THE BUZZ 2: Animal Cruelty Conundrum

By on August 16, 2017

Loose laws have enraged and mobilized a community.

A still from the video that has sparked an animal cruelty investigation.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Teton County residents have taken social media, email and phone lines by storm after a video published to Facebook last week showed a man, identified as outfitter Forest Stearns, tying up a horse in a way that many are calling inhumane. The horse died the evening of August 8, and the Teton County Sheriff’s Office is investigating animal cruelty. Many are calling for justice and demanding stricter laws. But if Wyoming law is flawed, people like Rep. Mike Gierau are advocating for public patience.

“Change never comes as fast as people want it to,” he said.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It just has to be smart. “Action is what people want,” he said. “Meaningful action is what they deserve.”

The video, filmed by Stearns’s neighbor, Mary Wendell Lampton, has been shared more than 600 times. It shows Stearns, who owns Stearns Outfitters, tying his horse by its hind legs while the horse is fully saddled. The horse struggles for a moment lying on its side, and then goes still as Stearns walks away. It was found dead later that night.

Stearns could not be reached for comment.

A Facebook page called “Justice For Horses of Stearns Outfitters-Wyoming” has attracted 869 followers. Calls to action include calling state legislators, the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, and the Wyoming Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides to “report this abuse.”   

Indeed, many have, said Wyoming Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides office administrator Amanda McKee.

The board is a participating agency in the investigation, McKee said, but on the “administrative” and licensing side. The board’s decision to revoke Stearns’s license is bound by the same law the sheriff’s department must adhere to.

Licensed outfitters will “provide any animal used in the conduct of business with proper food, water and shelter and not subject any animal to abuse and inhumane treatment as provided by Wyoming Law,” according to board rules and regulations.

But Wyoming’s animal cruelty laws are flimsy. In fact, they frequently rank among the worst in the country in the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s State Animal Protection Laws ranking. Wyoming ranked 48th last year. Under Wyoming state statue, animal cruelty is a misdemeanor with two exceptions: dog or fowl fighting, and intentional harm done to an animal by someone other than the animal’s owner. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor animal cruelty conviction is six months in prison and $750 in fines.

The sheriff department’s task now, Detective Sgt Todd Stanyon said, is to prove that Stearns intentionally damaged or killed his horse. Wyoming law determines that a person who “unnecessarily or cruelly beats, tortures, torments, injures, mutilates or attempts to kill an animal” has committed cruelty.

Many argue Stearns has gone beyond the method of hobbling, a training practice of tying a horse’s legs together to hinder forward motion, in this video. And people like Lampton say they are disappointed with the sheriff’s response.

“I am saddened and appalled by the dismissiveness the sheriff’s office continues to show regarding the horse abuse committed by Forest Stearns,” Lampton wrote PJH. She alleged that enough people have reported Stearns to law enforcement over the years, and “no action has been taken.”

On the contrary, Stanyon said, “If we’ve arrested this man in the past, it should show we really don’t have an allegiance to him. We’re not trying to help him with anything.”

Stearns does have a criminal history in Teton County. He has a handful of DUI convictions, and was dismissed on charges of “unlawful contact: rude insolent or angry touch without bodily harm” and one count of battery against a household member, according to court records.

Stanyon and Lampton both recall an investigation back in 2015 into the death of one of Stearns’s mules. It was a similar situation, Stanyon said, in that the mule was tied down. That case was “thoroughly investigated,” Stanyon said, but dismissed “based on current standards and ranching standards.”

The sheriff’s office, Stanyon said, takes all charges of animal cruelty very seriously—just last week it cited two people or leaving dogs in their cars— but they “have to act within the confines of the law as written, and the legal precedents that are set there. When the law is inadequate, that’s when people need to step up and lobby to change it.”

Gierau says that’s exactly what people have done. He has fielded phone calls and even home visits from concerned constituents. “Within the last 20 minutes, literally in front of my house, people pulled over and said, ‘We want to talk to you about this.’” Gierau said he’s listening. But before he and other Wyoming lawmakers can take any meaningful action, they have to thoroughly weigh all their options.

First, the legislature has to determine whether the current laws are adequate (according to public outcry, they are not). Then lawmakers must debate how to fix them. It’s a tedious process, Gierau said, but necessarily so. “In order to be successful in legislature, it needs to be thought out. Planned. Done carefully. Or you end up with nothing, which is exactly where we don’t want to be.”

There’s never a good time for an animal to die, but Gierau said if there’s a silver lining, it’s that the Travel Recreation Wildlife Committee has a scheduled meeting in two weeks, and the chairman is an “awesome resource on this subject.” Animal cruelty laws are now “front and center” on legislators’ minds. And bills are more likely to be passed when they come from a committee.

Gierau says he’s no animal cruelty expert, but “what occurred was in my view wrong. I know enough to know that.”

While Stanyon said calls to the sheriff’s office aren’t actually productive unless they’re from eyewitnesses, calls to the legislature, Gierau said, hold weight. “If it’s on this community’s mind, it’s on our mind. If it’s on our mind, we will work on it.” PJH

This story has been updated to explain the process of hobbling.

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