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Woman says horse died due to humane officer's wrongdoing

Frieborn calls accusation a 'witch hunt'
By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Journal Features Editor
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A situation involving the Humane Society of the Sierra Foothills earlier this year has raised questions regarding the structure of the organization, particularly its chain of command.

Although the incident happened in February, a couple involved has only recently taken the matter to law enforcement, and the incident is now reportedly being investigated by another humane society.

Roseville resident Alexis Reynolds said that she and her husband, Michael, and friend Dominique Landis were helping care for two horses after they were removed in 2011 from the A Chance for Bliss sanctuary, which turned its animals over to HSSF when faced with foreclosure.

The horses were Mystery and Ranger, a blind horse in her 20s and her 36-year-old friend. The pair was pastured in Loomis, and the Reynolds and Landis checked on and fed them regularly for four months. When Alexis Reynolds, who has ridden horses since she was a child, requested that she and her husband adopt the pair, she said, Humane Officer Rosemary Frieborn told her no.

In an email to Alexis Reynolds, Frieborn said she felt the cost to care for the horses was “out of your budget,” which didn’t make sense to Alexis Reynolds, who owns a salon and day spa in Roseville, and Michael Reynolds, a union electrician. The couple owns horses, as well.

“Financially, it was never an issue with us being able to take care of these horses,” Michael Reynolds said.

But Frieborn said when she asked Alexis Reynolds if she could afford taking on two more horses, she told her no, although she had asked a few people to pledge money to help care for them.

“Alexis and I spoke for quite a while, and together decided the sanctuary would be better equipped to take care of them long-term,” Frieborn said.

The horses were scheduled to go to HartSong Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Greenwood. Concerned that it would be dangerous to transport them, Alexis Reynolds contacted a trailer driver who could transport the horses in a box-stall trailer, in which the horses would have partitions for support, as opposed to an open hauling trailer. Another email from Frieborn said that a veterinarian examined the horses and said they would not be harmed in a box-stall trailer for a couple of hours.

But when the horses arrived at HartSong, Alexis Reynolds said, it was clear that Ranger had fallen down during the drive. The trailer Mystery and Ranger were hauled in, she said, was not a box-stall trailer. Ranger had to be dragged out of the trailer using a chain hooked to his halter.

“He was upside-down, and his neck was stuck in the front of the trailer,” she said. “He was covered in sweat from being so stressed out.”

While the Reynolds and sanctuary owner Kathy Hart say the horses were moved in an open-stock trailer, Frieborn insists that it was a box-stall trailer, and that she witnessed the driver, Joe Martinez, put Ranger in the trailer first, close his compartment and then load Mystery, giving her the back portion of the trailer. Martinez checked on the horses during transport, she said, and saw that Ranger was cast in the corner of the trailer, so he opened the divider to give him additional room. Martinez did not return calls for comment.

In addition, Frieborn said, Michael Reynolds was present when the horses were loaded into the box-stall trailer, “which surprises me that this is a question, but shows this is a witch hunt.”

Kathy Hart said Ranger was able to stand soon after being removed from the trailer, and for a day after, but tripped a lot and was “excessively wobbly.” After a week and a half, he went down in his pasture and it took the help of several neighbors to get him back up. Her veterinarian suspected a pinched nerve or soft-tissue injury, Hart said, and did not recommend putting him down. He contacted the veterinary crew at the University of California, Davis, who volunteered the use of a sling to hold Ranger up so he could be X-rayed and examined, and volunteers from the Veterinary Emergency Response Team and fire department arrived at the sanctuary a few days later to help with the process.

But that morning, Hart said, Ranger was dehydrated, with an elevated heart rate, and his condition was deteriorating. The vet pulled Hart aside and said that at that point it would not be the kind thing to sling him up, considering how quickly he had declined in such a short time. Hart made the call that the most humane option was to put him down.

Alexis Reynolds is adamant that, had the horses not been hauled in an open trailer, Ranger would still be alive. Frieborn denies any wrongdoing, stating that not only was Ranger an elderly horse, it was in fact Alexis Reynolds who recommended the trailer company the HSSF used.

“He was a 36-year-old horse,” Frieborn said. “We had visions of him living the rest of his life at a sanctuary. He had different visions of himself.”

