After about 3 months of investigating his pony farm Three Misdemeanor charges were filed on Thursday against Michael Johnson in Watonwan County Court.
According to the complaint filed in Watonwan County Court, on June 19 20018, an anonymous call was made to the Watonwan County Sheriff’s Office to report animal neglect at the Johnson Horse Farm, in Odin Minnesota. On June 20 Sgt. Barry Gulden of the Watonwan County Sheriff’s Office went to the farm and observed about 70 horses, and at least one dead horse that appeared to have been dead for some time. About half of the horses had long curled hooves and several of them had difficulty walking. Sgt. Gulden contacted Agent Keith Streff of the Minnesota Animal Humane Society, who made arrangements to come down the following day.
On June 21 Agent Streff along with Sgt Gulden and Investigator Mark Slater of the Watonwan County Sheriff's Office went to Michael Johnson’s ( 54) shop in Odin who is the owner of the horses. Johnson admitted he had not been caring for the horses properly. He said the last time somebody trimmed the hooves was over a year ago. He admitted that some of the horses needed to have their hooves trimmed. He stated that he understood it was a crime to let the hooves get into the condition they are in, and that a veterinarian would not be too happy to see how long the hooves are. He admitted there were multiple dead horses on the property, including one that was still in the pen.
While speaking with Johnson, he invited Gulden, Streff and Slater several times to look at the horses at the farm. They went to the farm and observed the horses. Many photos were taken, and video evidence was collected. Streff made the following observations: newborn foals were caked with mud and manure and one foal appeared to be struggling; a majority of the horses appeared to be suffering to some degree from the effects of grossly overgrown hooves; some of the horses had hooves with double and triple curls; some of the horses had difficulty walking and/or exhibited obvious pain while walking; there was at least one dead foal and one dead adult horse lying dead in one of the paddocks and were in an accelerated state of decomposition; bones and carcass remains of the horses that died some time ago were in other paddocks; and a significant amount of manure was accumulated in the paddock areas which created a slurry when mixed with rain.
Streff asked Johnson if he would turn the horses over to him. Johnson agreed as long as the horses were take to Dr. Shirley Kittleson a vet in Sherburn. Sreff confirmed with Dr. Kittleson that she would conduct a forensic examination of the animals and provide the reports to him.
On August 13, Dr. Kittleson informed Streff that, based on her attorney’s advice, she would not turn over the reports to him. Streff then provided the photos and video evidence of the horses’ condition to a vet at the University of Minnesota and a vet in Benson. The Vets opined that the hoof overgrowth was “unquestionably severe,” a “serious situation and typically associated with chronic foot pain, lameness, and reduced mobility incompatible with modern health, welfare, and husbandry standards,” and “unacceptable.”
Johnson is being charged with two Misdemeanor charges of Overwork/Mistreat Animals-Cruelty and one Misdemeanor count of Equines-Proper hoof care.
The Plaindealer has been following this story from the beginning. Here is the previously most updated story.
Updated August 8:
During a visit to the Vet Clinic where Michael Johnson’s horses are being boarded and some hooves being cared for the Plaindealer was shown a copy of a bill made out to the Watonwan County Sheriff’s Office for the amount of $43,037.20
According to the Vet no agreement was made where Johnson or herself would be responsible for the cost of boarding.
While at the Clinic she stated that the bottom line is that the horses should have not been taken from there home and that their facility in Odin is perfect for them.
According to Watonwan County Auditor Kelly Pauling a bill was not submitted to the Auditor's office for payment.
The bill was not presented or discussed during yesterday’s Commissioners meeting.
About a month and a half after Animal Humane Society Agent Keith Streff seized 71 horses from Michael Johnson’s farm after neglect was alleged and no charges have been brought forward yet.
According to a press release put out by the Watonwan County Sheriff’s office on June 22
The deputy observed horses with extremely overgrown hooves. Some of the ponies appeared to be in pain and had difficulty walking. Some also had signs suggesting evidence of long-term neglect.
Agent Streff and Watonwan County deputies made the decision to remove the horses for probable cause animal cruelty. Johnson agreed to and signed a custodial release, turning possession of the ponies over to AHS. The horses were transported to a local veterinarian for evaluation and treatment.
According to a press release sent out by the Watonwan County Sheriff’s Office on June 22 on Friday June 22nd deputies from the Watonwan County Sheriff's Department executed a search warrant at a rural farm site in Odin Township Section 25. Over 70 horses were removed from the property for probable cause of criminal animal cruelty. The horses will be quarantined, evaluated and treated as necessary. The disposition of the horses will be determined pursuant to Minnesota statute 343.235.
Sheriff Deputies are working with Agent Keith Streff from the Animal Humane Society (AHS) based in Golden Valley, MN. AHS is a private 501 C 3 non-profit organization dedicated to the welfare of animals. They have a legislative commission to assist law enforcement with the investigation and enforcement relevant to the animal welfare chapters 343-346.
The Animal Humane Society employs professional Humane Agents specifically trained in humane law enforcement. They also provide law enforcement with the personnel, equipment and resources necessary to process criminal animal cruelty cases when necessary.
Animal welfare cases are often emotionally charged with complicated circumstances and this case is no exception. However, the facts and circumstances will be thoroughly investigated and due process will be followed as required by law.
