It was a disturbing discovery, but the kind that animal humane officers have come to expect. On April 14, officers from the Vermont State Police in Middlebury, accompanied by representatives from the Addison County Humane Society and a veterinarian, executed a search warrant on the Panton home of Lauralee Bushey. There, according to the police affidavit filed in District Court in Middlebury, they discovered a 2- to 3-year-old dark brown stallion.
The horse was weak and malnourished, with no access to food or water. There were feces in its grain bucket and several feet of manure on the floor, "resulting in the horse's head to nearly hit the roof of the stall," the affidavit reads. The horse, which seemed to have rope burns on its hind legs, was tethered on a 12-foot rope in a dilapidated stall with numerous protruding boards and exposed nails. The animal was confiscated and later placed in foster care.
Acting on a tip from a nearby resident, the police also searched a livestock trailer parked behind Bushey's cabin. There they discovered a dead and partially decomposed Shetland pony. Addison County Humane Society director Jill Tucker, who was involved in the rescue operation, says the pony appeared to have been dead for at least three months -- too long for investigators to determine a cause of death. The carcass of a second pony or horse, allegedly seen on the property by an earlier visitor, could not be found. Bushey was charged with a single count of animal cruelty, based on the poor condition of the rescued stallion.
Ordinarily, an incident like this one would garner only passing community interest. But the case has raised the hackles of some Addison County animal lovers, who contend that the death of the one pony -- and possibly others -- could have been prevented. More than a year earlier, on January 23, 2003, a search of the Bushey premises by the state police and the Addison County Humane Society resulted in the confiscation of 15 horses, 17 dogs and two exotic birds. Among the seized animals was a thin, lactating mare that was nursing two foals, the mother of one having died. Police and rescuers found many of the animals living in inadequate or unsafe quarters and suffering from clear signs of abuse or neglect, including injuries, scarring, infections, malnourishment and dehydration.
Although it looked like an open-and-shut case, no animal-cruelty charges were filed against Bushey in 2003. Instead, the defendant's lawyer, Peter Langrock, and State's Attorney John Quinn struck a deal that allowed Bushey to avoid prosecution. Now, in light of the recent revelations on the Bushey property, that earlier outcome has angered some Addison County residents, including several of the people who adopted or purchased Bushey's seized animals. They note that three other large animals -- a miniature donkey, a pony and a horse -- as well as several cats and dogs, were left behind after the January 2003 raid. Those animals may have been among the ones that later perished.
"To me, this was a woman who needed some help," says Gina Brown of Spring Hill Horse Rescue in Brandon, who assisted the state police in the first animal rescue in January 2003. "My frustration in all this was that they didn't charge [Bushey] with anything and no one followed up on it to check to see how the animals were. And because of that, two ponies died needlessly."
Seated outside her two-story log cabin in Panton, Bushey is eager to tell her side of the story. The media have "grossly twisted" her actions, she says, noting that until now, no reporters have tried to contact her to hear her point of view. "I've been painted as Cruella DeVil of Addison County because I am a nonconformist," she says.
It's midday, and Bushey's backyard is littered with household debris -- an old recliner, a mattress, several half-filled fish tanks, an empty birdcage -- while a fire smolders in a metal trash barrel. About 20 yards away, a half-dozen dog kennels sit vacant. Beside them in the high grass is the red livestock trailer where the dead pony was discovered. Bushey's two daughters, Katie, 9, and Mickey, 11, play in an above-ground swimming pool while several kittens scamper around the yard.
"I believe wholeheartedly in the Amer-ican system of justice, so much so that as a young woman I went into police work," says Bushey, a former Middlebury cop. "And I still believe that the people behind this have convictions that they are doing right. But I think that they have taken pieces of information [about me] to believe the worst-case scenario."
For example, Bushey says, when her dogs were seized in January 2003, she was accused of not feeding them. But she claims there were at least 27 bags of dog food stacked in her barn in clear sight. Many of those dogs, she adds, were Labrador retrievers, some of them slated for donation to a program that trains dogs to assist wheelchair-bound individuals.
"We have a geriatric Labrador, Grandpa Shadow, that they seized in January '03 and wanted to put to sleep," Bushey says. "The girls cried and cried and cried." That dog, now 16, was later returned and still lives with the Busheys. Though the dog has difficulty walking due to arthritis, it appears well fed.
