Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series chronicling a 2020 local animal abuse incident. Public records were used to reconstruct scenes from the case.
CENTRALIA — Jonni Cournyer first noticed the bony figures on the side of the road while driving to Napavine: more than a dozen horses behind a fence, with no food in sight. Their hip bones and ribs protruded from their skin.
That’s when she called county officials.
When a sheriff’s deputy arrived at 1229 N. Military Road in Winlock, he noted the skinny equines, their hip bones and ribs visible beneath their fur. One black horse was on the ground and looked dead. From the side of the road, the deputy took out his binoculars, focusing on the horse’s belly. It didn’t appear to be breathing. When he returned three hours later, the horse hadn’t moved.
That was December 2018.
By late February 2020, after continuous calls from locals expressing concerns about the herd, things had only gotten worse.
With a search warrant in hand, officials from the sheriff’s office and animal control, along with a local veterinarian, gained access to the property, where a nightmarish scene awaited them.
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Thirteen horses — each deemed “emaciated” — walking around a barn with no sign of hay, salt blocks or feed. They had resorted to chewing on trees and even the wood window sills on the barn, the floor of which was covered in pigeon droppings.
Two dark bay geldings were starved past the point of return, and had to be euthanized. A bone marrow analysis showed a fat content of less than 1%. That’s compared to a normal 86%, according to Dr. Michael Clark, of South Sound Equine Practice.
The horses had survived what Lewis County Superior Court would find to be first-degree animal cruelty, a class C felony. But as officials walked through the property, they discovered that some of the equines were not as lucky.
Skeletal remains of one horse — who was likely just three years old — were scattered on the lawn near the treeline. Under an overturned plastic garbage can, a horse head was found decomposing, a bridle strapped over what flesh still remained. No gunshot wounds were found on either skulls, suggesting their fate was similar to the bony horses still standing on the property: a slow road to starvation.
Walking through the 30-acre property, county officials noticed the fence leaning toward the main road. Without adequate feed, the 13 desperate horses had pushed up against it, attempting to gain access to land where the grass wasn’t already grazed down to the dirt.
Jake, a dark bay gelding with a white “star” — a patch of fur between the eyes — was found covered in abrasions, likely from where he had been itching at an intense lice infestation. A smattering of sores on his lips emerged from his attempts to graze on plants already nibbled down to stubs.
The backs of two horses had developed rain-rot. Curt, a teenaged former race horse with “white socks,” had oozing sores from an ill-fitted blanket that slowly rubbed away at his skin.
It wasn’t difficult to round the horses up to be evaluated and photographed.
Bill Teitzel, a supervisor at Lewis County Public Health and Social Services, drove a truck of hay onto the property, where the horses promptly strolled — or in one case, limped — over to feed.
Teitzel quickly realized getting the horses out would be a “logistical nightmare.” Officials expected to confiscate four or five horses, he told The Chronicle. But it was clear every single horse would need to be taken, along with two pot-bellied pigs, whose overgrown tusks caused sores inside their mouths.
A bite mark on one pig’s back appeared to be from a horse.
Officials scrambled to find local volunteers to haul and foster the animals as they body-scored the horses on-site.
The condition of the horses, according to Clark, who was present that day, was “abhorrent.”
“Thirteen horses eat 260-325 pounds of hay per day, and there was zero evidence of any feed (hay, pellets, grain, etc.) on the property,” he wrote in his evaluation of the animals.
And while it’s impossible to know what killed the two horses found dead, “it is gravely concerning to me, as a veterinarian, that two animals were allowed to die on the property.
“I have great suspicions they died as a direct result of the owner’s utter disregard for these animals in the way they were cared for and/or the refusal to provide medical attention if these animals were demonstrating illness or distress.”
The owner of the animals, then-37-year-old Kelly Walker, was originally hit with two counts of first-degree animal cruelty and 13 counts of second-degree animal cruelty. Ultimately, she pleaded to one count of first-degree animal cruelty. She paid $1,800 in fines, was restricted from owning new animals and served no jail time.
It was a slap on the wrist, according to Cournyer, who fostered one of the rescued horses, Mac Daddy J. More worrisome to Cournyer, Walker’s former neighbor, and others who fostered the horses was how long it took the county to step in, and how the horses were dealt with after the fact.
From 2018 until the animals were finally taken, Cournyer said she made more than 30 calls to the county.
“I was told if it really bothered me that much, I should probably drive a different direction,” Cournyer said.
Lewis County’s humane officer, Alishia Hornburg, who led much of the county’s investigation into the neglected animals, declined to comment. Teitzel, whose department oversees animal control, said he never made that comment.
“If that was spoken by any of my staff, I’d consider that totally unacceptable,” he said.
But in terms of how long it took Lewis County officials to step in and seize the 13 horses, two pigs and three chickens, Teitzel and Clark point to a number of limiting factors, like staffing issues and an education-first approach.
“I don’t think it’s a fair assessment from (Cournyer). I don’t think it could’ve been done any sooner,” Clark said.
This year, Cournyer is pushing for changes in Lewis County’s animal control. Some of them — like increased staff and written fostering procedures — would be welcomed by Teitzel.
“The thing that bothers me the most is they let these horses get down to skin and bones,” Cournyer said. “If they had stepped in, maybe those horses wouldn’t have died.”