Cheryl Rhodes has heard all the excuses when it comes to animal neglect.
The animal is just old. Money trouble forced them to cut back on food. They were out of town and somebody else was supposed to care for the creatures.
No matter what the excuse, the result often is the same - thin, sickly animals often full of worms or covered in lice. Many are near death. For some, it’s too late.
“We’ve seen horses that were literally almost starved to death whose owners said they thought the animals were supposed to look like that,” said Rhodes, head of Panhandle Equine Rescue, an organization that rescues and rehabilitates neglected horses. “The owners very seldom take full responsibility for the conditions of their animals. It’s always something or somebody else’s fault.”
As authorities continued to investigate the deaths of nearly 40 cattle south of Worley, Idaho, those who work around animals said this is not the first time they’ve seen creatures neglected in North Idaho.
Many say Idaho’s laws need to be strengthened to protect creatures that, in the eyes of the law, are nothing more than pieces of property.
“Our laws are outdated,” said Bobbie Wilson, a neighbor of the man currently under investigation for allegedly neglecting his cattle. “We have a moral obligation to the sanctity of life. We’re not heathens.”
In Idaho, animal neglect no matter how serious - rates no more than a misdemeanor. Across the border in Washington, however, severe animal abuse can be prosecuted as a felony, punishable by prison time.
“If you mistreat one cow it’s a misdemeanor. If you mistreat 100, it’s still a misdemeanor,” said Eric Mescher, Idaho state brand inspector. “How many times do you have to mistreat animals before we do more than slap your hand?”
Kootenai County sheriff’s officials began investigating Harold Chambless Tuesday after neighbors reported that his cows were starving to death. Authorities found cattle carcasses strewn about his property. Left without food and water for weeks, some died while laying atop the bodies of other cows that perished before them.
Many of the remaining 60 or so cattle suffered from malnutrition, dehydration and pink eye, a disease that can cause blindness.
Chambless, 69, said he left town on Jan. 2 and hired someone to care for his animals. But Duane Bailey, the Plummer, Idaho, man allegedly responsible for the animals, told investigators that he fed the cattle exactly the amount of food Chambless told him. Bailey also told authorities he doesn’t have much experience dealing with cattle, said Deputy Jason Shaw.
Bailey declined to comment and Chambless could not be reached.
The case is expected to be presented to the county prosecutor for possible charges today.
Chambless has said he is going to sell the cattle and his ranch. Neighbors say he spent Thursday afternoon burning carcasses.
Last year, Panhandle Equine Rescue took in 14 neglected horses. Four burrows, found just before Christmas, had been abandoned by their owner. One had hooves that were eight inches long and starting to curl under. A 6-month-old baby “was so wobbly in the back end he could barely walk,” Rhodes said.
In Boundary County, a colt was found starved to death by the side of the road. Nearby, three other horses were found in almost the same condition. One was so full of worms its growth had been stunted.
“The law is so gray,” said Kendall Bodkin, a Hayden Lake veterinarian who tried to help the Worley cattle and works with the horse rescue organization.
Bodkin, Mescher and Rhodes would like the law to be more specific about the kind of care animals should receive. They also would like to see severe cases prosecuted as felonies.
County Prosecutor Bill Douglas also would like to see stiffer penalties. But it’s up the Legislature.
Deputy Glenn Weeks, long-time animal control officer, said he was at a legislative subcommittee meeting in November to discuss strengthening the exotic animal law.
“Point blank, the state Legislature said: ‘How can we have a stiffer penalty for violating an animal ordinance than we do for domestic violence?” Weeks said.
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