Horse Breeders' Lawyer Fires Back at Marin Humane Society

Claims of abuse are unsubstantiated, Fairfax attorney says.

The attorney representing a Petaluma couple in a case of alleged neglect of prized horses said her clients are being unfairly smeared and has threatened a class-action lawsuit against the Marin Humane Society.

Margaret Weems, a Fairfax lawyer with an extensive background in horse-related issues, said Jill and Alex Burnell of Gray Fox Farms deserve to have four confiscated horses returned to their property in a remote West Marin area.

Weems spoke to Patch one day after a hearing officer in a Marin courtroom said the Marin Humane Society was justified in seizing two horses on two occasions within the past three weeks from the Chileno Valley property, which is in Marin County but has a Petaluma address.

Humane officers said they discovered what they described as severe neglect, injuries and inhumane living conditions for horses, including Hanoverians and thoroughbreds. This photo on the Marin Humane Society website shows an emaciated mare that was seized (the society has not shared photos as part of its press releases). This story claims to show before-and-after photos of a seized mare.

"There's not a lot of value to the truth of what's going on in the information they're sending out," Weems said of a Marin Humane Society’s account. "To describe the horses as emaciated or neglected is an extremely unfair characterization."

Weems said MHS has a track record of seizing animals, giving the owners inadequate notice of planned seizures and charging inappropriate fines based on questionable data.

Weems accused one MHS animal services officer who participated in one of the raids of acting on a hunch rather than facts. Weems said one stallion, known nationally among horse breeders as Romantic Star, was just muddy and slightly injured from a fight with another stallion when he was taken away to a veterinary clinic at UC Davis. The attacking stallion ended up with a bruised leg, she said.

"(Romantic Star) had some bruising and some cuts, but no broken bones," Weems said. "One of his eyes had a little bit of a scrape, but it was not threatening his vision. Stallion fights are ugly, and the Burnells had never had a stallion fight before. Another stallion jumped two six-foot fences" to get to Romantic Star, she said.

Weems said MHS seized the horse without a full evaluation and took the four Gray Fox Farms horses without any facts to back up the reasons.

"It is an outrage," she said. "Romantic Star is very valuable breeding stallion, and now his career and his availability to that world is in jeopardy because of the great length that the humane society has gone to to absolutely trash the reputation of the Burnells in what we believe was an unfounded manner."

The Burnells and their support team intend to file a class-action lawsuit against Marin Humane Society "on behalf of all the people who have had animals seized in this broken system," Weems said. Anyone else who feels wronged in a similar way is welcome to contact her, she said.

She said she is waiting for a transcript of the Jan. 14 hearing and will go back to court to address what she said were deficiencies in the hearing process. Weems claimed that the hearing officer who made the ruling against the Burnells, Albert Burnham, was far from independent. 

"He just let the animal services officer ramble for three hours and then adopted her statement as to exactly what was going on," Weems said.

“There was no real discussion about the declarations submitted by our veterinarians and farriers."

Weems said the Burnells have been threatened because of the abuse allegations and believe it was unfair that Marin County Code Enforcement officials entered their property and took photos of the conditions and then posted them on the Internet.

"It is bad enough that the Burnells have had the outrage of Code Enforcement releasing photos of a nonconsensual search to folks who have put them on the Internet solely for the purpose of intimidating and harassing the Burnells," she said.

The Marin County District Attorney's office has not made an announcement about whether it will pursue criminal animal cruelty charges against the Burnells.

Chestnut Mare January 18, 2013 at 03:59 PM
I guess the lawyer failed to mention the lack of sewage or septic out there. Not to mention that the mare in the photo is severely emaciated. Not to mention that the owners of Gray Fox farms have several judgements against them in Sonoma County ranging from Vets, Feed Stores etc. The lawsuit is a joke. The Burnels are a joke. Go ahead and google them or better yet look up the judgements against them. Hey if you can't afford to pay the vet, the feed store, the farrier or your previous attorney you have no business breeding horses. Just saying
Yvette Wakefield January 18, 2013 at 05:09 PM
I am grateful for the Marin Humane Society. I don't know very much about wild animals and they have always responded to my calls for information or assistance. They are dedicated to helping animals.
Diane Halpin January 18, 2013 at 06:24 PM
Ms. Burnell has several arrest warrents out on her, including at least one in CA and one in VA. She has left a trail of hot checks to trainers, suppliers, equine organizations, and equine registries who will no longer deal with her. The major stallion testing facility in OK has a lien on one of the stallions for Burnell's failure to pay testing fees.
Mandy Smith January 18, 2013 at 06:25 PM
As a life long equestrian, I know that the Marin Humane Society does not act without merit. I have found that the MHS takes great strides in justifying seizures. They act too slowly for me and I have been frustrated with their conservative approach. I trust if the MHS went ahead with the seizure, it was completely and utterly researched and valid. I googled the owner of the ranch and was shocked to see all the warrants and horror stories connected to her. Everyone cannot be wrong. Shame on the lawyer to protect an abusive owner rather than the horse. I do not call her an equestrian, I call her a money hungry shark
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