Saturday, 23 September 2023

Advisory board: Animal control officer received different treatment in neglect investigation

From left, Breezy, a 14-year-old pinto mare, and TJ, a 4-year-old stallion, were turned over to Rehorse Rescue in Jamestown, Calif., in February 2010. The horses formerly belonged to Terrie Flynn, a Lake County Animal Care and Control officer who was the topic of a special meeting of the Lake County Animal Control Advisory Board on Monday, March 22, 2010. Photos courtesy of Rehorse Rescue.



LAKEPORT – A county advisory board on Monday arrived at a consensus decision that suggested a Lake County Animal Care and Control officer who was investigated last month for horse neglect was treated differently because of her status as a county employee.

The Lake County Animal Care and Control Advisory Board agreed on that viewpoint toward the end of a nearly hour-and-a-half-long meeting called specially to discuss the case of Officer Terrie Flynn.

Flynn was not present at the meeting, nor was Animal Care and Control Director Denise Johnson, whose son Flynn married last year. Johnson, who was due for a performance evaluation before the Board of Supervisors last week, is on medical leave due to preexisting back injury, it was reported.

During the meeting it was alleged that Johnson had known for several months about the situation with Flynn's horses, that she had warned her about it and that one of the six horses found in Flynn's care actually belonged to Johnson, who was leasing it to her. The horse has since been returned to Johnson.

Last month Flynn signed over to Animal Care and Control a 4-year-old pinto stallion named TJ, who was found to have a serious injury to his penis, which was caught in a fence, as Lake County News has reported. Mendocino County Animal Control was called in to handle the investigation.

Rehorse Rescue of Jamestown took TJ along with another horse, a 14-year-old pinto mare named Breezy, that Flynn also signed over last month.

Flynn was found to have had a total of six horses – two stallions and four mares – all of which were said to have been underweight. One mare was pregnant and another was believed to have been pregnant at one point but may have aborted, according to Animal Care and Control Officer Morgan Hermann, who investigated the case and was questioned Monday by the committee.

During the meeting, committee chair veterinarian Dr. Susan Cannon criticized Flynn for having what appeared to be a breeding operation at a time when tens of thousands of horses are being shipped to Mexico for slaughter. Cannon said she also found the Mendocino County Animal Control investigation conducted on Flynn to be insufficient.

It was also revealed during the meeting that the officer from Mendocino County Animal Control called in to do the investigation had formerly been the supervisor of current Lake County Animal Care and Control Deputy Director Bill Davidson.

As the meeting was beginning, Cannon cautioned fellow committee members and community residents who were in attendance, “We have no legal authority of any kind.”

She said the stories Lake County News had published about Flynn's case had generated a lot of calls and questions to members of the committee, which hadn't met in several months, thus the special meeting.

County Supervisor Rob Brown, who was in attendance, told the group that they had certain limitations regarding what they could talk about, including some employee-related issues. Cannon explained that the group's normal procedure is to write some sort of conclusion and then draft a letter to the Board of Supervisors.

The group wanted to hear from Hermann, who was the first person on the scene from Animal Care and Control who evaluated the horses.

She said that on Feb. 4 when she and Davidson went to a location on Patocchi Court in Lakeport – one of two locations where Flynn was keeping horses – they went into the barn to find a mare, two stallions and a yearling filly.

A stallion named Twister was in a small pen which had a large accumulation of mud and feces. “It looked like it hadn't been cleaned out in some time,” she said.

The horse was thin, with his ribs, backbone and hips visible when Hermann pulled off his horse blanket to evaluate him.

TJ also was in a small, muddy pen with “feces piled high.” Hermann said his penis was badly swollen and black, and he also was very thin.

She said she couldn't get her hands on the jumpy yearling, which had a long winter coat that prevented her from telling the horse's physical condition. That yearling and a pregnant mare both had access to the pasture, “so at least they could get out of the mud,” said Hermann.

Hermann said she became aware of TJ's injury around Jan. 12 or Jan. 13 when Flynn mentioned it and said she couldn't afford to take the horse to the vet but was caring for it herself. Then she left for Texas on Feb. 2 and left the horses in the care of a young woman who didn't know how to care for the injury. An investigative report obtained by Lake County News quoted the young caretaker as saying she thought Flynn was caring for the injury.

Because TJ was receiving no antibiotics, “the infection was just running though him” and he wouldn't eat, Hermann said.

On Feb. 4 Hermann and Davidson also went to another Lakeport location on Pine Ridge Road, where they found Breezy and another mare, Mia. Hermann said Mia was very thin also, and she could feel the mare's every rib, her backbone and hips when running her hands over the mare's thick winter coat. She said the mare was supposedly pregnant but she believed she may have aborted.

