox Farms deserve to have four confiscated horses returned to their property in a remote West Marin area.
Weems spoke to Patch one day after a hearing officer in a Marin courtroom said the Marin Humane Society was justified in seizing two horses on two occasions within the past three weeks from the Chileno Valley property, which is in Marin County but has a Petaluma address.
Humane officers said they discovered what they described as severe neglect, injuries and inhumane living conditions for horses, including Hanoverians and thoroughbreds. This photo on the Marin Humane Society website shows an emaciated mare that was seized (the society has not shared photos as part of its press releases). This story claims to show before-and-after photos of a seized mare.
"There's not a lot of value to the truth of what's going on in the information they're sending out," Weems said of a Marin Humane Society’s account. "To describe the horses as emaciated or neglected is an extremely unfair characterization."
Weems said MHS has a track record of seizing animals, giving the owners inadequate notice of planned seizures and charging inappropriate fines based on questionable data.
Weems accused one MHS animal services officer who participated in one of the raids of acting on a hunch rather than facts. Weems said one stallion, known nationally among horse breeders as Romantic Star, was just muddy and slightly injured from a fight with another stallion when he was taken away to a veterinary clinic at UC Davis. The attacking stallion ended up with a bruised leg, she said.
"(Romantic Star) had some bruising and some cuts, but no broken bones," Weems said. "One of his eyes had a little bit of a scrape, but it was not threatening his vision. Stallion fights are ugly, and the Burnells had never had a stallion fight before. Another stallion jumped two six-foot fences" to get to Romantic Star, she said.
Weems said MHS seized the horse without a full evaluation and took the four Gray Fox Farms horses without any facts to back up the reasons.
"It is an outrage," she said. "Romantic Star is very valuable breeding stallion, and now his career and his availability to that world is in jeopardy because of the great length that the humane society has gone to to absolutely trash the reputation of the Burnells in what we believe was an unfounded manner."
The Burnells and their support team intend to file a class-action lawsuit against Marin Humane Society "on behalf of all the people who have had animals seized in this broken system," Weems said. Anyone else who feels wronged in a similar way is welcome to contact her, she said.
She said she is waiting for a transcript of the Jan. 14 hearing and will go back to court to address what she said were deficiencies in the hearing process. Weems claimed that the hearing officer who made the ruling against the Burnells, Albert Burnham, was far from independent.
"He just let the animal services officer ramble for three hours and then adopted her statement as to exactly what was going on," Weems said.
“There was no real discussion about the declarations submitted by our veterinarians and farriers."
Weems said the Burnells have been threatened because of the abuse allegations and believe it was unfair that Marin County Code Enforcement officials entered their property and took photos of the conditions and then posted them on the Internet.
"It is bad enough that the Burnells have had the outrage of Code Enforcement releasing photos of a nonconsensual search to folks who have put them on the Internet solely for the purpose of intimidating and harassing the Burnells," she said.
The Marin County District Attorney's office has not made an announcement about whether it will pursue criminal animal cruelty charges against the Burnells.