Largest case of livestock neglect in Oregon history carries long-term costs

Published Dec. 13, 2002

Includes sidebar: Hoarding cases defy societal stereotypes

For the Capital Press

BEND, Ore. -- In the middle of what is being called the largest case of livestock neglect and abuse in Oregon history, small miracles have their place.

So it was Dec. 7, as Deschutes County Sheriff Les Stiles smiled and laughed as a scrawny mare insistently nuzzled him over the gate of the indoor arena at High Desert Veterinary Clinic. Just four days before, that mare was one of 128 starving, diseased and skittish horses rounded up 38 miles east of Bend. The very idea of the mare allowing a human being near her -- much less the idea of her aggressively seeking human attention -- seemed outside even the realm of imagination.

"Four days ago she would run the minute anyone got into the same enclosure with her," Stiles said.

When sheriff's deputies, veterinarians and others arrived at 56255 Moffit Road in the Millican Valley area the afternoon of Dec. 3, they discovered a herd of malnourished horses, many of which were unused to human contact, most in serious need of care. Some had hooves longer than 12 inches -- curled out like the base of a rocking chair -- and were nearly unable to walk. Others were blind in one or both eyes. Most of the horses had starved to the point where the only bulk besides hide and bones was distension from blood worms.

"They haven't taken their face out of the food for three days," said Anthony Oddo, veterinarian at High Desert. Oddo is keeping watch at his clinic over those horses in the most serious condition, while the bulk of the herd is being kept near Redmond for triage, treatment and distribution to other space.

On Dec. 5, Wayne E. Nichols, 67, and his wife Rebecca K. Nichols, 61, who rent the Moffit Road spread, were arrested on 128 counts of first-degree animal abuse and taken to the Deschutes County Jail. They were released the same day. The couple moved to the Brothers area in 1998 from Chehalis, Wash., where, according to the affidavit used to gain the search warrant, Wayne Nichols had been charged with animal cruelty in 1973.

The current charges are Class A misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year behind bars. The district attorney's office is pulling together evidence to bring to a grand jury; the case is expected to take many months to resolve.

Meanwhile, the horses have been marked with fluorescent paint, detailed records are being kept and the animals' condition and treatment and security is being provided 24 hours a day to preserve evidence for the criminal case against the Nicholses.

Originally, it appeared that five of the horses would have to be put down, but so far all are still alive. Oddo isn't certain whether they'll survive or not. "These horses have been walking abnormally so long, who knows?" Oddo said.

Investigators say they found eight to 10 horse skeletons near the travel trailer in which the Nicholses were living. Stiles said full examinations of 104 of the horses on Monday found six of the animals were "moderately thin" -- 4 on a scale of 1 to 9. The rest were even thinner, ranging from 1 to 3, poor to very thin. As foals are born -- still or live -- detectives must continue to catalog their condition and progress.

Central Oregonians have pulled together to help treat the horses and cover food, medicine and shelter needs. At the Charlie Daniels Band concert held in Redmond on the 7th, $1 out of each ticket sold was contributed to the Save the Horses Fund which has been established at the Bank of the Cascades. Cash donations have come to $12,000 so far. Donations of hay, wormer paste, ropes, halters and other supplies have poured in, and those have not yet been cataloged. A half-dozen veterinarians and dozens of other volunteers are involved in the care of the animals.

On one of the rails in Oddo's barn, tools normally associated with the landscaping business -- electric pruning saws -- were still laid out in the aftermath of the emergency hoof-trimming effort. "The farriers did an unbelievable job taking care of the worst of the horses," Oddo said.

Simply getting close enough to the horses to treat them was a major challenge initially. Oddo pointed out failing to handle the horses was one of the most serious aspects of the neglect, because simply handling the animals' legs to fix the hooves required tranquilizers, a squeeze chute and ropes -- no small matter when working with a large number of weak animals.

A toothless, weak old stallion, perhaps the most vulnerable of the animals, perked up at the smell of a carrot, while in another stall a blind mother and her "seeing-eye horse" son quietly consumed hay. Outside the barn, some of the horses that were able to compete for scant forage

Thus far, small miracles of chance, nature and community generosity have saved the day for the short-term needs these and the other horses. "It just amazes me that the community has come out like this," Oddo said.

Lt. Marc Mills, incident commander for the case, said Tuesday that "the horses are looking better every day" since they've been treated and fed.

However, Stiles, Oddo and others believe that larger miracles will be needed down the road.