Bushey readily admits that she's had a tough time coping since her husband's death in December 2001. "I'm currently [being] treated for a number of emotional problems, and most of them are stemming from the destruction of my lifestyle and my home," Bushey says. "My animals have always been my mainstay. My husband and I used to have a joke: He was third in line. The kids come first, the critters are second, and you're third."
When asked why her stallion was living in such poor conditions, Bushey explains that a construction crew that was working on her house had "mismanaged funds," leaving her unable to build a new barn this year. And the dead pony? It had been given away and returned to her last December, just a few weeks before it died of a recurring medical problem, she says.
"He was an animal that the children and I were very emotionally attached to," Bushey says. "Spot [the pony] did not deserve to be shipped to the dog-food factory. He died here with us and the carcass was put into the trailer until we could break ground and bury him here with us."
"You can't bury a horse during the winter," adds Katie in a matter-of-fact tone.
Do they miss all their animals? "Yeah," Katie replies. "But we still have our two pugs, and all of our cats." When asked how many cats they own, Katie admits that she doesn't know. "We have so many because we have one that every two weeks brings home another litter," she says.
Bushey says the animal seizures have only worsened the family's grieving process, especially since her husband, Michael, was so involved in raising the animals. "Imagine me being forced to sit in my own home and watch everything that my husband and I worked for to give to our daughters being stripped away from us," Bushey says. "The stigma attached to animal cruelty is the same as a sexual crime. The harm to someone accused, whether they acquit themselves or not, still remains."
Bushey's answers don't impress Megan Price, a former state legislator and horse lover from Fair Haven. "For Vermonters to stand by and let this happen and walk away when everybody knows about it is just horrific, in my opinion," she says. "An animal doesn't care what your reason is why you don't feed it, bring it water or let it live in filth. They don't care what your problems are. They just want a decent place to live."
Price's interest in the Bushey case is more than just theoretical. On May 3, 2003, Price and her niece attended an auction conducted by the Green Mountain Draft Horse Association. Although Price had no intention of buying a horse that day -- most of the draft horses she saw were too big for her to handle -- she stopped in front of one stall containing a small, black mare.
The horse appeared malnourished and underweight, with poorly tended hooves and a distended belly, a condition she attributed at first to intestinal parasites. "I suddenly made a connection, like someone needed to help this horse out," Price recalls. "Some-thing bad had happened to her, like she'd gotten a rotten break in life."
Price bid $925 for the mare, more than she thought the horse was worth. But she was never told where the horse had come from or that it had been a rescue. During the auction, however, other people kept asking her if she was planning on buying the horse, which she found odd. She soon found out why.
"Later, I found out the story and it really upset me," Price says. "I have seen other horses that came from Ms. Bushey's property and they have permanent disfigurement and were in worse condition compared to mine." One of those horses, she notes, has permanent scarring around its neck, as though it had been tied up for extended periods of time. That horse had also blown out the tendons in one foot and will probably never walk right again. Another horse, Price adds, had "very large, football-sized hematomas on its side."
Price named her mare Beauty, and describes her as one of the luckier horses. Beauty required plenty of food, water, exercise and de-worming, as well as several thousand dollars in veterinary care to nurse her back to health. But Price says her horse is making a good recovery. As for the distended belly, it turned out that Beauty was pregnant. Her foal was born underweight, but both animals are doing fine. In fact, Price has registered them both with the American Morgan Horse Association.
Nevertheless, Price is angry about how the state mishandled this case and worries that Bushey may again escape prosecution. "I don't know Ms. Bushey. I've never met her. I wish her all the best," Price says. "But I can't stand by and see more animals die or be hurt. Something is wrong here. If the state law is wrong, it needs to be changed. If there was a problem with the investigation, that needs to be changed, too."
Price also wants to know about the terms of the deal struck between Bushey and the state and whether, in light of the alleged neglect of her animals, she has violated that agreement. Price also wants to know what happened to the $925 she paid for her mare.
Last week, State's Attorney Quinn explained why he never prosecuted Bushey following the 2003 raid. "Her lawyer came to me and explained that she had been depressed because her husband had been dying of cancer," Quinn says. Since Bushey was in her forties with no prior criminal record, Quinn agreed not to prosecute her as long as she surrendered all her animals except those the Humane Society had determined had not been abused or neglected.
