By SUZANNE MOORE, News Editor
---- — ESSEX — An attorney for the National Animal Interest Alliance says the civil side of the horse-cruelty case here should not have been handled at the town level.
“A bond was set for $40,000 and change, which exceeded the jurisdictional amount of the court,” Nancy Guttenberg said in a phone interview.
“We’ve done everything in our power to do it legally,” countered Essex County Attorney Daniel Manning. “I did look into whether the court had jurisdiction.”
In early October, Essex Town Justice Stephen Sayward ruled that the ownership of 40 horses seized from Shelley Wing’s Wing and a Prayer Farm be given to the county after the Essex woman failed to put up security for $43,890, representing a month’s care for the animals.
‘REFERS TO JUSTICE COURT’
“The proper form for this case was New York Supreme because of the jurisdictional limit of the court,” Guttenberg said.
According to the State Unified Court System, town courts such as the one in Essex that is handling the Wing case “hear civil lawsuits involving claims of up to $15,000.”
Manning said he followed Agriculture and Markets Law Section 373 in deciding it belonged in the town venue.
Wing was arraigned in Essex Town Court, and at that point, it was not known, he said, “what the value of the animals was or the value of the security” that would be required.
There is nothing in the Ag and Markets law, Manning said, that indicates a change of venue would be required depending on those amounts.
The repeated reference to “court” in the law, he said, “refers to the justice court where the arrest was made.”
As well, Manning said, he researched numerous similar cases online that were handled at that level.
Wing and her daughter, Emily, are both charged with 41 counts of failure to provide sustenance under State Agriculture and Markets law, a misdemeanor punishable, per count, by a fine of $1,000 and up to a year in jail.
The horses, one of which died after it was relocated to the Essex County Fairgrounds, were taken from the farm in mid-September.
Evidence filed with Essex Town Court includes some 1,800 photos that include images of emaciated horses and also horse skeletons found on the property.
Veterinarians’ statements indicate the animals lacked food and water, that they suffered from worms and various injuries.
Guttenberg says she has been involved in numerous cases of severe animal neglect, and a visit to the fairgrounds didn’t persuade her that the condition of the horses there was desperate enough to have warranted removing them from Wing’s property.
She was not allowed close enough to see the bodies of the horses, she said, but noted, “They all had halters on, their heads were up, their ears were up.”
In true cases of extreme starvation, she said, “they’re down. You can’t get them up.”
In Essex, Guttenberg continued, if the condition of the horses “was so severe that it required immediate action, that the only alternative were seizure, how is it that (the horses) could be fostered or adopted out two weeks later?
“They were placing them immediately, and they weren’t placing them with vets.”
She did say she offered to foster two of horses.
Instead of choosing the most extreme response to the situation, the county should have looked at other alternatives, Guttenberg said.
One of those, she said, could have been to put a trustee in place, “where Shelley Wing participated in the process.”
The hay could have been delivered to the farm, she said.
“Why was it so necessary to remove (the horses) from her location?”
‘DUE PROCESS REQUIRED’
Guttenberg believes the animals remain Wing’s property.
“Shelley Wing, no matter what she did, still has rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and she has the right of due process,” she said.
“Anyone who loves animals does not want to grant government the right to come in and take their dog or cat or dairy cow or horse without the protections of due process of law,” she said.
“And that’s really the only issue. If you are going to enforce the law, you have to do it scrupulously.”
‘JUST TO EDUCATE’
Guttenberg said she discussed the issue with an Ag and Markets attorney, who would be sending a letter of ruling to her on the matter.
She would then release it to the media, she said.
“My organization just wanted to educate,” she said. “Yes, I care about the horses, and something needed to be done. But if something is going to be done, you have to do it according to the law.
“Well-intentioned but misguided people let enthusiasm get ahead of their good judgment.”
“We have yet to write a letter or make a determination on the matter,” Ag and Markets Public Information Officer Joe Morrissey told the Press-Republican in an email.
“This determination would not be binding,” he added.
Guttenberg said she does not intend to represent Wing on the civil matter.
“But she has that cause of action against the parties and individuals involved.”
The case is one that goes beyond Essex County, Guttenberg said.
“This is such bad legal precedent. Once it goes national, people will ask first before they proceed,” she said.
“What if (this) were a dairy farmer? Would it be OK for his/her cows to be taken and given away before he/she was even found guilty?”
Last week, the Board of Supervisors voted to contract with Crane Mountain Horse Rescue to take charge of finding new homes for the equines.
On Monday, Manning said the contract with Crane Mountain was in the process of being finalized, as is one with veterinarian Diane Dodd to make official her role of supervising the care of the horses while they are in county custody.
She has been filling that role on a volunteer basis and had said she would continue to do so. But the county chose to pay her $75 an hour for her expertise.
Attempts to reach Shelley Wing have been unsuccessful.
Email Suzanne Moore:firstname.lastname@example.org