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People from all walks of life, from all corners of Montana, are no longer willing to be silent witnesses to the increasing cases of horse neglect and abuse.

They are rallying around a fledgling Hamilton organization called Willing Servants, which was founded in response to a case of equine neglect in the Bitterroot Valley this summer.

These horse advocates owners, trainers, breeders, veterinarians, and law enforcers are reaching out to each other and creating a formal network of concerned citizens to help horses in crisis.

At the heart of their mission: Ensuring humane treatment of horses and helping people find new homes for animals they can no longer afford to keep.

The economy is taking its toll on horses, whose owners are struggling to provide the proper care they require, said Dave Hedley, a Sanders County Deputy and animal cruelty investigator. And Montana's law in this regard has no teeth to inspire responsible and ethical treatment of domestic animals.

Hedley has joined Willing Servants, contributing his time and expertise as a board trustee.

"I have high hopes for our efforts," Hedley said. "The winds of change are needed."

For years Hedley has seen animals suffer at the hand of man, and like others involved with Willing Servants, he wants to do his part to stop irresponsible pet owners.

To make a difference, he said, Montana animal cruelty laws need to be reworked.

Penalties need to be stiffer and in many cases the wording in statutes needs to be tinkered with, he said.

For instance, Hedley would like to see in some laws the words "intent" be changed to "indifference."

"When you have a case like the one I'm working on now, the person did not have the 'intent' to kill four horses, but the person was 'indifferent' to the situation that caused the death of four horses," Hedley explained.

More tools sought

Subtle changes will give law enforcement and the Montana judicial system more tools, Hedley said, and that is critical to the overall mission.

"There are a lot of things that have affected the horse - economic times, overbreeding, people moving in with no background in what it takes to have a horse," Hedley said. "The system is definitely showing strain."

Kathy Luedtke, a Stevensville resident, is doing her part to improve Montana's animal cruelty laws by researching how other states handle the issue.

She's discovered Washington state veterinarians have immunity when they work on animals involved in cruelty cases, while Montana's professionals do not.

It's a big issue. For example, Luedtke explained, if a Washington vet decides euthanasia is the best course of treatment for a horse that's been chronically starved, its owner can't sue the vet. In Montana, veterinarians don't have immunity in such cases, she said.

"We don't need to reinvent the wheel when other states have already figured some of this out," Luedtke said. "We want to learn from them and we want to add a little more oomph to Montana laws to encourage county attorneys and sheriffs to use the law.

"As of now, it is a discretionary thing."

With the support of Darby lawmaker Rick Laible, the issue will be taken to the 2009 Legislature.

Luedtke hopes the emerging groundswell of equine advocates will be heard.

Changing laws is a challenge, but the first step - the most important step - needs to be taken.

"We need to let legislators and law enforcement know that's what we want," Luedtke said.

Hedley expects new animal cruelty laws will benefit all domestic animals.

It is hoped that improved laws will address breeding issues, and include the tighter restrictions that relate not just to horses but to situations such as puppy mills.

"If you believe in love for animals, if you believe in the rights of animals to be humanely treated, contact your legislative representative and let them know," Hedley said. "You can support the legislative movement to prosecute, and support the movement of responsible pet ownership and the consequences for owners who don't do the right thing and seek out assistance to help care for their animals."

Legislation that horse advocates hope to introduce in January is being written and refined now.

Still, changing the law will take several months.

In the meantime, Willing Servants is moving forward with its other agenda: improving the welfare of horses.

The organization is tapping into community resources to find safe homes for horses and to help horse owners in need, said Theresa Manzella.

"Right now we are simply working as an informal network, and if people want to voluntarily relinquish their horses for no money at all, we will come out to their place, take pictures of their horse, get a description written and post the information to our network," Manzella said. "Everybody who receives the e-mails will forward them on to people they know until we find these horses homes."

The organization is aiming for official nonprofit status, and as part of its mission, it wants to establish "a final act of kindness euthanasia clinic" to serve old and infirm horses, Manzella said.

It costs about $200 to euthanize a horse and dispose of its body. Through fundraising and donations, the euthanasia clinic would help offset the cost of putting down horses for people who can't afford the service and otherwise would likely turn to meat buyers to dispose of their horses that are sick, old or unsaleable.

"We are looking for ranch owners, about three or four sites up and down the (Bitterroot) Valley, to utilize their land for the purpose of burial," Manzella said. "If we can organize these sites, we can pick up the horses, make it easier on the vets, subsidize the cost, and offer informal grief counseling."

All who are interested in helping any of the causes Willing Servants is tackling are welcome to jump in and lend a hand.

"We will be needing foster homes, as well as multiple levels of skills, resources and talent," Manzella said. "Get on the network list."

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