HAINES - Haines police have persuaded a horse owner to give up the animal in the department's first case of suspected animal neglect in the last 24 years.
The horse, which police said appeared to be starving, is now owned by Haines Animal Rescue Kennel and is being kept with other horses at the Haines fairgrounds.
Residents say the case points out shortcomings in state and local regulations.
The situation caught police Chief Greg Goodman's attention after he received numerous complaints about the care of Talia, a 10-year-old mare kept in a yard this winter. Callers said the horse appeared to be in poor condition and likely was not being fed and watered regularly.
"She couldn't lay down, couldn't reach her water," said Mike Armour, one resident who contacted police. "There was no food. (The horse) was standing in filth."
Goodman visited the property and found the horse tied to a rafter of an open shed.
"The horse had obviously been neglected," he said. "The hips, you could see the hips ... and when I felt the horse's belly, my hands bounced over her ribs. The backbone, which is supposed to be smooth, was protruding. Something had to be done."
He called the district attorney and researched state and local animal laws. Callers to the department already had offered to help care for the horse. Rather than pressing charges, Goodman said, he decided he would approach the owner with the option of signing over Talia.
Owner Lena Walker signed over the horse to Goodman, who signed it over to HARK. Walker is "alleviated of her responsibilities," Goodman said.
Walker told the Chilkat Valley News she regretted signing over her horse to the borough and was disappointed that residents who complained did not contact her first.
"We didn't do anything wrong," she said. "We never missed taking care of her, and we always found a solution to whatever she needed."
Walker said people acted on assumptions.
"The day before (Goodman) went out there to look, she had just run out of hay," Walker said. "We were on our way to buy more. The one thing that wasn't good out there - and I take full responsibility for this - was the barn needed to be cleaned."
But Sally Clampitt, president of Alaska Equine Rescue, said that from the police chief's descriptions, the horse was neglected.
"Prominent ribs, raised backbone, protruding hips - those are all sure signs of malnutrition," Clampitt said. "Personal matters are not the issue here. Letting an animal become emaciated is inhumane."
Juneau assistant district attorney Jack Schmidt said animal cruelty cases are not often prosecuted.
"It's quite difficult to prosecute because the language of the law is so vague," he said.
State law says that anyone who knowingly inflicts suffering or pain or, with negligence, fails to care for an animal, which causes death or physical pain or prolonged suffering, is guilty of animal cruelty. If convicted, the guilty party could face up to a year in jail or a $10,000 fine.
But the state does not have statutory authority to require forfeiture of the animals, he said.
"That means if we convict someone, we can't keep their animal from them," Schmidt said. "We have to give it back. That's why we try to negotiate with people, get them to sign over their animals."