HOULTON, Maine — Following a more than 2-year long investigation, state animal welfare officials have determined that allegations of animal abuse made against a Houlton horse owner were “completely unfounded.”
Several animal rights activists, mostly fueled by accusations of neglect and abuse made anonymously on one particular website, have for months tried to force local and state authorities to seize nearly 70 horses from owner Jessica York.
Chrissy MacFarland, a humane agent with the state’s Animal Welfare Program, and Liam Hughes, the program’s director, spent months investigating and found no evidence to support the allegations. A 218 page report they filed this summer contains investigative reports and photographs taken at York’s Dowry Farm in Houlton and Ludlow detailing monthly and often bi-monthly visits by department officials or veterinarians who reported to the department. The report brings to an end a more than 2-year-old case that was “completely unfounded and a huge drain on our resources,” Hughes said in late December.
It also was excellent but “expected” news for York, who said during a recent interview that she takes “excellent care,” of her animals.
York said she had about 70 horses when the investigation first started with the state, and now has 93 at the 16 acre farm parcel that straddles Route 1.
York said she and her family have endured “emotional, physical and financial” stress over the ordeal, and they have endured “vicious online bullying” that at times had her considering moving out of the area.
“All of my problems began after I terminated an employee six years ago,” she said. “Before that, I had never found gates open at my property, had trespassers on my property taking photos and videos of my horses, and had never had horses running into the road. As a small business owner, I never thought that people in this community would not want me to succeed. I have been focused on introducing children to horses and all of their therapeutic benefits, while at the same time dealing with the stress of this.”
Both the state report and York noted that rumors that she abused and starved her horses were fueled by inaccurate information posted anonymously on a website and on Facebook by a group identified as Maine Equine. The “about” section of the group’s Facebook site, which has more than 4,500 followers, states in part: “We started this page because state officials in Maine have been turning their back on a herd of horses in Houlton Maine for well over four consecutive years.”
A message left for the anonymous operators of the site seeking comment for this article was not returned.
The claims that York failed to provide adequate food, water and shelter to her horses generated numerous telephone calls from people around the country to the Houlton Police Department, Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office, Maine State Police and state Animal Welfare Program over the past two years.
But Hughes wrote in the investigative report that was completed on June 22: “The information that was shared on social media and websites alleging the unhealthy condition of the horses at the property was false or did not accurately describe the situation.
“Many well intentioned people that have contacted [the Animal Welfare Program] and other government officials were misled by these inaccurate reports on social media.
“A small percentage of animals in the herd needed specialized care,” he wrote. “These corrections were made while a humane agent monitored the situation.”
Hughes said that no complaints against York could be substantiated, and none of her horses were seized.
“We don’t take animals just because we can or because people want us to,” said Hughes. “We have very well trained investigators and I was there myself a number of times. The owner was able to fix [some] issues so she was not in violation of the law.”
The state’s investigation against York began in January 2015 after the Animal Welfare Program received a complaint that York’s horses did not have shelter, that they could not always access water because it was frozen and that some of the hay she was feeding them was moldy. MacFarland determined these claims to be unfounded after a visit. She later noted that in March 2015, the animal control officer in Houlton at the time sought an ex-parte order to remove the horses and ponies from the York property. The animal control officer sought financial assistance from the state program and help with placement of the horses.
After the order was sought, MacFarland and Hughes visited the property on March 13, 2015. They did not grant the order, but issued York a notice to comply with recommendations that she provide additional shelter for horses at the back of her Houlton property, trim the hooves of three ponies, keep water tubs full at all times and add an additional water tub to the middle paddock on the property. She met their end-of-March-2015 deadline to accomplish this, according to the report.
York said in a previous interview that both the Fjord and Caspian horses she owns are hearty breeds, able to withstand the harsh climates of Maine. Despite construction of an additional shelter, most of the horses did not seek shelter from the elements even on the coldest of days that winter, York said.
Over the last two years, agents returned to the property several times to check on the horses, as did animal control officers from Houlton and Littleton and officers from the Houlton Police Department, according to the state’s report.
The officials also monitored the condition of fencing at the properties, which York changed by adding electric wiring and installing new fence posts for the pasture. Hughes said that it is state law that an owner must contain their animals, and he noted that this could be done via fencing or the use of dogs to contain herds of horses.
York said that she is “always working on fencing at the property.”
“There is always a fencing project going on,” she said. “We have double fencing along with the electric wiring.”
Still, York’s horses escaped eight times during the two year period, according to the report. In February 2015, a herd of 25 of York’s ponies broke loose from their pasture and were running on Route 1 before they were contained.
On Jan. 23, 2016, one of York’s horses escaped and was standing in the middle of the road when it was struck by a car, according to the Maine State Police. Glass from the windshield struck the woman driver in the face and the horse was killed. Following an investigation by state police, Lt. Brian Harris said it was “just a typical accident, nothing unusual about it. Just an unfortunate incident of the horse getting out and being struck in the roadway.”
Then, on Nov. 18 this year, York had a neighbor dispatch one of her horses after it ran into the roadway and was struck, first by a car and then a tractor trailer, near the Houlton-Littleton town line. Police said both drivers were wearing seat belts and were not injured in the crash.
Hughes said on Dec.19 that it is not uncommon for livestock to escape their pastures. The Maine Department of Transportation tracks accidents involving wildlife such as deer, moose, turkeys and bear, but does not specifically keep records concerning livestock. The department’s online crash query tool noted that in 2016 there were 158 crashes involving “all other animals” that don’t fall in the wildlife category.
Maine has an “animal trespass” law, where owners can face fines of up to $2,500 depending how often an animal escapes over a set period of time.
While York admitted that there have been times that her horses have escaped their pasture because of fencing issues, she said she believes people are letting out her horses out of “malice.”
According to the animal welfare officials’ report, York has found individuals on her land, standing near or parked near her land, taking photos or videos of the horses, and driving repeatedly past her house and slowing down at the end of the driveway. A gate at the back of the property also was destroyed. Also, an investigator from a New York animal shelter “tried to convince Ms. York to relinquish her horses and when she was not willing he told her that her life would get miserable if she did not do what they said,” the report stated.
York has reported multiple incidents concerning property damage and vandalism but police have been unable to charge anyone.
“I have had a number of people and even law enforcement officers tell me to get a video surveillance system,” she said. “But that would be expensive to install, and to me that is blaming the victim. Why should I pay the expense instead of expecting people not to trespass on my property and open the gates?”
York said that she has the horses not only because she loves animals, but because she is trying to save the dying out Caspian breed.
For now, York continues to maintain her horse farm and sometimes gives riding lessons to local children. She is glad that the investigation officially is over. But she also said she fears that, despite the state’s report, local residents and the operators of Maine Equine will “never stop this campaign.”
“I think that even if I showed them every single healthy horse on this farm, they would still maintain this campaign,” she said.
Hughes is also glad the investigation is over.
“An organized campaign of cyberbullying attempted to push a government agency to violate another person’s civil liberties by illegally removing animals without cause,” he said. “I can’t tell you what a drain on our resources this has been, mainly because of that social media site. Not everything that people see on Facebook is true, and that was the case with this farm.”