Vet Adventures: Justice for Charlotte

Another rescue intake has Dr. Diehl dealing with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

A mini horse and donkey eat hay together after an animal cruelty rescue intake
Photo by Mark J. Barrett/Adobe Stock

The two Mini Horses peered fearfully at me through the rails of the pen. The pen was wired shut, and several feet of packed manure was built up against the gate. It was clear that the little animals hadn’t left this enclosure in a very long time—a clear case of animal cruelty and neglect.

I signaled to one of the animal control officers on scene who was looking into a dark and dismal chicken coop.

“I’m going in!” I shouted. She waved in assent, and I hoisted myself onto the shaky panels and swung a leg over the top.

The Minis crowded against each other, trying to get as far away from me as possible. I spoke gently to them from my awkward perch, and soon had climbed down into the filthy pen.

The little creatures were emaciated, ribs and pelvic bones protruding from filthy and matted coats. Both had runny noses and weepy eyes, and the smaller of the two, a black mare, was coughing. I hunkered down and they turned toward me, the mare daring to stretch out her muzzle toward my hand before retreating in confusion.

Then I saw their feet. Their hooves had grown into a horrible corkscrew shape, and they limped painfully, shifting their weight from foot to foot. I concluded that this was at least several years’ worth of growth.

Examining the Horses

I was able to get a soft rope around the black mare’s neck, and soon I had a halter on her. She trembled in fear but allowed me to stroke her and get a quick look at her teeth. She was only 4 years old.

I put a stethoscope on her little chest and winced as I listened to the squeaks and rattles indicative of pneumonia deep in her lungs. Her companion, a chestnut mare, had labored breathing and her eyes were dull.

I climbed out of the pen. The animal control officer, a woman named Jackie, was waiting.

“What do you think, Doc?”

I shook my head and looked sadly at the Minis, huddled together watching us.

“We’ve been trying to get on this property for months,” Jackie said, wiping her eyes furiously. “The judge kept refusing to sign the warrant.”

I felt a surge of anger. “How could anyone knowingly leave these animals in these conditions?”

Jackie shrugged. “We’ve had endless problems with this judge and the district attorney. If we file charges, the DA usually won’t take it any further. If it does end up in court, we almost always lose, and the owners get their animals back. But that’s not going to stop us from impounding every single animal on this property today.”

My coworkers were already backing the horse trailer up to the pen, and I pulled out my multitool and started cutting the twisted wires holding the panels together. Deputies struggled with flapping chickens, and several walked by with yowling cat carriers. There were three more full-sized emaciated horses to catch and load.

At the hospital, the big horses unloaded quickly, but the Minis huddled in the trailer and refused to move. We brought an electric saw into the trailer and lopped off about 6 inches of overgrown hoof from each foot. The black mare moved gingerly on her new feet in a high stepping gait and her companion did the same. We named them Charlotte and Emily.

A Long Road

Over the next few weeks, the big horses slowly began to gain weight and recover from the animal cruelty they’d faced. I did everything that I could for the little horses, but I found Charlotte unconscious in her run early one morning and her faint pulse had stopped when I returned with my emergency kit.

Jackie called almost every day to check on the horses, and she broke down when I told her about Charlotte. I knew we were both thinking the same thing: If only we’d gotten her out sooner. I silently cursed our idiotic system, which could cripple an entire investigation with a single flawed decision, and I knew things had to change.

Emily pined for her lost friend. The pneumonia was improving, but she was eating less and less each day. I switched her medications and added electrolytes to her feed, but nothing helped. Her heart was broken, and I feared we would lose her too.

There was a fat little donkey on the premises named Chico, who was notorious for being difficult. In desperation, we moved him next to Emily, who resolutely ignored him. Always an opportunist, Chico spied Emily’s uneaten ration and stuck his head into her pen. He seized the edge of the rubber dish with his teeth and took a few gleeful bites.

That undid Emily, and she rushed Chico and fired a few kicks in his direction. Then she surprised us by taking a few bites of the feed, pinning her little ears fiercely whenever Chico got too close.

On the Upswing

Emily and Chico were not exactly friends, but now Emily had a purpose in life: to get mad at Chico. Soon she began to gain weight, and her pneumonia cleared up. Jackie stopped by to visit, and after watching them biting at each other through the panels, labeled them “frenemies.”

Eventually another young Mini arrived at the facility, and she and Emily bonded immediately. They were both adopted by a lovely family that also ended up with Chico—he brayed heartbrokenly for days after the Minis left, and we begged them to take him too.

Jackie and I are drafting a series of bill proposals called Charlotte’s Law. These would automatically grant emergency exceptions to search warrants for animal control officers and investigators seeking entry to a property on the grounds of animal cruelty, as well as tighten up existing laws so that skeptical DAs would have much stronger cases.

We will be seeking sponsors for our bill, and while it may never make it farther than committee review, it’s comforting to try to do something more for Charlotte, whom we could not save.

This article about Dr. Diehl’s experience with an animal cruelty case appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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