Agents who investigated every horse-cruelty case in Minnesota the past two decades, tired of seeing the same repeat offenders consistently get charges reduced and punishments lightened, are hoping a mix of a tough prosecutor, a questioning judge and an outpouring of public support will finally change the way defendants in horse-mistreatment cases are charged.

"The system isn't working for animals, especially for horses," said Howard Goldman, state director of the Humane Society of the United States. "The prosecutors are not familiar with this area of the law, sheriffs are indifferent and judges are aware of the potential costs. But damn it, cruelty is cruelty."

Felonies in the mistreatment of horses have been charged before in Minnesota, only to be rescinded. Prosecutors are hesitant to charge felonies in cases that could cost counties tens of thousands of dollars in veterinary and rehabilitation bills. But in Minnesota, where an estimated 600 horses have starved to death over the past four years, two pending cases in Waseca and Olmsted counties have members of the state's horse and legal community eager to see whether any of the felony counts will hold up in court.

A conviction for a felony carries a maximum two-year sentence and $5,000 fine, but the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor conviction is 90 days and $1,000.

"It's more than the fine or the jail time," said Sherry Ramsey, a New York-based attorney for the Humane Society of the United States. "These people are almost always repeat offenders. We need to put an end to this."

The latest felony charges come at a time of renewed awareness of horse cruelty, thanks to a highly publicized case involving East Bethel rancher Lowell Friday. After years of complaints about malnourished horses, Friday, 72, saw 17 of his horses seized last year by authorities from Anoka County and the Animal Humane Society. The horses were grossly emaciated and infested with parasites, authorities said. Crystal, a year-old paint filly, was so weak it collapsed while being loaded into a van. Another horse, Little Joe Cartwright, had to be euthanized.

Friday was charged in January with 35 gross misdemeanor counts alleging animal cruelty and neglect. A month later, all 35 charges were reduced to misdemeanors. He returns to court April 26 for a preliminary hearing.

"When you have a repeat offender like Lowell Friday and one of the horses has to be euthanized, you hope for a felony," said Drew Fitzpatrick, who runs a nonprofit horse rescue operation in Zimmerman, Minn., and has overseen the rehabilitation of several of Friday's horses. "But I suppose in Minnesota, a felony's not realistic."

Ten years ago, Michael David Clancy, of Sandstone, was charged with 54 felony counts of cruelty to animals after Pine County authorities found nine dead horses on his property. Pastures were bare. Hay was of marginal quality. The pond from which the horses drank was about to freeze, and the horses were provided no man-made shelter, according to court documents.

Clancy, now 59, pleaded guilty -- to one misdemeanor. All the felony charges were dropped.

Minnesota is one of 20 states that ask animal owners charged with mistreatment to pay for the caring of animals that are confiscated by authorities, Ramsey said. But felony cases can take years. Many defendants in abuse cases involving horses stopped feeding their horses because they no longer could afford to do so.

"Good luck in collecting that," said Mark Ostrem, Olmsted County attorney.

There are 130,000 horse owners in Minnesota, Goldman said. Many of them think of horses as companion animals, but horses still are considered livestock, or property used for farming, said Katy Bloomquist, a Chaska attorney who specializes in equine and animal law.

"If they were companion animals, it's possible that felony prosecution would be more strictly enforced," Bloomquist said.

But in Waseca County, in one of the two cases that has given animal advocates hope, horses are being considered companion animals. In denying dismissal of five felony charges against Patrick Michael Holt, 51, of Waseca, in the deaths of three miniature horses, a pony and a goat, Waseca County District Judge Larry M. Collins ruled that there is probable cause that miniature horses and a goat could be considered companion animals. Collins cited a law that defines a companion animal as one that's owned and cared for by a person for "enjoyment."

"Why charge felonies?" asked Brenda Miller, the prosecutor for the Holt case. "Look at the definition of torture. It includes not providing care, not providing food."

Investigators Keith Streff and Wade Hanson have worked a combined 46 years for the Humane Society. Streff, who investigated Holt's ranch, knows that prosecutors and judges don't always agree as to what constitutes a felony.

But in Olmsted County, the site of the other case that the Minnesota horse community will be watching carefully, Ostrem said that charging Gregory Mark Soukup, 40, of Rochester, with two felony counts of animal cruelty was "a no-brainer." Soukup allegedly inserted his hand and a lancing whip into a horse's rectum, so injuring the horse's intestines that the animal had to be euthanized, Ostrem said.

"I know animal cases can be huge resource issues, but in this case, the felony charges were a slam dunk," Ostrem said.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419