Mia later was identified by Davidson as belonging to Johnson, who leased her to Flynn.

Hermann said when she checked out Breezy, she could also feel her ribs.

The woman in whose care the two mares were left had left for Australia on Feb. 2, the same day that Flynn had left for Texas, according to the investigative report.

Hermann explained that she had called Flynn in Texas on Feb. 4 to ask about a court file. By the end of the conversation Flynn asked her if she would check on the horses at Pine Ridge Road because the woman who was supposed to be feeding them had left.

When she saw the horses, Hermann said she couldn't figure out why they were so agitated – including throwing fits in their stalls. She said she'd never known them to act that way, then she found out they hadn't been fed in about three days.

“They were starving, they were hungry, they wanted food,” she said.

Cannon asked Hermann if she had any reason to believe that anything was wrong with the horses.

“I knew that there was a problem,” Hermann replied. “I knew that she had been talked to by Director Johnson about it.”

Hermann said Johnson had seen the horses at Patocchi Court and knew that they were thin several months earlier.

“Terrie didn't have any money to buy food so I put it on my credit card,” said Hermann, adding that she didn't want to see the animals starve.

Hermann said that Animal Care and Control didn't impound TJ at first, but Davidson later made arrangements to take him to the shelter so they could care for him, with Flynn paying the boarding fees.

Cannon asked about Mia, the mare thought to be pregnant and leased to Flynn by Johnson. Hermann said a picture of the horse is at the shelter, but she was so thin, “I didn't even recognize the horse when I saw her.”

Advisory board member Grant Murray asked what made Flynn think that it was appropriate to keep horses when she was having trouble caring for them. “I can't answer that,” said Hermann.

At-large advisory board member Jessica Leishman asked Hermann how she felt when she saw the animals.

“I was mortified,” said Hermann. “I was absolutely mortified, that somebody I work with could let their animals get that way.”

Brown asked the group about what outcome they were seeking. “This is getting into an investigation, which may be appropriate, but not by this body.”

“All we're looking at is what was done with her case,” said Cannon, with it being up to the Board of Supervisors to decide is something more needs to be done.

Brown said it may not be up to the supervisors. If they had questions about Mendocino County's investigation, then it was that agency that offered the different treatment, he suggested.

Lucerne resident Lenny Matthews asked if the case would have been handled differently had it not been an animal control officer who was being investigated. Cannon said that was the question at issue.

Cannon said her concerns included two notices of violation which Davidson issued on Feb. 9. Mendocino County Senior Animal Control Officer George Hodgson didn't issue any such notices on his own, she pointed out. Then, Cannon was told that the initial notices were voided after the investigation was concluded last month.

Debra Rodrigue, who is leading a rescue effort for dozens of horses taken from a Lower Lake breeding operation, pointed out, “I think the condition of the horses didn't just happen in four days.”

Referring to Hodgson's investigative report, Canon said, “I've been looking at this thing for a long time and I have a long list of questions.”

“I understood his report to mean there were no criminal actions,” said Davidson.

He explained that notices of violation are a record of complaints that allow them leeway to follow up on cases. The notices of violation in Flynn's case do exist and remain on record, he said.

Davidson said that it was opinion of Hodgson that “the horses were fine and there was no violation.”

Cannon suggested Hodgson should be present for a discussion on the report. She said she found it hard to believe that Hodgson – who took over the investigation on Feb. 16, 11 days after TJ was taken into care – would find nothing wrong.

Davidson said he also didn't believe Hermann's assessment was accurate. “This is the first time I've heard her being so vocal about it,” he said, at which point Hermann made what sounded like a cross between a gasp and a deep sigh.

He said that his primary concern about the horses originated with TJ's injury and not the weight issue. Yet when Cannon asked him why he wrote the notices of violation on the Pine Ridge Road location, and he said it was to follow up on their weight.

Group admonished about limitations

Brown then called Cannon out of the room, and they returned a few minutes later accompanied by County Counsel Anita Grant, who Brown said he called because of the sensitivity of the discussion. “We're getting into some real dangerous areas here,” with regarding to employees, he said.

Grant said she understood the group had questions, but that the individuals in question had due process rights under the US Constitution as well as employee privacy rights. To question employees or investigate the matter “is, quite honestly, beyond the scope of this advisory board,” she said.

If they believed the investigation wasn't sufficient, Grant suggested they prepare specific questions and recommend that further investigation be done.

Brown suggested a peer review of the report, and having another agency come in and independently review it. He said he wanted the issue to be handled in an open and legal manner, but added, “It's not going to be resolved here, that's the whole thing.”

