In an icy field just two miles off U.S. Highway 95, it is difficult to tell where the frozen muck ends and the cattle carcasses begin.
In places, starving and dehydrated cattle have died while lying atop the corpses of those that had died before them. One animal hung for days, tangled in barbed wire, before it finally died.
Almost 40 cattle are dead at the ranch on Conkling Park Road, where it has been weeks since the animals have been fed, watered or cared for, Kootenai County sheriff’s authorities said Wednesday. Some of the living animals were so dehydrated when authorities found them Tuesday night that their eyeballs had collapsed inside their skulls. A veterinarian killed three animals to put them out of their misery.
Of the surviving 60 or so cattle, many have pink eye so bad that mucus icicles hang from their eyes. Others have pneumonia. Their hip, rib and backbones jut from beneath sunken and matted hides.
“This is a real atrocity,” said Eric Mescher, Idaho state brand inspector. “This is the worst case I’ve seen of animal neglect.”
The man who owns the animals, Harold Chambless, 69, said Wednesday he had been out of town and had expected someone else to care for the animals. But neighbors are skeptical and angry. They say Chambless has neglected the cattle for more than a year.
“He doesn’t care about his animals,” said Bobbie Wilson, who said about 25 of Chambless’ cows died last winter from neglect. “There were animals laying dead, rotting in this stream. He doesn’t care about their suffering. They might as well be a piece of furniture.”
No charges have been filed so far, but sheriff’s officials are looking into the case for possible animal neglect charges, said deputy Jason Shaw. They plan to talk to the county prosecutor today about whether to file charges.
Shaw found the dead and dying animals Tuesday night after neighbor Debby Sims reported what she’d seen to the sheriff’s department.
Sims was on her way to the post office when she noticed two fallen cattle. When she investigated further she found half-rotted carcasses scattered around the pasture.
“We didn’t know if were stepping on mud clots or dead cows,” she said.
Two cows, barely alive, were collapsed inside a large bale feeder where hay is supposed to be put for the animals to eat. They lay on top of the frozen, decomposed bodies of other animals that had jumped in previously and died.
“If you’ve got a weak stomach you don’t want to go down there,” Mescher said.
Veterinarian Kendall Bodkin, along with others at the scene, spent much of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning trying to revive a cow that was found collapsed between the feeding bins. They put blankets on her and gave her 26 gallons of water.
“We all had hopes she’d make it,” Mescher said. “She was really trying. But her legs just wouldn’t hold her anymore.” The cow was euthanized.
Cattle need more food and water in the winter to keep warm, Mescher said. Although a stream runs through the property, it was frozen on top, preventing the cattle from drinking. Cattle can go no longer than two or three days without water.
The sheriff’s department, with the help of the North Idaho Cattleman’s Association, bought a ton of hay for the animals. They spent Tuesday night breaking the stream open for the animals to drink.
Chambless, who arrived at the pasture Wednesday morning, told authorities that he had been in California since Jan. 2 but had arranged for someone to care for his cattle. However, authorities estimate some of the animals have been dead for three weeks to a month.
In addition to seeing dead cows last winter, neighbors say they’ve had ongoing problems with Chambless for the past year and a half. With little or nothing to eat inside the fenced area, the cows often break loose and wander into the road or into neighboring yards for food, Wilson said. Since the area is an open range, there was little sheriff’s officials could do.
Sims said she even mentioned the problem to Chambless.
“I’d say, ‘Harold, your cows are hungry’ and he’d say, ‘Naw, they’re just greedy.”’
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color)
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