There are two old horses in the south side of Austin County that are kept in small pens and are emaciated from a lack of appropriate food, water, shelter, and exercise.
They’re not alone.
Neglect and abuse of animals of all kinds are rampant in Austin County, according to animal rescue experts.
“I pass by neglected horses every day,” said Judi Burttschell, who owns and operates Burttschell Rescue Ranch, a nonprofit organization that rescues mostly horses and dogs.
The larger cities in Austin County have their own animal control ordinances and operate animal shelters. That’s not the case in unincorporated Austin County. When it comes to livestock and animal control laws, counties are limited to state law, according to Sheriff Jack Brandes.
That means the horses in question are being cared for within the limits of the state law. Burttschell said she is familiar with the two horses and has even offered to buy them. She said the owners won’t sell.
Lissa Johnson, who lives nearby, has reported the horses to the sheriff’s office several times in the last few years. She recently made a complaint to the Austin County Commissioners Court, asking for better animal control laws.
“I would love to not look at those horses every day,” she said. “It makes you sick to your stomach.”
The sheriff’s office has responded to the complaints but is limited to what action it can take.
“We cannot make up the law or change the law, we have to follow with the state law,” Brandes said.
The county does not operate an animal shelter and turns stray animals, mostly dogs, over to animal rescue groups like Burttschell’s.
Brandes said his department must follow the state penal code and the Texas Health and Safety Code as they relate to animal control. Under the state’s cruelty to animals code, livestock owners must provide necessary food, water, and care “to the extent required to maintain the livestock animal in a state of good health.”
Deputy Danny Duron and Sgt. Nathan Hale serve as the county’s livestock officers. Duron has made 10 unannounced visits this year to follow-up on Johnson’s complaints. After his initial contact with the owner, Duron said there has been noticeable improvement in the condition of the horses.
“Any livestock or animal will go down (in health) quickly but take time coming back,” he said.
He said he has been trying to educate the owner on proper care and even helped the owner with worming medication. Although the horses remain in small, round pens, they are fed and watered
every day and are now located next to small trees for at least partial shade. Duron showed photos on his cell phone depicting the horses when he first got involved to how they were as of Aug. 15. Although still skinny, signs of worms were gone and there was more flesh evident on their bodies.
“It’s more of an education process,” Brandes said.
The horses are typical of many animal neglect cases his department sees, especially with dogs that are either left chained up all the time or are not given adequate protection from the elements. Oftentimes it’s a simple matter of educating animal owners about their responsibilities and nearly all willingly comply.
“I can’t remember when we’ve had to get a court order to get someone to comply,” Brandes said.
Burttschell said she understands the limitations the sheriff’s office is under but feels the laws are not strong enough.
“There is no ordinance in this county and that’s what needs to change,” she said.
As a certified horse rescuer, she deals with horses from across the state and regularly sees what a difference it makes in other states where they do have better laws. She said Texas in general and Austin County in particular have a reputation as a dumping ground for unwanted animals and livestock because the laws are so lax.
“I have 27 dogs here and they’re all from this county,” she said, noting that there are currently about 20 horses on her property.
She will not adopt out animals locally because she has a long history with them coming right back.
For years she has been calling on county officials to adopt animal control laws but has been told repeatedly that it has never been a high enough priority.
“The county is limited as to what ‘ordinances’ we can pass,” County Judge Tim Lapham said. “Cities have much more latitude on things like this than counties do. Not to say that we can’t; it hasn’t been brought to us. If the sheriff is needing additional enforcement capacity that commissioners court can grant, I would expect him to bring that to our attention.”
In the meantime, Burttschell continues to deal with the fallout of the irresponsibility of others. She said the horses in the south end of the county are not the only cases. One that is frequently tied up along Highway 36 near Bellville is another example of a case she has tried to work with. Again, the owners meet the minimum care standards, which she said isn’t good enough.
“You need at least an acre per horse, a shelter, a vet and there constantly needs to be hay in front of that horse,” she said.
Burttschell said she tries to help educate horse owners, especially new ones, and even offers horse care classes. On occasion she has helped horse owners with food and veterinary care. Sometimes owners come to realization they are not able to properly care for an animal and either sell or surrender it. Her goal is to improve the health and welfare of the animals and to educate the owners.
“I go to the owner and I try to educate them,” she said. “I ask if you need help.”