Woman accused of animal cruelty offers testimony in civil trial

Maine Animal Welfare veterinarian Christine Fraser walks one of six horses corralled in a yard off Bald Mountain Road in Dedham to a livestock trailer in October. The owner is facing civil animal cruelty charges.
Maine Animal Welfare veterinarian Christine Fraser walks one of six horses corralled in a yard off Bald Mountain Road in Dedham to a livestock trailer in October. The owner is facing civil animal cruelty charges.
Posted March 08, 2011, at 3:53 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine —- Testimony concluded Tuesday in the trial of a Dedham horse owner accused of animal cruelty, with the owner testifying she felt “frustrated” with demands by the state animal welfare agency over how she sheltered her animals.

“I was very frustrated because nothing I could do was right and I was summoned [for providing inadequate shelter] anyway,” Jean Marie Ahern told a judge Tuesday in Ellsworth. “I felt like this was about having a shelter in every field.”

A decision in the civil nonjury trial, including whether Ahern’s animals should be returned to her, is not immediately expected. After testimony concluded and attorneys made their closing arguments Tuesday morning, presiding Justice Kevin Cuddy said he would make a written decision in the matter “as my schedule permits.”

Ahern is facing civil animal cruelty charges in Ellsworth District Court because of her alleged failure to provide adequate shelter and care for her animals, including two horses, four ponies and two cats, at her property on Bald Mountain Road.

Ahern’s animals were seized by state animal welfare agents on Oct. 6, 2010, when she was out of state attending a prestigious horse show competition in Kentucky. A friend from Lamoine was taking care of the animals in her absence, she testified Tuesday, and had some temporary troubles making sure the horses and ponies had water when a pump failed. The pump was fixed two days later, Ahern testified. Otherwise, she told the judge, the horses and ponies were in good physical condition while she was away.

Ahern acknowledged that she had only one small shelter for the horses and ponies on her property, but said that officials with a land trust that owned a neighboring barn had told her she could use the empty barn at any time. The animals could not access the neighboring barn on their own, however, which state officials have said is a requirement of providing shelter to livestock.

William Entwisle, assistant district attorney for Hancock County, pressed Ahern on this point during her testimony Tuesday. He said neighbors had complained that Ahern left her animals outside when it was snowing and during rain and thunderstorms.

“In those situations, you didn’t think it was necessary to take them to the [neighboring] barn?” Entwisle asked.

“No,” Ahern responded.

In his closing remarks to Cuddy, Entwisle said Ahern had been contacted by state animal welfare agents in the fall of 2009 about the inadequate shelter on her property. Even after one of two vinyl-covered shelters Ahern had on her property collapsed in January 2010, he said, Ahern did not take appropriate steps to rectify the situation.

“She was well aware of the specific concerns the state had,” Entwisle said. “She did nothing. She just stopped.”

Also at issue in the case are the conditions in Ahern’s house and on her property at the time the animals were seized. The house appeared to be trashed inside, with cat food and trash strewn about, but Ahern said her house was burglarized while she was in Kentucky

State officials also said the outside enclosure where the horses and ponies were penned had mud and feces all over the ground. There were piles of empty feed bags and metal debris on the property, but Ahern said these were being gathered into piles for proper disposal elsewhere.

Ahern’s defense attorney, Stephen C. Smith of Bangor, said in his closing remarks that Ahern has more than 20 years experience caring for horses and is not guilty of animal cruelty. He said that, during earlier testimony in the trial last month, one veterinarian had disputed the opinion of another veterinarian that the horses and ponies showed signs of neglect.

Smith said Ahern interpreted the state statute regarding shelter differently from Chrissy Perry, the lead state animal welfare agent investigating the case. Smith acknowledged that “pride” may have led his client, who had four different jobs at the time the animals were seized, to not act as quickly as she could have in erecting adequate shelter on her property.

Smith said that he and his client are not sure what happened when she was in Kentucky and that she wants her horses back. She is willing to reimburse the state for the costs of boarding her animals since they were seized, even though those costs are likely to be substantial, he told the judge.

“That is going to be adequate penalty,” Smith said. “She’s been publicly humiliated.”

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