SHERIDAN — The subject of animal abuse is one notorious for escalating emotions. On a local level, defining and prosecuting cases of cruelty to domestic animals is a variable task that relies primarily in individual judgement.
With winter slowly making a decisive descent into Sheridan, owners of both pets and livestock have decisions to make regarding how to modify living conditions for the animals under their charge. This also is a time when the community attempts to come to an informal consensus regarding what’s ethical treatment, and what’s not, especially for animals in public view.
“There’s no bright line, so to speak,” Sheridan County Sheriff Lt. Mark Conrad said, indicating that cold temperatures often usher in more requests for animal welfare checks, sometimes directly related to the weather of the moment.
Conrad said significant storms usually prompt people to speak up if they’re worried about an animal exposed to the elements.
“We get a spike in reports of dogs or horses left unattended without shelter or food,” Conrad said.
The sheriff’s deputies, along with local police and the Wyoming Livestock Board, investigate all complaints of abuse within their jurisdiction.
“In most cases, the calls we get are about skinny horses,” CEO and Director of the Wyoming Livestock Board Leanne Correll said, adding her office fields livestock welfare complaints from around the state on a daily basis.
Correll said there are many circumstances that arise that make situations look bad for livestock.
“We have a lot of people who maybe got a horse and thought it was a great idea,” Cornell said.
But now their lifestyles have changed and it’s no appropriate for them to have it anymore, but there’s hardly anywhere to get rid of a horse,” she said.
Correll said humane euthanization of horses is also cost prohibitive for many people, which leaves an owner with no viable option other than to do the best they can with what they have, whatever that might be.
“Hay is high, feed costs are very high, and people are economically strapped,” she explained. “It becomes a fine line sometimes.”
Correll also said some situations are deceptive from the outside perspective.
“A lot of horses in the state are getting up in age, and the owners are taking good care of them and the feed they give them is nutritionally wise, but they just don’t process feed like they used to.”
“If we believe there is a nutritional deficiency, we work with a veterinarian and with the owner about nutrition if they don’t have the expertise,” Correll said.
Conrad said a similar situation plays out with non-livestock animals: varying standards between neighbors create a discomfort between the two camps.
Furthermore, the sections of Wyoming law that address animal cruelty leave much room for interpretation.
“It’s hard for a statue to make things exactly black and white,” Conrad said, emphasizing that people have diverse opinions regarding what constitutes sufficient provisions for animals. “When it comes to neglect, that’s a hard thing to put your finger on by definition.
“At what point does a vet come in and and say an animal is substantially underweight or dehydrated?” Conrad asked.
Do horses need barns and blankets when the snow falls? Should dogs have a heated bed in their doghouses? What about daily exercise? Preventative dental work? The law says no in all situations, but somewhere in Sheridan, someone would disagree.
Conrad said his agency also seek the counsel of a veterinarian if a deputy’s preliminary investigation turns up possible negligence.
“Every case is so circumstantial,” Conrad continued. “It has to do with how people grew up. We have some people where that’s how they’ve done it on their ranch for 50 years, and the animals are their property.
“Their opinion is different than the other land owner’s, and I don’t know we’re ever going to solve that,” Conrad said.
Sheridan Dog and Cat Shelter Director Cel Hope said telltale signs of abuse include emaciation, untreated chronic medical diseases or injuries and physical violence. Environmental conditions associated with abuse include being tied up outside alone for long periods of time without food, water or shelter. In addition, extremely dirty or crowded conditions are almost always enough to substantiate a case of abuse.
Hope, Conrad and Correll all agreed any vetted suspicion of animal abuse should be reported.
“We certainly don’t promote looking the other way,” Correll said. “If it’s somebody in your neighborhood, making that simple approach themselves is the best situation, but I realize that’s not always the thing to do, or the safest thing to do,” Correll said.
Conrad said Sheridan County law enforcement personnel have a fairly successful track record in prosecuting animal abuse cases that have resulted in heavy-handed sentences from judges. Until that happens, a complainant won’t know the outcome of their inquiry.
“If it gets turned over to law enforcement, it becomes and investigated case, and we cannot report back,” Correll said. “It’s confidential between the Livestock Board and the owner.”
Conrad agreed, indicating cases that could potentially lead to later prosecution are not released into the public record so that an impartial jury can be assembled if a future situation dictates.
“Just because they physically don’t see a change they can evaluate and see something has changed, doesn’t mean we’re not doing something,” Correll said.
To report suspected animal abuse in Sheridan County, contact the Sheridan Police Department at 672-2413, the Sheridan County Sheriff at 672-3455, or the Wyoming Livestock Board at 777-7515.