The Bureau of Land Management’s wild mustang management program, which has drawn considerable discussion for years, has been again brought under fire in a Nebraska animal cruelty case.
Restore Our American Mustangs Act (ROAM), federal legislation to overhaul the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last summer. Similar legislation has stalled in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where it was referred last August.
The animal cruelty case of Nebraska horse owner Jason Meduna has attracted a lot of attention recently. More than 200 seriously malnourished and neglected horses were removed from Meduna’s 3-Strikes Ranch, Alliance, Nebraska, ironically promoted as a haven for rescued mustangs, almost a year ago.
According to the 3-Strikes Ranch web site, Meduna trained BLM mustangs that had been repeatedly passed over for purchase or adoption. Meduna had acquired more than 210 wild horses and burros since 2007, said BLM spokesperson Cindy Wertz.
A Morrill County District Court, Nebraska, jury found him guilty on 145 separate counts of abandonment of an animal and cruel neglect.
Animal protection laws in Nebraska were strengthened across the board a few years ago, and in 2008 the state criminalized “horse tripping,” a bizarre and totally pointless “entertainment” where a horse’s legs are lassoed and the animal is thrown to the ground.
Nebraska now is one of 19 states ranked as “top-tier” by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national organization that rates animal protection laws across the country. Section 28-1009 of the Nebraska Revised Statutes defines abandonment or cruel neglect of an animal as a Class I misdemeanor, unless there is “serious injury or illness or death.”
Judge Leo Dobrovolny said during sentencing that Meduna had yet to accept responsibility for his action and sentenced him to prison.
Charges were separated with more than 100 counts relating to live animals suffering from malnutrition and ill health and the remaining charges for dead animals found on
Meduna was sentenced to serve 40 to 120 months in prison, and the rancher, who touted himself as a horse lover, can’t own, possess, or reside with animals for 30 years.
With good time, Dobrovolny stated Meduna could serve a minimum of 20 months in prison and be eligible for release in 60 months.
During arguments for sentencing, Morrill County Attorney Jean Rhodes argued, “Mr. Meduna should be ordered to serve a lengthy term of imprisonment, pay fines on each count and be disallowed from owning horses or other animals for the rest of his life. I am concerned that Mr. Meduna could abuse horses or other animals because he plans to continue in the ranching industry.
“Mr. Meduna deceived people for his own self-benefit,”Rhodes said. “It did affect the horses, certainly, and people.”
While Meduna continued to assert that the neglect and starving deaths of the animals was caused by stupidity, Rhodes emphasized that he failed to recognize that he committed criminal acts.
“There is no recognition by him that he will be held accountable by this court,” Rhodescommented.
Meduna’s attorney, Chad Withers, argued that Meduna deserved a probation sentence, saying the neglect of the horses was accidental.
“This is a case were Mr. Meduna took in horses that no one else wanted and he got in over his head,” Withers noted.
Withers defended that Meduna made mistakes, referring to Meduna as possibly having acted stupidly, with an ego or being overly zealous.
However, Withers contended, “Mr. Meduna acted with negligence, not intentionally. Mr. Meduna is sorry that horses became of ill health or died, but he personally suffered because of the case.
Argument was made against a sentence that would not allow Meduna to possess horses or other animals. “For a man who has worked and lived his life around horses, that is quite a punishment,” Withers qualified.
“These weren’t people. I don’t mean to diminish the life of a horse, but I can’t equate
the life of a horse to the life of a person,” Withers evaluated. “Mr. Meduna’s life should not continue to be affected with a prison sentence. He simply did not do a good enough job caring for the horses.”
While Meduna spoke to the court, he continually referred to his own losses during his statement. Meduna told Dobrovolny that as a result of the case, he had lost his ranch, his reputation and his livelihood. He asked the court to see that he had already been punished.
“These mistakes will follow me for the rest of my life,” said Meduna, calling the situation on the ranch “a perfect storm.”
In his sentencing, Dobrovolny contended that despite Meduna’s statements that he was sorry, Meduna had yet to show that he possessed remorse.
“It appears in many cases that people were taken in by you,” Dobrovolny calculated.“The issue is how you dealt with the situation. Instead of seeking help, you failed to act and concealed the deaths of the animals.”
The judge suggested that Meduna could have acted and animals would have recovered, which Dobrovolny said was demonstrated by the fact that most animals did recover well after being seized by officers.
“The magnitude of the case can’t be ignored,” Dobrovolny commented in passing sentence.
Withers had also argued a motion for a new trial, citing Dobrovolny’s decision to allow testimony from range specialist David Cook. Withers said the defense objected to testing for range conditions that Cook conducted on behalf of the Morrill County
Sheriff’s Office. Dobrovolny denied the motion.
Meduna has indicated that he plans to appeal.