Tunbridge farm owner found guilty on six counts of animal cruelty

Debra Densmore, 56, with her attorney, Michael Shane, in Orange County criminal court, was convicted on June 29, 2023, on six counts of animal cruelty. (VtDigger - Max Scheinblum)

Debra Densmore, 56, with her attorney, Michael Shane, in Orange County criminal court, was convicted on June 29, 2023, on six counts of animal cruelty. (VtDigger - Max Scheinblum) VtDigger - Max Scheinblum

By MAX SCHEINBLUM

VTDigger

Published: 07-05-2023 9:21 AM

CHELSEA — Debra Densmore, 56, was found guilty on six counts of animal cruelty by a jury at the Orange County Courthouse on Thursday afternoon. 

The charges, which fall under subsection four in Vermont’s animal cruelty statute, refer to horses Daisy, Midnight, Zep, Winky, Myra and Kashmir. The jury cited inadequate shelter, food and attention to medical care as reasons for the convictions, according to Colin Seaman, the Orange County state’s attorney who prosecuted the case.

“It’s really important to continue efforts at the state level to get the proper funding that is needed to protect animals and to protect livestock and to educate owners so the animals can get that standard of care that’s important for their welfare,” he said in an interview Friday morning.

All six counts are misdemeanors, which each carry a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine up to $2,000. The duration and type of sentence will not be clear until a future hearing, but for Seaman the most important outcome would be that Densmore is no longer able to own animals during that period. 

Seaman also anticipates Densmore will file an appeal, which is what generally happens with a guilty conviction in cases like these, he said.

The charges stem from a seizure at Densmore’s farm, Hoofbeats and Dreams, in Tunbridge on June 17, 2022. Vermont state officials removed 13 horses, one llama, one-mini mule and six dogs from Densmore’s property, according to police. 

“The emotional toll working with this type of subject matter is tremendous,” Seaman said. “The animals aren’t there to talk for themselves. And if you don’t do it, no one does.”

Densmore and her attorney, Michael Shane, could not be reached for comment after the verdict.

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Just the fact that the case went to trial was an anomaly, according to multiple animal welfare advocates and veterinary experts. 

Often it is difficult to gather enough evidence to build a case, and those cases are often not high on prosecutors’ priority list. The result? Most animal cruelty reports in Vermont, and the United States as a whole, have difficulty getting to court.

“It’s a pretty broken piecemeal system,” said Jess Danyow, executive director of Homeward Bound, Addison County’s Humane Society. “There’s a lot of passing the buck.”

Seaman’s biggest takeaway from the trial is that more resources and funding are needed to support animal welfare. The state had three veterinarians testify, and their presence added to “a tremendous strain on our rural economy,” because of the lack of large animal doctors in Vermont. Having them take a day off from the field to be in court is less than ideal, he said.

“I hope (future animal cruelty cases) don’t go to trial,” Seaman said. “Instead, I hope there can be an outreach to educate anybody who’s in this situation, but do it in such a way that they know that if push comes to shove and the changes aren’t made, that the resources are there to enforce this kind of situation.”

A farm in ‘deplorable condition’

Vermont State Trooper Stacia Geno visited Densmore’s property on May 28, 2022, in response to a U.S. Humane Society email spurred by a complaint of poor conditions from a volunteer at the farm, according to a search warrant. The Royalton Barracks, where Geno is based, started receiving complaints about the Densmore property in 2013, the warrant said.

During her visit, Geno observed “piles of garbage, broken appliances, mechanical equipment and mud in the front yard” upon arrival, according to the warrant. She also saw “emaciated horses” and observed a four-horse-sized run-in shelter that was holding eight horses, the warrant said.

“Also in this paddock, there was an old camper, trash and mountains of manure that would have been created over years,” Geno wrote. “There was rebar sticking out of the ground with a tire thrown over it. If a tire was knocked off a horse could easily impale itself causing serious bodily injury or death.”

On June 13, 2022, Geno separately spoke with Dr. Kirsten Glass and Dr. Sam Scheu, who had both seen the horses in the weeks after Geno’s initial visit. They “stated the property and horses are in deplorable condition,” according to the warrant.

All six horses had chronic and acute health conditions and four were either “emaciated” or “thin” on the Body Condition Scoring scale on the day of the seizure, according to court testimony. The scale is the gold standard in terms of measuring a horse’s general health and is determined by examining multiple factors, including weight and physical appearance of different parts of the body.

Defense attorney Shane argued in court that the animals’ conditions were more a reflection on the type of horses Densmore took in at her farm, rather than her care, or lack thereof. She adopted most of the horses from kill-pens — operations that keep horses on cramped, unhealthy and under-kept farms to be auctioned for slaughter.

In the weeks and months following the seizure, though, all six horses’ conditions improved while under the watch of Dorset Equine Rescue Center in Dorset and other foster farms, according to court testimony.

“Yes, these horses all had problems when they came to Debbie,” said Jen Straub, founder and president of the Dorset Equine Rescue Center. “But you have to do something about it, not let it get worse.”

Kashmir, Daisy and Myra were all euthanized shortly after the seizure due to the poor conditions at Densmore’s farm combined with their pre-existing conditions, Straub said. Zep was euthanized nearly five months later while living at a “retirement farm” in New Hampshire. (Jen Vickery, from Tomten Farm and Sanctuary in Haverhill, New Hampshire, said the cause was inoperable internal tumors.)

Midnight and Winky still reside at the Dorset Equine Rescue Center and are “doing great” and are “fully rehabilitated,” Straub said.