"The original deal was that she wouldn't take back the animals that were seized," Quinn adds. "There wasn't any agreement of, 'Take good care of the animals that were left there.' That was sort of understood. So I can't say that that was necessarily a violation of our agreement."
Quinn says that he has no way of knowing whether the animal that later died in Bushey's care was among those that were left with her. Those animals never became part of Quinn's case. And since the dead pony had been dead too long to determine a cause of death, there is no evidence that Bushey was responsible.
What happened to the money that was paid for the seized animals? Those funds, which Quinn estimates total "about $4000 to $5000," are still in the escrow pending resolution of a dispute with Langrock over what are considered "legitimate expenses" to be paid.
These explanations don't sit well with Price or Brown, who say the public has a right to more answers. "Unfortunately, we're going to have to wait until we find a barn full of dead horses before any charges are filed, and that's almost exactly what happened," Brown says.
The Bushey case has also been an enormous financial burden for the Addison County Humane Society, a nonprofit shelter that has a legal obligation to conduct animal rescues but receives no government funding for them. Many of the horses taken from Bushey required significant veterinary care, and the shelter has no facilities to house large livestock. Some were later sold at auction, with sales proceeds deposited in an escrow account to offset the cost of their care and feeding. However, the Humane Society has yet to be reimbursed for those expenses.
"It was our understanding that this case would be brought to a rapid close. Unfortunately, that has not taken place," says Jim Stuart, co-president of the Addison County Humane Society board of directors. "It's been a disaster. We've spent probably tens of thousands of dollars in veterinary care for these animals and legal costs trying to get it resolved."
The case couldn't have happened at a worse time for the Humane Society. In the last year, the group had to defend itself against an unrelated lawsuit brought by Suzanne and Elizabeth Hegarty, two Addison County residents whose horse the Society seized for about 10 days due to apparent neglect. State's Attorney Quinn decided to seize the animal based on the recommendation of a veterinarian, but later reversed his decision and had the animal returned under pressure from the family. Although the Humane Society won that case in April when the Vermont Supreme Court denied the appeal by the plaintiffs' attorney -- also Langrock -- the case cost the Humane Society nearly $10,000 in legal fees. The group is now rethinking its policies and procedures for rescuing distressed animals.
"Obviously, seizing animals is the absolute last thing that should happen, and we would like nothing more than to get this case resolved in some way," says Stuart. "It's a very, very difficult situation. And unfortunately, the legal issues have taken center stage as opposed to what's in the best interest of the animals."
Stuart admits that the Hegarty lawsuit has made the Addison County Humane Society a bit gun-shy about how it will conduct future animal rescues. As a result, the group is working on a more community-wide approach to animal cruelty, in which each town selects a designated investigator who ensures that abuse-and-neglect complaints are investigated and followed through. The Humane Society, he says, will act more as a central clearinghouse for the data. This model, which is being looked at by other Humane Societies around the state, will, it is hoped, prevent these cases from falling through the cracks when police or prosecutors lack the time or resources to pursue them.
Animal-rights advocates cite the Bushey case as an example of how animal-cruelty cases can be neglected or overlooked when police and prosecutors have more urgent business to attend to. Ironically, just weeks after the April 14 raid, Gover-nor Jim Douglas signed into law S.100, which clarifies the legal definition of animal cruelty and makes it easier for law enforcement to investigate these cases and obtain search warrants. The new law allows felony charges to be brought against an offender even if the animal didn't die from the abuse, and mandates a psychological evaluation and treatment for juvenile animal abusers. It also clarifies the living-space requirements for animals and better defines what is considered adequate food, water, shelter and daily exercise.
The new law has been hailed by groups such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Vermont Animal Cruelty Task Force, who point out that its impact will be felt beyond cases of simple animal neglect or abuse. According to several HSUS studies, there is growing evidence that animal cruelty is linked to other forms of family violence, with nearly half the women who enter shelters reporting that their pets have been threatened, injured or killed by their partner.
Others, the HSUS study found, report that they delayed leaving an abusive partner because they feared for their pets' safety. Animal-rights advocates are hoping that this new legislation will serve as a canary in the coal mine, alerting police, prosecutors, social workers and mental-health professionals to other domestic problems that may be brewing in the home.
As for the outcome of the Bushey case, observers say their primary concern is that no further animals come to more harm. "As advocates for animal welfare, this is extremely difficult and frustrating work. And it's expensive work," says Stuart. "But sometimes we have to act because others will not."