A horse is suing its former owner for neglect in a ground-breaking lawsuit in the United States of America.
Portland-based charity the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) have filed the case on behalf of a quarter horse named Justice, who is seeking more than $100,000 (£74,000) to cover the cost of his ongoing care needs.
Sarah Hanneken, one of the animal’s attorneys for the ALDF, told H&H that if the case is successful, it “would mean judicial recognition of a fact we all already know to be true: that sentient non-human animals like horses are not mere ‘property’ like your car or television, but rather individuals capable of experiencing pain and happiness just like you or me.
“It is our hope and expectation that Justice’s success in this lawsuit would instil in humans a whole new level of respect for the animals in their homes and neighbourhoods,” she said.
The eight-year-old horse — then known as Shadow —was found emaciated and with a prolapsed penis that was swollen “red raw” and “oozing serum” as a result of frostbite. He was 300lb (136kg) underweight and also suffering from lice and rain scald having been left without adequate food or shelter throughout the winter.
His former owner, 51-year-old Gwendolyn Vercher, from Cornelius, Oregon, only sought veterinary attention when persuaded by a neighbour.
The horse was surrendered to the charity Sound Equine Options in March 2017 and in July of the same year, Vercher pleaded guilty to first-degree animal neglect and agreed to cover Justice’s medical expenses up until that date.
While Justice has regained his body condition, the complaint details how his penis remains prolapsed and he is now facing a partial amputation. It says the injuries he has suffered will require “special and expensive medical care for the rest of his life” and are a barrier to finding the horse a new home.
Oregon case law first paved the way to this unusual claim in 2014, when the state’s supreme court ruled that animals could be the victims of crime and had legally protected rights.
Ms Hanneken said the ALDF had decided to pursue Justice’s case — the first of its type — as the facts made it “particularly compelling”.
“The egregious nature of Justice’s neglect and the extent of his injuries make it crucial that he receives compensation for the costs of his future medical care—costs that are the direct result of the defendant’s criminal neglect,” she said.
“We believe the court has the authority to grant Justice the monetary relief he deserves.”
Ms Hanneken acknowledged that in future the threat of a $100,000 pay-out “would indeed serve as a deterrent to abuse and neglect”, but added that the ALDF also imagined the law suit had the “potential to reframe animals’ place in our minds [and would] likewise lead to their better treatment”.
“We are confident in the merits of Justice’s claim. Under Oregon law, animals are considered ‘sentient beings’, and if abused or neglected, courts treat them as victims of crime. It is well-established that victims of crime can sue their abusers for the physical and emotional damages that result,” she explained.
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“Equine veterinarians who have examined Justice determined he must have been in severe pain for months and chronically hungry, causing significant psychological trauma.
“Imagine being starved within an inch of your life and sustaining severe frostbite on your genitals. Any sentient being would be physically and emotionally traumatized by that experience, and Justice is no different. Under Oregon’s victims-rights laws, these are compensable harms.”
US media have reported that Vercher only learned about her former horse’s legal action against her recently and described the situation as “outrageous”.
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