Features & Columns

Animal Lovers Save Horses as
County Officials Failed to Act

As county rescue officials failed to act, a group of local animal lovers
sprang into action and saved the horses' lives

Justice, a muddy brown bay colt eight months old and 75 pounds underweight, could barely stand. Ribs pronounced, hipbones jutting, gut teeming with worms, eyes goopy and dull. Only a baby, but living on borrowed time. Most horses like him fetch a bullet before an asking price. Humberto Rivas Uribe, a 51-year-old South County rancher, would sell him for nothing less than $2,500.

Monica Hardeman, head of Equine Rescue Center, found Justice collapsed on a pile of trash in a dank shed. She refused to let the him die there, untreated on Uribe's tumbledown Morgan Hill ranch. Desperate to help, she paid the exorbitant charge and $7,500 for 10 other emaciated horses, a few of them blind, several with colic and some with halters embedded into their skin.

"It will be a long night," Hardeman tearfully told friends after the purchase. "I will fight for him."

Justice, named by Hardeman upon his rescue, died a day later, intestines bulging with parasites. After years of reported neglect, the colt's death finally prompted authorities to bring criminal charges against Uribe. Santa Clara County Animal Care and Control seized 38 sickly horses, scrambling to place them in foster homes and rescue groups. A week later, the start of October, county prosecutors launched an investigation that lasted five weeks and ended with the rancher pleading no contest to a felony charge of animal cruelty. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, five years formal probation and banned from owning animals for a decade.

"This went on far too long," says Hardeman, who spend that entire night with Justice until he died with his head on her lap. "It's such a dark story, such a heartbreaking thing that he had to die like this—and who knows how many others?"

Alexandra Ellis, the deputy district attorney who handled the case, hopes word of the conviction will act as a deterrent. "I hope it shows that we take this seriously, that we are going to prosecute these as felonies," she says.

It's rare to land a felony conviction for animal neglect. Normally, that's a charge reserved for intentional abuse or torture. Uribe, however, had a record going back at least a decade, when the first reports of animal neglect surfaced against his ranch in Patterson. Over the ensuing years, concerned neighbors in Stanislaus and Santa Clara counties lodged volumes of complaints against him about emaciated horses, rotting carcasses, a lack of water and food, and disease. They wondered why it took so long to get Uribe into a courtroom.

"Our complaints were falling on deaf ears," says Katrina Loera, a South County horse owner and one of the founding members of Humans4Horses, a group that says Uribe's case highlights systemic failures to stop his animal neglect and abuse. "We recorded and reported as much as we could, but animal control didn't do enough to stop him."

Ellis admits that given the length of time the abuse persisted, "a felony was more appropriate." But other county officials have professed they did as much as they could, working with Uribe to fix the problems—despite evidence to the contrary. Interviews and documents obtained from the county's Animal Care and Control Program shows a pattern of complacent self-preservation not afforded to the animals the department is tasked with protecting.

"With any case like this you learn something," says program manager Albert Escobar. "We did what we could."... continue reading