Man found guilty of animal cruelty for underfed horses

A provincial court judge found a Prince George-area man starved his horses to the point of emaciation in finding him guilty Thursday of animal-cruelty charges in relation to a herd of thoroughbreds seized from his property six years ago.

In a lengthy decision, judge Victor Galbraith also found that even if Stephen Thomas Johnson, 58, did not initially notice their state, he failed to act when SPCA constables warned him of their condition.

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In a lengthy decision, provincial court judge Victor Galbraith found the horses under the care of Stephen Thomas Johnson, 58, were underfed to the point of emaciation. Even if he did not initially notice their state, Galbraith found Johnson failed to act when warned of their condition by the SPCA constables.

In all, 15 of 22 horses on Johnson's ranch were seized on March 15, 2011 and taken to Prince George Equine Rescue, a bit more than two months after SPCA constables first visited the property.

Evidence presented during the trial showed a handful of the horses with swollen limbs, poor hooves and problem teeth. But Galbraith found there was no evidence to show the trouble had reached the level where the animals were actually lame or in distress as a consequence.

"I find that the level of care may well have fallen below what the SPCA deems appropriate, but not to such a degree that it would constitute an offence," Galbraith said.

However, Galbraith did find Crown prosecution proved the core of its case - that the horses were not being fed enough.

On that aspect, Galbraith accepted testimony from two veterinarians who performed "hands on" assessments of the animals' condition. Two of those assessments were carried out when the horses were still on Johnson's property and two afterwards.

They variously found horses in thin, poor condition with protruding ribs and vertebrae and no palpable fat. One horse in particular would have had trouble performing everyday bodily functions and its immune system compromised to the point of being susceptible to disease. The veterinarian believed it would have taken months of poor care for it to reach that state.

All of the horses seized rated 2.5 or less on the Henneke scoring system for assessing a horse's body condition. The veterinarians agreed the system is subjective but they worked to be accurate within 0.5 to one point.

In part, Johnson's defence relied on testimony from a fellow horse owner, Howard Jackson who testimony was based primarily on photographs although he had visited the property to check on his own horses kept there.

Summarizing his testimony, Galbraith said Jackson told the court the horses were in less than perfect condition but nothing unusual for thoroughbreds kept over the winter in ranch conditions, given that they're less hardy than other breeds.

Jackson also noted some of the horses were running on the day of the seizure, a sign in his experience they were not starving. Galbraith found Jackson's opinion "rather extreme" in the sense that he doesn't consider a horse starving until it can't stand up on its own.

Galbraith acknowledged Jackson's decades of experience raising horses but also noted he lacks formal medical or scientific training and showed a lack of respect for veterinarians.

"He characterized some veterinarians, at one point, as 'city girls with no agricultural background who live in a fantasy land,'" Galbraith said.

While he appreciates that Jackson may not agree with some veterinary practices, Galbraith found his "utter dismissal of persons who are trained professionals does concern me."

And Galbraith noted that at no time did Jackson conduct a hands-on check of the animals like the veterinarians had.

Jackson was at the centre of a controversy in November over the alleged state of horses he had pastured near the airport.

Johnson represented himself and the trial took up more than 40 days over the course of four years.

Johnson was found guilty of causing unnecessary pain or suffering to an animal and failing to provide necessities for an animal under the Criminal Code and causing an animal to continue to be in distress under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

A sentencing hearing will be held in May.

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