Verdict Could Take Months In Circle H Ranch Animal Neglect Case

File Photo: August 24, 2011

There’s no question that Rebecca Hurley loves horses. She will tell you that they are her pride and joy. Hurley moved to Sault Ste. Marie from Florida in the mid 1980’s, shortly after that she began to acquire horses. One at a time until she reached a total of 43. The horses had fellow barn buddies such as cats and dogs and other farm animals. By August 2011 she had a lot of mouths to feed and take care of.

Hurley runs Circle H Ranch with her husband Albert. The Case road ranch is known for it’s pony and horse rides. They were often seen at community events like Bon Soo and Rotaryfest. Circle H also holds birthday parties at the ranch. There, kids and adults can take one of the ponies or horses for a trial ride for about four hours.

File Photo: From a former volunteer
File Photo: From a former volunteer

For years the Sault Ste. Marie Humane Society has heard reports of neglect to some of the animals. It started its own investigation that led to a raid of the ranch on August 24, 2011. When the SPCA agents showed up two days prior, Hurley refused them access to the property. That forced a warrant by the Ontario SPCA and carried out by the Sault Ste. Marie Police

When the authorities did gain access along with Hurley’s former Vet, Dr. Good, what they found was poor living conditions for the animals and several appeared to be very thin, to the point of being emaciated. As a result, 11 of the 43 horses were removed from the ranch. The remaining horses would receive inspection for the next few months. Hurley was handed several orders from the SPCA to bring the horses back to health and to make improvements to the living conditions of the farm. An older dog was also seized. He was found in a small filthy pen at the back of the barn, no water or food. The dog had skin conditions and bad arthritis. Unfortunately the dog was put down due to his health problems.

After three years of investigation and judicial hearings, Hurley was back in Provincial Offenses court last week defending herself from the charge of Failing to Provide Standard Care to animals, the only charge that crown prosecutor, Benoit Renaud was going after. He told the court, presided by Justice of the Peace Hayden, that Hurley got over her head and was not able to provide the standard care of the animals at her ranch.

Defense Lawyer, Ken Walker would not have any of that. Walker claims that the Crown had failed to even identify Hurley as the person responsible for the care of the animals. He asked the court to dismiss the charge in a non-suit. Renaud however convinced the court that she was indeed responsible for the animals at the ranch. “It was Rebecca Hurley who called her Vet, it was Rebecca Hurley that treated the horses she said that in her own testimony” The court agreed and Hurley was called to the stand.

Hurley, told the court that she had some concerns about the body condition of some of the horses. Instead of leaving the health of the animals to a professional and a Vet she had used for a number of years, Hurley decided to treat the animals with a mixture of home made remedies and brand name medications.

For three days last week, Justice of the Peace Hayden heard testimony from The Sault Ste. Marie Humane Society, Jack Rice from the City Police along with Hurley’s former vet, Dr. Keith Good. Current and past volunteers were also called.

Hurley was questioned about the role of the volunteers, many of them friends of Hurley. The Crown showed that the ranch operated with a small amount of “regular” volunteers. The ranch has no paid staff and could not afford to pay for a staff, Hurley said. The volunteers such as Dawn Moore had responsibilities of cleaning out stalls, changing water and food. Feeding the animals and assisting in the overall care of the animals at Circle H. Moore told the court that she would visit and help out two or three times a week. However, upon inspection by OSPCA agent Trudy Archibald, stalls were full of manure, feed containers were empty and several horses suffered from parasites that could have resulted in the horses losing substantial weight. When asked about the condition of some of the horses prior to August 24, 2011 Moore acknowledged she had some concerns.”They looked a little to me”

Hurley denies that food was an issue at the ranch telling court they had trailers drop off hay days before the August 24th seizure of several of the horses with the poorest body type scale according to Dr. Good.

The accused contradicted her testimony saying that she was in contact with Dr. Good but discarded his “opinion” on the situation.

File Photo: ribs are clearly seen on one of the horses at the ranch. 11 horses in various conditions were seized from the property in 2011
File Photo: ribs are clearly seen on one of the horses at the ranch. 11 horses in various conditions were seized from the property in 2011

Hurley resented that Dr. Good used his own scale when evaluating the horses. Good used a scale range of 0 – 5, 0 being emaciated and 5 being obese. Good ranked 19 horses 1.0 to 2.0 or one third of the herd in poor condition, Good said. Hurley said that his findings were merely “his opinion” Good recommended the removal of the horses and out into care of the humane society and fosters.

Shelter was another issue with the ranch. Hurley defends the “natural” shelter over constructed structures saying the acres of tree lined property and deep ravines were sufficient wind break and protection. Dr. Good disagreed in his testimony. When asked if he believed trees were good enough of a wind break, “No, protection, constructed structures are necessary, especially with special consideration to geriatric horses” Dr. Good also had issue with the type of quality of hay Hurley was feeding the horses. “hay is hay” Hurley commented in her testimony. Hurley said that the ranch has four pastures and plenty of hay both from the ranch and hay supplied to the ranch.

Cindy Ross Manager of the Sault Humane Society during the judicial hearing in 2012 told the court that the horses seized were put on a diet of quality hay and nutrients and quickly recovered. At the time Ross reported that the care of the 11 horses exceeded $100,000.

Crown prosecutor Renaud believes Hurley hordes horses to help her with her business but failed to provide standard care of the animals.Renaud grilled Hurley on how she managed to take care of so many animals at the ranch based on the small income the ranch earned in revenue. “We never thought the ranch would sustain itself” Hurley said, telling Renaud that they relied on family income to cover the costs.

A verdict will be delivered by November 12, 2014.