PAWS Magazine

Issue 40, Winter 1999

Mountain of Misery

A horse rescuer experiences the frustrations of the horse trade

by Mike Jones
PAWS Investigator

An assistant holds the halter as the veterinarian approaches. The view shakes as the operator of the video camera adjusts the angle. The vet’s fingers probe and pull the hair on the Appaloosa’s withers, the thin skin easily yielding large clumps of hair in a season when the coat should be thickening, not shedding. Under the direction of deputies the camera lens is pointed over the door of a stall. The box is darker than the overcast day outside. The floor of the stall is hidden under what appears to be a foot of compressed horse waste. The stall, a horse’s living room, bedroom and bathroom, has not been cleaned in weeks.

The scene switches, not past a professional edit, but across the clumsy transition of the camera being stopped then started again. There stands a horse whose hooves have grown to nearly a foot long, hobbling growths that curl up at the end like the runners on a sleigh. Another horse has an oozing, ulcerated wound near the sternum, perhaps a puncture from a collision with a fence post. Pus left by rain-scald mars a horse’s hide. A tired mare stands and stares, ribs pushing striations along her flank, her pelvis threatening to poke through her croup.

In the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office, Undersheriff Rick Scott leaned back in his chair and propped a foot on a detective’s desk as the video played. He referred to the video shot on the Rognlin ranch as “conviction data.” Expressing his office’s frustration in trying to win an animal-cruelty conviction he said, “We’re like the British in the Revolutionary War. The colonists get to hide in the bushes and wear what they want. We have to wear bright red uniforms and march in a line.”

Scott’s uniform is not bright red; in fact on this June day his five-nine frame was clad in street clothes. The short sleeves of his polo shirt squeezed upper arms bulked by workouts; a second chin betrayed the love of the beef his parents raise. The attire of Scott and detectives in neighboring offices may lean toward casual, but when Scott and his deputies arrive at the Rognlin ranch outside Montesano, they might as well be wearing long crimson coats and tall hats, armed with muskets instead of nine-millimeter handguns. In a one stoplight town where Main Street is a dead end, it’s not easy for the law to sneak up on someone. Securing a conviction in a horse-cruelty case is even more difficult, according to Scott: “The Rognlin case represents an affirmative defense. If her problems are due to financial difficulties, it’s not animal cruelty.”

Barbara Rognlin, approaching sixty as her court case wound down in late 1997, stumbled into horse breeding on the cusp of a dream that descended into nightmare. Thirty years ago her family lived on a corner lot on the edge of Aberdeen, a depressed port town on Grays Harbor. The Rognlins raised small animals, a few chickens, a couple of rabbits, but Barbara said her daughter’s fondest wish was to own a horse. Rognlin moved her family east to Montesano. She bought a horse, bred that horse, and watched her operation grow until neighbors, fellow horsemen and law enforcement felt she had lost control. Rognlin conceded that providing for more than eighty head on her thirty-three acres had turned from too much of a good thing to bordering on tragedy. “I kept into it,” she said of horse keeping, “more than I should have.”

The charges against Barbara Rognlin and several other Washingtonians accused of cruelty to horses over the past two years have more in common than horses. In most cases, the charges were not inspired by a sheriff’s sleuthing or by a veterinarian’s alarm. Authorities did not need to follow a trail of clues or set up overnight stake outs. The concern was raised by neighbors.

Robin Witt’s concern for the well-being of horses has led her to maintain a network of like-minded horse fanciers, concerned horsemen who phoned and e-mailed updates on Rognlin to Witt’s ranch in Eatonville, 75 miles east of Montesano. Witt was a leader in complaints against Rognlin, pressuring authorities to take action to resolve a case that had lingered for years.

As complaints against Rognlin spanned weeks, then months, then years, Witt became increasingly frustrated by what she perceived as inaction on the part of authorities. “This is intolerable,” she said in July 1997. “It’s almost like they’re doing everything they can’t.” Witt’s ire spilled over on to the Web site she designed to promote her ranch, Witts’ End. In a passionate warning that did not mention Rognlin by name, Witt wrote, “If I see you on the street I’ll kick your teeth down your throat with my ostrich boots. Stay the Hell out of my way. Better yet - go feed your horses. Or give them to someone who will.”

