Horse rescue operations are an unfortunate, but necessary, part of the landscape these days. And the people who take it upon themselves to care for abused and neglected horses should be commended. They also should be warned. A big heart does not entitle anyone to a pass when it comes to compliance with animal welfare statutes. Nor does ignorance of the law.

A case on point: Two years ago, Terry Lynn Sullivan was President of the Fern Leigh Equine Foundation, a non-profit rescue facility in Virginia. One of the horses at Fern Leigh was an older mare named Dip. One morning in April 2008, Brigette Berbes was driving past the rescue and noticed that a horse (Dip) was lying down in the field. The woman drove past Fern Leigh again later the same day, and saw that the horse still was down. By the evening, Sullivan, Berbes, and an animal control officer gathered in the field. The mare reportedly was very thin and in serious distress.

Sullivan and Berbes signed a document intended to transfer ownership of Dip to Berbes, on the condition that she assume financial responsibility for all veterinary bills. A local veterinarian took charge of Dip. He testified that the horse was in need of emergency veterinary care and that the debilitating condition did not arise suddenly. Dip was transported to the veterinarian’s clinic, where the mare died.

Sullivan was charged with one count of animal cruelty for violating a Virginia statute stating that "any person . . . who deprives any animal of necessary food, drink, shelter or emergency veterinary treatment" has committed a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Testimony at Sullivan’s trial established that Dip had been down for some 30 hours before a veterinarian finally arrived to care for the horse. When the veterinarian did arrive, it was at the behest of Berbes, not Sullivan. Sullivan was convicted of animal cruelty and she appealed.

There was testimony that Sullivan provided food and water to Dip while the mare was down in the pasture, and on appeal she argued that this showed that she did not starve the mare. (That was one of the prosecution’s arguments at trial.) The Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed Sullivan’s conviction without deciding that question. Instead, the Court determined that there was sufficient evidence to show that Sullivan had denied emergency veterinary care to Dip.

Sullivan also argued on appeal that she was a layperson not a veterinarian, and that she lacked the expertise to realize that Dip’s situation constituted an "emergency" requiring immediate care. The appellate court rejected this argument on two grounds:

First, the Court concluded that the statute does not require knowledge of the need for emergency veterinary treatment. This is something of a puzzle, because it requires an animal’s caretaker to provide something that the person might not realize is necessary. The implications of this interpretation should be worrisome to anyone who cares for animals.

Second, and more sensibly, the Court ruled that Sullivan actually had the required knowledge that Dip needed emergency veterinary care and failed to act on that knowledge. This was based, in part, on the agreement between the parties giving Dip to Berbes. The Court said that the agreement "suggests that the reasons for Sullivan’s failure to summon a veterinarian were financial reasons, rather than ignorance or cruelty."

The lesson from Sullivan v. Commonwealth (No. 1886-08-3) is clear. Trying to do the right thing does not insulate you from the law.

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The University of Kentucky hosts the National Conference on Equine Law this week in Lexington, Kentucky. Topics include: helmet laws, bankruptcy, dealing with the IRS, employment issues, equine event liability, boarding contracts, fraud, and drug testing. TheHorse.com will have updates as the conference proceeds.