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State boarded abused horses with man accused of animal cruelty

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Dennis Chavez, owner of a Los Lunas feedlot where emaciated and dying horses led to allegations of animal cruelty, was hired to care for abused horses at the same time he was facing charges. (Journal File)

Dennis Chavez, owner of a Los Lunas feedlot where emaciated and dying horses led to allegations of animal cruelty, was hired to care for abused horses at the same time he was facing charges. (Journal File)

New Mexico Livestock Board officials hired Southwest Livestock Auction of Los Lunas to care for four abused horses in September, at the same time its proprietor was facing animal cruelty charges filed as the result of a board investigation.

State records show the agency’s executive director approved a purchase order of $1,500 in late August for the auction operation to “feed abused livestock” for the state.

A subsequent invoice shows the Livestock Board boarded four horses at the Los Lunas property for 13 days beginning Sept. 21, resulting in a bill of $260.

The four horses were seized by the Livestock Board as part of an animal cruelty case unrelated to the high profile charges auction owner Dennis V. Chavez was facing at the time.

Chavez was charged in June 2012 in connection with four severely emaciated and downed horses that were discovered by animal welfare activists in a pen on his business property. Those horses either died or were later euthanized.

Chavez pleaded guilty Nov. 25 to reduced misdemeanor charges. Four animal cruelty charges were dismissed, and he was sentenced to one year unsupervised probation for not having a bill of sale for the four downed horses.

It was the second time in 21 years Chavez faced prosecution related to malnourished, sick and dying horses found on his business properties in New Mexico.

In an interview Dec. 2, Livestock Board executive director Ray E. Baca told the Journal he was unaware of any arrangement with Chavez’s company to care for horses seized by the Livestock Board.

The Journal subsequently discovered the purchase order and invoice from Southwest Livestock Auction through a public records request. The purchase order dated Aug. 29 had Baca’s signature of approval.

Asked about his earlier statement, Baca said he didn’t remember having signed the purchase order.

Baca said his agency enlisted Chavez’s company in September to ensure the four abused horses’ “safety.”

“They had to really secure them,” Baca added. Asked why the Livestock Board didn’t place the horses with a New Mexico horse rescue organization, Baca said, ” That’s the first place we always check. All the horse rescues we’ve been checking with lately … everybody has their limitations.”

Debbie Coburn of Four Corners Equine Rescue based in Aztec told the Journal on Friday that while horse rescue facilities around the state are typically at or near capacity, “I have never turned down the Livestock Board for a seizure and I don’t think any of the other rescues would either.”

Baca said there were other considerations in hiring Chavez’s company.

“We needed to find a place that’s licensed and bonded to take these horses because they belong to the property of the state,” he said.

Coburn told the Journal her facility has accepted seized horses from the Livestock Board “for years.”

“That’s the first time I’ve heard of the need to be bonded,” Coburn said, adding that she would obtain bonding if required. Equine rescue organizations are already required to be licensed by the livestock board.

Baca, who was appointed to his post earlier this year, said while no law requires bonding for facilities that board horses seized by the Livestock Board, it’s a matter of “liability” for the state.

“I think that’s just an excuse,” Coburn responded.

She added: “I would think that the Livestock Board would at least approach the rescues … before they go signing something with Dennis Chavez. I think it’s more a matter of convenience than anything else.”

Chavez operates the livestock auction, but of late only sells cattle, Baca said. Chavez also transports horses to the Mexican border for slaughter. He couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.

Valencia County District Attorney Lemuel Martinez, whose office prosecuted Chavez, said last week that he was unaware of the livestock board’s business arrangement with Chavez. Martinez said he would liked to have known because it could have hurt the prosecution.

Had the case gone to trial, Martinez said, Chavez’s attorney could have cited the business dealings between the board and Chavez “for impeachment purposes, credibility purposes, or other angles …. in impugning the testimony of our witnesses.”

Baca responded that the DA’s Office never involved his agency in the prosecution after livestock investigators submitted their criminal investigation.

A check of state records showed only one other payment by the Livestock Board to Chavez in the past four years – a $50 payment in 2009 for hauling a cow.

The Livestock Board, as the primary agency in New Mexico responsible for enforcing animal cruelty laws involving livestock, launched its investigation of Chavez after a video of the four downed horses was posted on YouTube in March 2012.

Three of the four horses were euthanized after members of Animals’ Angels of Maryland discovered them in a feedlot and pleaded with auction workers to put them out of their misery. A fourth horse died before help arrived.

Chavez maintained the horses were dumped on his property and he wasn’t aware they were there.

In 1991, Chavez faced 16 counts of animal neglect and cruelty stemming from ailing and emaciated horses discovered in Albuquerque’s South Valley. All but one charge was dismissed. He was acquitted of the remaining charge.

Meanwhile, Baca said the horses that were temporarily held at Chavez’s property in September have been put up for adoption.

He wouldn’t rule out using the Los Lunas business in the future, but pledged that Livestock Board inspectors will be monitoring any horses placed there.

There’s also ongoing discussions about using a state Corrections Department property in Springer to board horses instead of relying on private contractors, he said.

“We don’t have a place to go with all these horses that we’re picking up,” he said. “What are we supposed to do? Put them in our parking lot?”