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Horses multiply animal control bill

EVERETT – When Snohomish County animal control officers investigated the suspected mistreatment of a herd of horses in Sultan last year, it left the county saddled with 10 thoroughbreds – and the cost of caring for them.

The county’s bill for that case now tops $60,000 and continues to grow.

The good news is that the county successfully adopted out most of the animals.

The case brings up some tough questions: How much taxpayer money is reasonable to spend on the animals’ care? And if other options need to be considered, what are they?

“I think what we want to try to do is to have some kind of policy or some kind of discussion about the issue before we find ourselves in that situation again, rather than waiting and saying, ‘Now what are we going to do?’ ” said Auditor Carolyn Weikel, whose office oversees animal control.

That discussion is likely to continue with the County Council early next year.

Animal control officers seize horses after they’ve exhausted all other avenues, said county animal-control manager Vicki Lubrin.

The Sultan case originated in September 2009. There were 19 horses on a 2.3-acre farm. About half appeared to be starving. There was insufficient food and water, and the owner was uncooperative, Lubrin said. Veterinarians recommended the county seize 10 of the horses.

Owner Mary Peterson is scheduled for trial in February.

Peterson, 39, faces six counts of first-degree animal cruelty, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Andrew Alsdorf said.

Since Peterson’s horses were seized, three have been put euthanized. But in July, one of the surviving horses gave birth to a colt. The colt, Corazon, was recently adopted by a family from Machias, Wash.

That isn’t the only recent case where taxpayers have had to pay for horse care.

In 2008, the county took eight horses from Jean Elledge, who was paid to board the animals in Monroe. Elledge eventually pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree animal cruelty and was sentenced to a year in jail. Caring for her horses cost the county $55,000, Lubrin said.

The county doesn’t always have to take custody of the animals.

In November 2009, for example, county animal control officers received a complaint about starving horses in Snohomish. Officials found some of the 45 horses to be malnourished but reported working with the owner to find new homes for most of them.

Councilman Dave Somers, who owns two horses, believes the county handled that case the right way. Still, he worries about the county in the future becoming hesitant to step in because of the costs.

“I’m afraid there will be more abuse cases that won’t be handled very effectively,” he said.

A tough economy has made it more difficult for nonprofit horse-rescue groups to raise money. They now have less than half the money compared with a couple of years ago, but twice the demand.