Of most immediate concern is the expectation that the herd could grow substantially over the next few days, weeks and months. About 20 of the mares could give birth any day now, and another 40 or so are pregnant and will give birth no later than a few months from now. Those foals that are born alive and able to survive will put significant stress on their mothers (Oddo points out that lactation is harder on mares than birthing) that already are malnourished and suffer digestive problems.

Winter weather also will stress the weak animals. Since the investigation began, temperatures in the area have hovered around the freezing mark both day and night and the humidity is hovering near 90 percent because of persistent fog. For a horse in such an climate, simply standing still requires 30 percent more calories than it would under more temperate conditions -- and these horses have health problems that limit their ability to take energy from their fodder.

Ongoing care will take a huge financial toll as well -- because nearly all of the horses have serious worm infestations, those treatments alone will have to be carried out monthly for some time.

Stiles said the sheriff's department, which is responsible for the horses until the abuse case is resolved, will be hard-pressed to cover the expenses without significant public help. His budget has been hit by an October homicide investigation in LaPine, and it is taking two deputies employed 24 hours per day just to secure the site where most of the herd is being kept. On Monday, it took 15 people working 13 straight hours to examine and treat the herd.

Outside government assistance seems unlikely. The state of Oregon, hard-pressed by the ailing economy, is no longer able to offer assistance for such efforts. "The state has less money than we do," Stiles said.

Persons who wish to contribute may call the "Save the Horses" hotline at (541) 617-3301 or (800) 815-4868. An account for the animals has been set up at Bank of the Cascades, 1100 NW Wall St., Bend, Ore. 97701, (541) 385-6200. Contributions may be dropped off at any of the bank's 13 branches in central Oregon or Salem.

"Hoarding" cases defy societal stereotypes

For the Capital Press

BEND, Ore. -- Although the term "animal hoarding" may conjure up more-or-less benign images of cat-filled houses presided over by eccentric old women, many cases involve farm animals. Further, of the 700 hoarding cases prosecuted in the United States every year, nearly all reach far beyond the bounds of eccentricity.

In a 1999 study by Gary Patronek, of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, 11 percent of the cases of animal hoarding involved farm animals, the same number as involved birds. Cats (65 percent) were the most common animal hoarded, while 60 percent of the cases (there is some overlap in cases of multiple species hoarding) involved dogs.

Many of the cases did indeed involve older, often-retired women who lived alone -- but men, couples, working veterinarians, real estate agents and other people from all walks of live have been charged under laws against cruelty to animals in hoarding cases.

The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, established in 1997 as an interdisciplinary task force, distinguishes animal hoarding from acceptable standards of livestock and pet-breeding practices not so much by sheer numbers, but by extreme neglect or abuse and the hoarder's apparent obliviousness to the consequences of failing to feed, treat and handle the animals properly. Often, animal hoarders leave corpses around the house or ranch, and starvation of animals is very common. Further, the hoarders fail to see detrimental affects of the hoarding on themselves and others.

Some mental health experts think hoarding is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but to date the condition has defied specific categorization.

Prosecuting such cases can be a monumental effort -- likened to "herding cats" in a September 2002 article in California Lawyer. Most animal cruelty laws charge the crimes as misdemeanors, so even convicted offenders face relatively light sentences. (A rare exception is the possibility of filing felony charges under Oregon's "Kittles Law," named after a woman who lived in a bus with more than 100 wild, extremely neglected cats.) Often, defendants are utterly convinced they're not doing anything wrong, and the cost to the public of keeping animals as evidence can prove to be astronomical. After prosecution and punishment, repeat offense rates are close to 100 percent, further taxing public resources.

Despite the obvious differences between cats, dogs and livestock, Patronek says hoarders of all animal types exhibit similar behavior patterns, and notes that among people who hoard inanimate objects (a much more common condition) he is unaware of any "subclassifications" based on the type of object hoarded.

"There have been cases of almost every animal type," Patronek said in an e-mail interview this week, "and I see a lot of commonality among the cases in terms of the professed claims of rescuing and nurturing, saving them from a fate worse than death, denial of the conditions, feeling of persecution, need for control, etc."

The nature of livestock cases, Patronek noted, makes them much more public -- "starved horses are out there in the fields," he said. Yet public misunderstanding of agriculture can contribute to such cases languishing in the court system.

"The public and courts are even more uninformed about proper farm animal husbandry than they are about companion animals, and it seems like many of these cases seem to linger on and on because they get passed off as 'typical' farming practices within the range of normal," Patronek said.

Patronek said that in livestock cases he has generally seen less merging of living spaces -- a process experts call "animalization" of the person.

"But I can also show you a video of a home with goats jumping over the debris in the rec room," Patronek said. "I suspect the similarities are greater than the differences."

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