This is an active investigation. We ask those that are following this case to reserve judgment until all the facts are established and the investigation is completed. Additional information will be released as it becomes available.
Charges are pending upon review of reports by the Watonwan County Attorney’s Office
On Monday Johnston’s lawyer James J. Kuettner released the following press release:
The Minnesota Humane Society has stolen Michael Johnson’s horses. Mr. Johnson wants them
On June 22, 2018, Humane Society Agent Keith Streff, accompanied by members of the
Watonwan Sheriff’s Department, visited the horse farm of Michael Johnson, located in the City
of Odin. Streff alleged neglect and seized the horses to “dispose” of them.
Johnson breeds miniature horses. The horses are adorable. Johnson selectively breeds only the
best of his horses. He sometimes sells a few to recoup costs.
Despite Streff’s claims, the horses were not neglected.
The horses are currently in the care of a local veterinarian, Dr. Shirley Kittleson. Dr. Kittleson
stated that the horses are “fat and happy.” She also said, “[t]hese are some of the finest looking
animals I have ever seen.”
Scott McClure, an expert from Iowa, agreed with Dr. Kittleson. He, too, wonders how the
Humane Society could possibly justify the removal of these horses.
Johnson loves his animals. A colt was injured in transport. It is now lost forever. Johnson simply
wants his remaining animals back.
Streff claims sole discretion as to disposition of the horses. He’s suggested adoption, castration,
and euthanization. Johnson, on the other hand, wants the horses returned to his farm. No formal
charges have yet been made or requested.
On Tuesday morning during the County Commissioners Meeting Johnson along with his lawyer and others in attendance brought up issues that they are concerned about regarding the situation.
During the meeting Johnson’s lawyer explained that instead of doing what is done in most cases of educating his client about the lack of care that is taking place and how to correct it the agent decided instead to take the horses.
Another point that was brought up by the lawyer was the cost associated with the boarding of the horses.
According to the lawyer the cost of boarding is $25 per day per horse and because of state statues Watonwan County is already on the hook for over $60,000 according to the lawyer.
“ They simply should be returned to Mr. Johnson’s farm,” the lawyer stated.
During his presentation Johnson’s lawyer also explained that his client felt threatened by Agent Streff who brought two armed deputies with him and he felt like he had no choice to comply with his orders because he was told that they would be seized anyways.
“ Quite frankly my client was scared,” he said.
One of the reasons given for some of the horses having longer hooves is because of the weather making it hard for the horses to run around because of the ground.
He explained that process for trimming the hooves is also not like trimming human fingernails. He explained that it’s an intensive process and requires a professional in order for it to be done right.
While Watonwan County Commissioner Chair Scott Sanders did note that he is very concerned about the situation he asked for time for the commissioners to get more information.
According to Streff he estimates about 75-80% of the horses seized have catastrophic issues with their hoofs which suggests long term neglect.
When asked if Watonwan County would be on the hook for any of the cost associated with the boarding Streff said that Johnson, Streff and Dr. Kittleson made an agreement saying that if Streff turned over the horses to the Vet after the investigation was completed then the Vet and Johnston would pay the cost for the boarding.
While both sides agree that a agreement was signed signing over the horses to Steff the Plaindealer has not been able to obtain a legible version of the agreement.
According to a search warrant signed by Mark Slater, Watonwan County’s Investigator on June 21 he was informed by Sergeant Barry Gulden that he had received an anonymous complaint of animal neglect.
The caller stated that there were numerous dead ponies at the Johnson horse farm.
Gulden told Slater that he had went to the farm where he noticed several ponies that were not cared for and some with hoofs that were 3 or 4 inches long and starting to curl making it difficult for them to walk.
The Sergeant also located a pony that appeared to be dead for some time in the same pen as the other ponies.
Gulden called Animal Humane Society agent for Southern Minnesota Keith Streff who joined the two on June 22 when they went to visit with Streff to talk to him about the complaint made against him.
During the meeting Johnson was told that Gulden had taken photographs of the farm the day before.
According to the search warrant Johnson invited the three officers to check out the farm and to see the ponies themselves.
Johnson according to the search warrant told them that he knew a few of the ponies had overgrown hooves. Johnson told the officers that he tried to hire someone to do it but they did not show up.
The search warrant also goes on to say that the issue wasn’t taken care of for at least and that it was his fault.
The search warrant describes the scene of the farm as having poor living conditions and that the horses had to walk through manure in some areas the manure was halfway up their legs.
Ponies had to walk through mud to get their feed.
Several of the ponies hooves were 6-8 inches overgrown according to the warrant.
Johnson also told them that there were two more dead baby ponies on the farm.
During an phone interview with the Plaindealer Streff called the scene of the farm one of the significant cases of animal neglect he has seen.
According to the agent he is confident about 75-80% of the horses showed catastrophic problems with their hooves and that there were many signs of long term neglect of the animals.
“ Let there be no doubt that the hoof care of the horses are catasphrophic,” the agent stated.
Streff explained that they followed proper procedure when dealing with the situation and that after interviewing Johnson and exploring the farm he determined that he can’t or won’t take care of the animals to meet minimum lawful conditions for the animals and that is why he made the decision to have the animals seized.
According to Streff as part of an agreement for the animals to be turned over to the care of the Veterinarian both Johnson and the Vet agreed that they would absorb the cost of the boarding of the horses.
The Plaindealer will continue to provide updates as more details become available.