On the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 19, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado Springs, Colo., received an “animal – check the welfare” call from two concerned citizens. Denise Pipher, Diana Ragula and their dog Denver had discovered 10 horses and four llamas living in the midst of an estimated 14 deceased horses.
“They were all bones. We were literally looking at bones,” El Paso County Public Information Officer Sergeant Greg White said of the carcasses in the barn. “There was no flesh on them, except one that had a little bit of skin left. We don’t even know how they died; they had been treated with lye and covered with tarps to decompose where they fell.”
The animals Pipher and Ragula found in Black Forest, Colo., belonged to Sherri Brunzell, whose Equi-Stat record reflects $729 in rider earnings and $883 earned as a breeder. The Western performance horse world was shocked to learn that one of the horses still alive at the facility was 22-year-old stallion Dual Peppy (Peppy San Badger x Miss Dual Doc x Doc’s Remedy).
About an hour following the animal welfare call, which ranks lower in priority than those that involve human distress, deputies arrived on the scene to investigate. Although the sight was unpleasant, it was decided that immediate seizure of the animals, which had food, water and shelter readily available, was not necessary.
“None of the animals were in immediate distress. The conditions were concerning, but none of [the animals] were going to die immediately,” White said, adding that one of the detectives on the case specializes in equine abuse. “We investigate horse abuse cases three to five times a week; they’re very experienced. They are horse lovers themselves, but they’re also very aware of the legal processes we have to follow in order to have the best chance at a conviction.
“If [the animals] had been at risk of dying immediately, we would have seized them in the middle of the night,” he continued. “But rather than try to do a rushed job in the middle of the night – trying to collect evidence by flashlight and trying to get pictures with flashes, where you don’t see things well – we kept in contact with the owner over the weekend.”
Following standard protocol, sheriff’s office personnel contacted Brunzell to allow her an opportunity to rectify the poor living conditions at her facility, as well as tend to the animals’ health needs under the supervision of a veterinarian and farrier. When officers returned to the barn on Monday, Sept. 22, though, little improvement had been made.
Unsatisfied with Brunzell’s efforts and equipped with a search warrant, the sheriff’s office brought in Dr. Randy Parker, of Range View Equine Associates in Elbert, Colo., to continue the investigation. The 25-year veteran veterinarian ultimately determined that the living conditions warranted seizure of the horses and llamas.
“[The horses] were thin, but they weren’t emaciated,” said Parker, who hasn’t treated Brunzell’s horses in more than a decade. “They were in reasonable shape, but I don’t know what happened to the other 14 horses. The conditions were filthy; there’s four feet of manure in that barn. [Dual Peppy] was one of the two or three worst off.”
At 4 p.m., the sheriff’s office contacted the Colorado Humane Society & SPCA and the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region (HSPPR), where protests for the animals’ removal had started earlier in the day. The groups worked together to transport the horses to an “undisclosed large animal facility” and the llamas to the HSPPR.
After removing the animals from the premises, Brunzell was charged with animal cruelty, which is considered a misdemeanor in the state of Colorado. While her court date is set for Dec. 31, Brunzell can petition the court to have her horses returned. Brunzell had not returned phone calls from Quarter Horse News as Sept. 25.
“We could not charge her with a felony; we did all we could do,” White said, explaining that Brunzell faces up to 18 months in jail and a maximum $5,000 fine, as well as daily fees for the care of her animals. “She can petition the court within 10 days to review the probable cause we had to seize her horses. That’s another reason why we took our time, got a search warrant and did everything we were supposed to do.”
As for 1999 National Cutting Horse Association $10,000 Novice World Champion Dual Peppy and those animals he’s been stalled with in Black Forest, they too will await Brunzell’s court date. White said none of the animals, including Dual Peppy, who earned $86,061 in his own career and has sired offspring with $706,288 in earnings, will require euthanasia.
White said that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office has received numerous complaints from concerned citizens within their community, as well as those from across the country, regarding the length of time it took to remove the animals from Brunzell’s care. He said the public outcry is appreciated; however, it was also a hindrance on this and other investigations.
“We got calls from out of state with people literally screaming into the phone at my dispatchers,” he explained. “That takes time away from handling calls involving humans, and it doesn’t do anybody any good. We’re seizing this woman’s property, and we have to do it the right way.”
“There was no good way to handle the situation, and the sheriff’s office did it the best it could be [done],” Parker said, concurring with White’s statement. “We had to get our ducks in a row. Obviously the living horses are the priority, but it’s also about justice for the 14 deceased horses.”
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