“I think about Alexis and Dominique,” she added, “and the only thing I can think of is, like us, they’re grieving. And they want to put their grief somewhere.”

Alexis Reynolds has not stopped alleging wrongdoing on Frieborn’s part since it happened, although she did run into some challenges as to how she files a complaint against a humane officer. She recently requested an investigation into the matter by the Placer County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff’s Office Lt. Wayne Woo said the department received the complaint and determined that it should be handled by the State Humane Association of California.

“In reviewing the allegations and the complaint, it really seemed to be centered around the care of some horses … we felt that the state Humane Association was better suited to make those determinations,” Woo said. “We would see our role more as overseeing any of her law enforcement actions she was taking and determining whether those would be proper.”

Erica Hughes, SHAC executive director, said her agency is an association of SPCAs and humane societies that lobbies on behalf of its members. It is also facilitates training of humane officers at two academies in Marin and San Diego.

“We don’t have any contact with animals,” Hughes said. “We don’t do cruelty investigations – that’s not our thing.”

The reason the complaint was given to the state association, Hughes said, is that the Sheriff’s Office and SHAC have the ability to petition the court to revoke a humane officer’s appointment. To her knowledge, Hughes said, that has not happened.

Hughes said she called on a member humane society to look into the matter. She is keeping the name of that organization confidential. The SHAC has about 35 members.

“I passed it on to one of our member humane societies that does a lot of cruelty investigations and has a lot of experience,” Hughes said.

Hughes said she does not know if any wrongdoing occurred, but that in speaking with the Reynolds they sounded “reasonable enough” that she passed the complaint along.

“It’s frustrating, because 98 percent of the humane officers out there are fantastic, and they work for organizations that are great and they’re established and they’re well supervised and they’re well trained and are doing really great work,” she said. “Occasionally you have ones that aren’t, and unfortunately they’re the ones that get all the publicity.”

Horse owner Susan Parisio, of Willows, contacted Alexis Reynolds after hearing about Mystery and Ranger. She said she has spent the past year researching humane societies, how they get their power and how they are regulated, and has found a lot of questions with few answers. The state association can ask for a humane officer’s appointment to be revoked, she said, but only if they feel that is appropriate.

“There isn’t anyone a humane officer answers to,” Parisio said. “They don’t answer to the sheriff and they don’t answer to the district attorney. They don’t answer to the attorney general. They don’t answer to the city council. The officers themselves do not answer to anyone.”

If someone feels their complaint was not adequately addressed by the HSSF board of directors, said Marilyn Jasper, HSSF board member, they could then follow the same steps taken to complain about a corporation.

“It’s a civil matter, unless we were doing something illegal – then it would be a different law enforcement agency that would handle it,” she said.

“What we have,” Parisio said, “are people who don’t pay taxes, enjoy nonprofit status and are able to do a lot of things that you and I can’t. And these particular groups, these people, have been given peace officer powers, but they don’t have any peace officer accountability.”

Reynolds also questioned Frieborn’s equine experience, saying that had Frieborn understood Ranger’s laminitis, a foot condition that causes lameness and inflammation, she would not have changed his diet or trailered him, actions that can exacerbate the condition.

“All the things that she did led to this horse suffering a horrible death,” Alexis Reynolds said.

Frieborn, a registered veterinary technician, said she knows the symptoms of common equine diseases, feeding requirements, body condition scoring and compromised environments, and that HSSF consults veterinarians on all species of animals. Ranger was pasture-sound and kept on green grass and pellet diets for more than a year, she said, and never showed any signs of laminitis. If he had laminitis, he would not have been able to be kept on the green pasture, where he was placed by former sanctuary owners, not HSSF.

Frieborn, a humane officer Level II, is certified by the National Animal Control Association. According to her resume, her recertification training has included several workshops regarding horses, including one focused specifically on “horse handling, trailering and safety issues.”

Hart, who has since adopted Mystery, said that while she can’t comment on the qualifications of Frieborn, she does believe that Ranger’s death can be at least partly attributed to the way he arrived at HartSong.

“They were transported in an open-stock trailer, and in my opinion that was just the wrong thing to do, and probably the beginning of the problem.”

 Reach Krissi Khokhobashvili at krissik@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter, @AuburnJournalAE.