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Originally published: 2013-03-13 14:58:18
Last modified: 2013-03-13 14:58:18

Animal Control revisits Dutch Creek Trails

Animal Control made an unannounced visit Wednesday morning to inspect conditions at Dutch Creek Trails in Vilas after a local equine rescue agency raised numerous allegations in a press conference Tuesday.


Animal Control Officer Stacy Shoemake found no problems or violations at the trail riding facility owned by Keith Ward and family, Chief Animal Control Officer Anita Gomez said.


"He went to every property that (Ward) had horses on or could possibly have horses on just to make sure that there was nothing that we were missing," Gomez said.


The visit followed a March 3 incident in which an emaciated, older horse was found lying down in the pasture and was euthanized, according to Animal Control. Ward received a civil citation for cruelty to an animal for failure to provide veterinary care as a result.


At an event Tuesday, president Amy Hudnall of Horse Helpers of the High Country provided information she said proves a history of mistreatment at the farm. She was joined by Heather Hodges, a former employee and neighbor of Dutch Creek Trails.


They presented photographs and shared anecdotes about the health conditions of horses at the site. Vice President Betsy Nicholls said she posed as an ordinary trail-riding customer in August 2010 to check on the horses' conditions and take photographs.


The Horse Helpers representatives advocated for veterinary assessments of all the horses at Dutch Creek Trails and urged stronger action by authorities.


"We felt like we weren't getting anybody to move forward," Hudnall said.


Hudnall said she met Friday with Capt. Dee Dee Rominger of the Watauga County Sheriff's Office and with a staff member in the District Attorney's office. She said she was told they would need time to consider the information.


Ward, who was not invited to the press conference, disputed the allegations.


"I have no secrets," he said. "I'm not hiding anything. I'm too public. I can't hide anyway, even if I wanted to, but I don't want to."


Gomez said there have been problems at Dutch Creek Trails in the past but said she prefers to work with individuals and find solutions rather than going through the court process. In 2010, Ward voluntarily surrendered two horses, both between 25 and 30 years old, to Horse Helpers at Animal Control's suggestion, she said.


Ward said he now regrets allowing Horse Helpers to get involved in 2010. He said the organization posted online that the horses had been "rescued" and are now using photos they took against him.


At this point, Animal Control is not asking other agencies to get involved and is not anticipating any other citations or charges, Gomez said.


"We don't have anything to go to the sheriff's office with," she said.


Gomez said she is disappointed that people feel Watauga County Animal Control is not doing its job.


"We've kept an eye on it, and we've watched, and we tried to make sure that everything is as it should be," Gomez said.