Cruelty to horses rises in St. Landry Parish

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Horses graze in a yard outside St. Landry Parish Animal Control in Opelousas a few weeks ago. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Horses graze in a yard outside St. Landry Parish Animal Control in Opelousas a few weeks ago.

Government officials scramble to rescue, board malnourished, neglected animals

“We try to feed them and care for them as best we can, but sometimes they are so far gone that there’s no alternative but to put them down.” Jessie Bellard, chief administrative officer for St. Landry Parish government

OPELOUSAS — It’s becoming almost routine in St. Landry Parish to find malnourished horses abandoned by owners and left alone without proper care in pastures and stables.

The problem has escalated so much in recent years that animal-control personnel don’t have to wait long before the next complaint is filed about horses, some left alone for weeks without sufficient shelter or food and water, said Jessie Bellard, chief administrative officer for St. Landry Parish government.

Some horses are dead by the time parish officials arrive to investigate, Bellard said.

“It’s been a hard winter, and grass for the horses is scarce,” he said, adding parish workers don’t dispose of dead horses.

Bellard, who also oversees operation of the parish’s animal-control shelter at the St. Landry Parish Airport, said the facility has 22 stray horses stabled there.

Those horses were picked up after it was determined they were probable victims of neglect, meaning they appeared starved and seriously underweight when animal-control officers arrived.

“Usually we will take them in if we go out into a field and the horses are barely making it, without water and grass around and it’s obvious that no one has been caring for them,” Bellard said.

In addition to the horses boarded at the shelter, Bellard said, another 10 have been temporarily fostered to individuals who provide upkeep until animal control determines what can be done about them.

Sometimes the horses are in such wretched condition there is nothing that can be done, Bellard said.

“We try to feed them and care for them as best we can, but sometimes they are so far gone that there’s no alternative but to put them down,” he said. “After that, we bring (the horses) out to Beggs, where they go into the landfill.”

Bellard said two animal-control workers who would usually deal with small animals have been transferred to the livestock division due to the increasing number of horse cruelty complaints.

Until several years ago, the parish didn’t have a serious problem with horses and livestock, Bellard said, and he thinks one reason is that the number of horses seems to be rising across the parish.

“Probably the biggest problem right now is horses are cheap. You can buy a horse now for practically nothing. It’s not uncommon to see horses sold for $100 or a little more. That’s not much of an investment, and there are plenty of them on the market,” Bellard said.

In the past, owners who wanted to dispose of their horses could take them to sale barns in Opelousas, where the horses were sold for a high price, then shipped to Mexico, where they were slaughtered and used for dog food, Bellard said.

Prices for horses destined for that fate have fallen drastically, making it less economical for horse owners to fatten their livestock in order to fetch higher prices, Bellard said.

“Since that has occurred, it’s sometimes easier for the horse owners to just leave the horse in the pasture and let them die,” Bellard said.

The recent rise in the number of trail rides in the parish has exacerbated the problem, he said.

“Some trail riders get horses, ride them for that year and then they don’t keep them up when the trail rides are over,” he said.

Another reason for the rise in animal neglect and cruelty cases is there is usually no prosecution in cases involving horses, Bellard said.

St. Landry Parish District Attorney Earl Taylor said it’s often difficult to initiate prosecution in these cases because of the lack of witnesses.

“Usually a court case is more substantial if it happens in front of people,” Taylor said.

Taylor said a parish resident was successfully prosecuted on two counts of animal cruelty in 2009 after two dead horses were found four years earlier by animal control following a complaint.

Taylor said the woman pleaded guilty to the two counts and received a five-year suspended sentence with no jail time. The sentence also included a year of supervised probation and at least five days of community service on each count, Taylor said.

He also said the District Attorney’s Office is investigating the March 21 arrest of Roy Rubin.

The 20-year-old Opelousas man faces one count of simple cruelty in a case involving a horse left to die in a ditch after Rubin allegedly dragged it still alive through a field near Opelousas, according to the arrest affidavit of probable cause.

Leo Silverand, a parish employee, witnessed the incident, the affidavit says.

“These issues wouldn’t happen if everyone took responsibility for their horses, but that’s not the case,” Bellard said.

In the meantime, he said, the parish has plans to develop a larger building to accommodate the growing problem of unwanted horses.

“That’s the plan right now. We’re managing all right at the current time. Volunteers bring us food, and the person who cuts grass on our 200 acres at the airport gives us the first bale of hay every year to help us.”