Grant added, “It can't be, despite your best efforts.”

Cannon said she wasn't happy with the report's lack of a conclusion.

Brown asked if there are examples of similar cases and how they were handled to establish a baseline for consistency. Davidson said the vast majority of such horse cases are dealt with through notices of violation. While some are prosecuted, most are handled through education.

He said he did a recheck on the horses on March 15, and brought with him pictures and new body weight scores to show the horses' improvement.

Brown asked Hermann about consistent handling of cases. Hermann, who had sat quietly after Davidson's comment about her account, replied, “I'm not going to talk.”

“It feels like the inquiry has kind of been shut down,” said Cobb resident Larry Ross, who works with Rodrigue in her horse rescue effort. He added that he felt it was courageous of Hermann to speak out.

“Animal control tried to shut down our horse rescue group in December,” said Ross, and did so again in January, actions he said which were taken at Flynn's initiation.

Clearlake resident and attorney Jacqueline Snyder asked if animal control has written personnel policies and procedures, as well as guidelines for notices of violation. Davidson said they have a policies and procedures manual for investigations but they're not specific to horses.

He said when he first saw the horses, he called and told Flynn very clearly that she needed to get vet care for the animals. “At no point from that point on did she not choose to cooperate,” he said.

Other issues brought up with the investigation during the meeting included Cannon's concern that animal control usually has a vet examine all horses involved in a complaint, but in this case Dr. Jeri Waddington, Flynn's vet, was brought out only to look at TJ.

Davidson said TJ was under Waddington's care. “I don't think that fits the legal definition of care,” Cannon replied, noting Waddington hadn't seen the horse prior to being called in after Animal Care and Control was involved.

She also produced a letter from Waddington who said there were “serious hygiene issues” with the horses' living conditions, but that the quality of food available to be fed was OK. That letter also stated Waddington's belief that the horses' condition was not intentional on Flynn's part and that TJ should have been examined sooner.

Cannon said if a group of horses is found to be underweight, “You start to assume they're not being fed properly,” and the fact that TJ did add weight after having his feedings increased showed that he had the capacity to do so.

Based on her experiences with animal control, Cannon said she wasn't surprised criminal charges didn't result in the case. “That does not mean that I don't think there shouldn't be any repercussions for it.”

Advisory committee member-at-large Eliza Wingate suggested animal control officers should behave better than the average citizen. Leishman said they should at least meet the expected standards.

Cannon asked if Flynn received any disciplinary action. Davidson said they can't talk about it.

Referring to a copy of the county's employee rules, Cannon pointed out the rules discuss employees who discredit their department through actions on or off the job. “To me it sounds like that might apply here.”

She continued, “So, let's cut to the chase,” citing major concerns that Flynn received preferential treatment because Johnson is her mother-in-law.

Brown said the county's nepotism policy doesn't apply in this case, as Flynn married Johnson's son after she was hired. He went on to suggest that Hodgson should come out and do any remaining followups.

One community member at the table, who did not identify herself and who left before the meeting was over, suggested they get the criteria and case law regarding what is criminal in such a case, get the pictures of the horses beginning when they were first reported and then when Hodgson investigated.

“Those two sets of data and evidence may speak very differently about whether this was criminal or not,” she said, to which Cannon replied they're not doing an investigation.

Cannon said that, for someone having trouble feeding their horses to be breeding horses while thousands of horses are being shipped to Mexico “just rubs me the wrong way,” and makes her doubt Flynn's sincerity.

At the advisory board's last meeting, Cannon said they had suggested to Johnson that better horse ordinances are needed locally to prevent another situation such as that which happened in Lower Lake, where Rodrigue rescued dozens of horses.

Rodrigue said that operation had 115 horses, about 25 to 30 of which went to slaughter. She took the rest and received help from the national Humane Society. “Animal control was not very helpful through all this process.”

Cannon then asked the group if they believed that Flynn was treated differently from an average citizen. All of the members said yes.

Referring to Hodgson's report, Cannon told Davidson, “This would definitely have not passed the muster if you guys had done this here.”

Cannon said the advisory committee's goal is to make Animal Care and Control successful, which has been the group's mission since beginning eight years ago. She and fellow advisory board members noted that the agency has come a long way in that time.

However, she pointed out, “All it takes is one thing like this for the public to start assuming that animal control isn't doing its job.”

The group has set another meeting from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 7, in Room C on the second floor of the Lake County Courthouse, 255 N. Forbes St. in Lakeport, to continue discussing the matter.

“I don't know how much we accomplished, but we sure stirred up a lot of stuff,” Cannon said at the meeting's conclusion.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at and on Facebook at .

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