Witt’s frustration is not so much a reflection on Grays Harbor County as it is with law enforcement’s attitude toward horses in general. Police departments have priorities: crimes against people come first. Crimes against animals are a distant second, and crimes involving animals but not violence fall lower yet. Combine these priorities with the daunting obligations inherent in horse seizure—space, cost, responsibility—and the challenge to law enforcement in horse rescue is clear.

Prosecutors initially charged Barbara Rognlin with six counts of animal cruelty in the second degree, a misdemeanor. (The Revised Code of Washington [16.52.207] states: “A person is guilty of animal cruelty in the second degree if, under circumstances not amounting to first degree animal cruelty, the person knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence inflicts unnecessary pain, injury, or death on an animal.” Animal cruelty in the first degree [RCW 16.52.205] is known as the Pasado Law. Pasado was a donkey who was choked and beaten to death at an animal farm in Bellevue in 1992. The brutality of the crime and the limitations for punishment inspired passage of the tougher law in 1994. The accused is guilty of animal cruelty in the first degree if he or she intentionally inflicts substantial pain, causes physical injury to or kills an animal by means causing undue suffering, or forces a minor to do so. Animal cruelty in the first degree is a felony.)

Rognlin pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree animal cruelty. One count stemmed from the condition of Reesa, a black mare found underfed, ungroomed with long hooves and tangled mane, and untreated for an ulcerated growth between her forelegs. The later count concerned the condition of Persian cats Rognlin had been breeding, sickly cats with matted fur living in filthy crates stacked on a plywood floor. The court prohibited Rognlin from owning cats, not including strays or barn cats. She is prohibited from owning more than thirty horses, and must notify the court within seven days of a foal’s birth. She will then have ninety days to reduce her herd to thirty after the foaling. Authorities are allowed, with prior notice, to inspect her operation for number and health of horses for two years.

Although Rognlin’s initial sentence of ninety days in jail was suspended, the guilty plea on the second count violated the conditions of her initial plea agreement; in March 1998 she began a fifteen-day sentence in the Grays Harbor County jail. She was fined $1,000 and ordered to pay $2,592 in restitution to Grays Harbor County. A third conviction would result in a one-year jail sentence.

As Rognlin sat in jail, Undersheriff Scott and other investigators were compiling evidence indicating Rognlin had proprietary interest in seventeen horses stashed in Jefferson County. At a hearing before Judge Stephen Brown in August, Scott presented his evidence and sought forfeiture of all Rognlin’s horses and imposition of the maximum penalty. Her attorney countered that Rognlin’s children owned those seventeen horses. Judge Brown agreed with prosecutors and determined that Rognlin was in violation of her sentencing, but at her re-sentencing one week later, Judge Brown declined to levy any additional penalty.

In part from the fallout of the Rognlin case, the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office has created the position of animal control officer. The officer is not armed and wears a different uniform, but works for and reports to the sheriff’s office. The animal control officer deals exclusively with animal cases. “She has a case load three times larger than any other officer,” said Undersheriff Scott. “She’s about to wear out the tires on the truck we gave her.”

Even Rognlin, whose comments fell short of admitting to being part of the problem, sees trouble for horses and keepers across the state. Rognlin has watched as the horse market has hit new lows: The killers flock to horse auctions in search of surplus horses to be had at bargain prices; Rescue groups struggle to find homes for horses that have been abused, neglected, abandoned, or saved from slaughter; At the 1997 Winter Mixed Sale of the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders Association, a racehorse could be purchased for as little as $300, and dozens were withdrawn after failing to attract the minimum bid. “There are too many big breeders, too many horses,” Rognlin said. But she was quick to add, “I’ve never taken a horse to sale for meat.”

Adapted from the “Mountain of Misery” chapter of The Appaloosa and the Palouse

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