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North Dakotan Gary Dassinger faces animal abuse charges

Thirteen of Gary Dassinger's horses were taken in April on suspicion of animal abuse. A new North Dakota law allows law enforcement to sieze animals without notice to the owner or caretaker, and an approved veterinarian can even euthanize the animal if certain criteria are met.

Gary Dassinger's daughter has served three tours in Afghanistan as a U.S. Air Force major. None of that compares to what she has witnessed on her dad's ranch in Gladstone, North Dakota. A woman who had never been to Gary's ranch submitted a complaint April 22 to the Stark County Sheriff Department that his animals were uncared for within the parameters of North Dakota law Title 36, Livestock Chapter 36-21.1. Humane Treatment of Animals.

On Monday, North Dakota Southwest District Judge Rhonda Ehlis returned judgement that Gary's livestock may not be seized, though he will still face a criminal trial to determine whether his animals experienced abuse or neglect.

Gary, who owns a family counseling practice in Dickinson, has developed medical issues in his spine and hip problems. In December of last year, Gary hired John Connor, a seemingly knowledgeable horseman, claiming to be a master carpenter, horse trainer, and equine massage therapist, as reported by Protect the Harvest, to aid Gary in daily ranch operations.

In addition to other agreements, Connor was to feed horses, giving several thinner horses special care and feeding. Toward the end of winter, Gary observed some yearlings starting to slip, though he was assured by Connor that he was following feeding instructions.

In March, Chance Noyce, Gary's regular vet, made a call at the ranch to perform coggins tests on colts that were being sold later than month. Gary asked Dr. Noyce to check the horses and older cows that weren't wintering quite as well, for which Noyce made recommendations, but showed no real concern.

A few animals didn't make it through the winter due to varying reasons. A cow laid with her back downhill and bloated, an 18-year-old mare died by the tank after seemingly being electrocuted by inadequate wiring, which was repaired, and a ten-year-old mare and yearling died for unknown reasons. Several cattle didn't make it through the winter and Connor was instructed to move the dead cattle to an area where the other livestock could not be in contact.

Gary grew increasingly leery of Connor's ability to care for animals as well as maintain the carpentry work as agreed upon, and he approached Connor about the matter. After needing to leave the ranch to do his taxes April 17, saying he would return April 18, Connor showed back up April 19 to a frustrated Gary, who said he would be terminating the monthly contract, and Connor would only be paid for work completed.

On April 21, Connor was observed working with fervor, though it didn't last long. On April 22, Gary discovered Connor had left, taking one of the horses with him. Some horses were without water.

The same day Connor left, the Stark County Police Department arrived to inform him that they had received a complaint on the care of his animals. He retorted that his hired man had been caring for the animals and that he would be caring for his animals himself and things would be changing.

Later that day, Stark County Sheriff Terry Oestreich and Dickinson veterinarian, Dr. Kim Brummond, informed Gary they had a problem and would be taking a mare and foal. They said there would be no discussion. When Gary asked why, Dr. Brummond said, "So they don't die," as reported by Protect The Harvest.

Brummond and Gary have a history dating back 18 years. Gary was selling a stallion to a woman in Maine, who brought the horse to Dr. Brummond to draw coggins and perform a health assessment to be shipped back to Maine.

"She told the lady from Maine she paid way too much for this horse, and that she had a horse she would sell her for same amount of money but was way better quality," Gary said. "The lady from Maine took my horse."

Around the same time, Gary was missing a foal that was a few days old. It was located in and retrieved from an abandoned well. They took the mare and foal to Dr. Brummond to be checked over. She said the mare was dry and that Gary had an orphan colt. She insisted that Gary take the mare home, and she would "do all she could for the colt," Gary said. That was Friday evening. On Monday morning, Gary's daughter Missy went to retrieve the colt from the clinic, only to be faced with an $800 vet bill. Gary said he felt this was exorbitant for a few days of care and couldn't pay the bill.

"I said I can't pay $800 for an orphan colt. She kept the colt in lieu of me not paying the bill," Gary said. "She told the press that I had had an animal seized in the past. I left it there because I didn't want to pay $800 for a colt being fed for a few days. Even the state vet, when told of the situation, said, 'What was she feeding colt, pure gold?'"

On April 25, Gary received a written complaint from the State's Attorney demanding compliance with a list of conditions. He was instructed to collaborate with a veterinarian to develop a health and nutrition plan to be returned to the Stark County State's Attorney's Office by May 1. He completed the plan with the aid of Dr. Noyce on April 27 and handed it in the next day.

Carolyn Woodruff was hired, at the suggestion of Gary's daughter Missy, to offer a second opinion on the status of the horses. She reported, based on her assessment May 17, that the horses were between three and seven on the Henneke horse body condition scoring system, which rates a one as poor condition and nine being extremely fat. Ideal horse conditions range from four to six.

On May 22, the whirlwind continued as Gary received a Seizure in Place Order, permitting law enforcement to seize any animals. Dr. Woodruff called Gary on May 23 to inform him that a "reliable, concerned source informed her that there was a plan in place to actually remove the animals," as reported by Protect The Harvest. Cattle were to be removed on May 24, horses on May 25. They were going to be hauled to a feedlot in Park River, North Dakota, approximately 500 miles away.

"When you ask someone to comply, and they not only comply and go above and beyond what you have asked, what is the point of complying with law enforcement, when that's what can happen to you after?" Dr. Woodruff asked in regard to Gary's animals being seized.

Thirteen horses were seized on April 25. They were later returned due to an injunction granted by Judge Ehlis.

When asked if she thought the horses should be seized from Gary, Dr. Woodruff responded, "Absolutely not. The judge made a fair decision. She withdrew the seizure and disposition and returned the animals to their rightful ownership. It was a completely appropriate response. As far as neglect and abuse charges, it will be decided in court. Seizure was inappropriate, having a court case with criminal charges is an appropriate manner."

Gary is relieved to have a decision from the judge dismissing seizure; however, he is concerned about the criminal trial. His lawyer is hopeful he may win the trial, he said, but if he doesn't win, "animal abusers often cannot have livestock or animals for five, six, maybe seven years."

The whole situation has been "just crazy," Gary said. "In my opinion, Brummond had met with guy [Connor] was working with me before they had any reports and set this whole thing up. She was planning on breeding her paint stud to some of my mares she'd get out of this deal, plus she gets money for taking care of these horses."

Gary is concerned that the situation like his own could happen to other livestock producers. He warned that if it could happen in a rural area like North Dakota, it can happen anywhere, to anyone.

"My whole life I was taught to respect people, elders, law enforcement. I should have been videoing it," Gary said of the treatment he has received. "After this I will go around telling farmers and ranchers what they have to do and what they should do. They totally destroyed my trust in the law enforcement. Everyone has to worry about Humane Society [of America]. Six months ago, if you had told me something like this could happen, I would have told you you're off your rocker, you're way out there. Now, I believe it."

Sheriff Oestreich's only comment was, "The judgement speaks for itself."