Supreme Court rules on humane society horse seizure

Print More

(Host) The Vermont Supreme Court struck down a challenge to the state’s animal cruelty laws on Friday. The ruling gives important new guidance to humane societies and others charged with enforcing the cruelty statutes.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Three and a half years ago, the Addison County Humane Society, acting under Vermont’s animal cruelty laws, seized an elderly mare owned by an East Middlebury family. The horse was examined, treated, and, 12 days later, returned to its owners.

The family filed a lawsuit claiming that seizing their property – the horse – was unlawful, and that the section of the animal cruelty statutes allowing seizures without a warrant is an unconstitutional violation of due process.

In dismissing the suit the lower court said, “twelve days’ possession of an old, blind, sick horse” does not rise to the level of violating due process. The family appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.

In its ruling the high court says the humane society had good reason to believe the horse was not receiving proper care. The court says it was legal for the humane society to take the horse without a warrant under Vermont law because it appeared immediate action was necessary to save the animal.

While the Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that the owners’ right to due process was not violated, it took its position for different reasons. In their ruling, the justices take the lower court to task for using the horse’s age and health as a measure. Essentially, the high court says that under the law, all horses are created equal.

And, in an unusual citation for a Supreme Court ruling, the justices quote the screenplay for the movie Seabiscuit, where one of the characters says of the film’s equine star, “You don’t throw a whole life away just ’cause it’s banged up a little.”

Stowe lawyer Jeff Lively represented the Addison County Humane Society in the case. Lively says the Supreme Court ruling gives the people who enforce animal cruelty laws a better idea of when it’s ok to seize an animal.

(Lively) “And that’s always helpful in the future when shelters are trying to decide, and lawyers, and attorneys general and state’s attorneys are trying to decide and give advice on whether or not a particular fact or circumstance rises to the occasion of a seizure.”

(Zind) Lively says humane societies tend to be very cautious when deciding whether to take an animal from its owners because they’re afraid of being sued.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

Comments are closed.