Sherburn, Minn. – Shirley Kittleson has unwanted guests. They won’t stop eating and they won’t go home.
But Kittleson’s guests aren’t holiday visitors. They’re miniature horses — a herd of 72 that was thrust on her after the Animal Humane Society and the Watonwan County sheriff seized them from a southern Minnesota pony farm, where they were being mistreated.
Now this rural Minnesota veterinarian has housed and tended to the ponies for a year and a half, and she can’t get anyone to pay for their care. Kittleson is trying to collect on a bill that has passed $325,000 — and climbing. Last month, she filed a lawsuit against the Humane Society and Watonwan County in Martin County District Court for nonpayment.
“This was so big we couldn’t let it go,” she said recently, adding, “We sure would like to get our stalls back.”
At 72, Kittleson has been a vet for 40 years, treating large and small animals on a sprawling farm about 8 miles southeast of Sherburn, a town of about 1,100 people near the Iowa border, where she grew up in a family that bred and raised golden palominos.
In June 2018, she got a call: Could she take in some ponies? Say, six dozen of them?
“We said we could,” she said. “A lot of them were mares with newborn babies.”
The ponies were seized from Michael Johnson, the third-generation owner of a pony farm in Odin, in neighboring Watonwan County, about 25 miles from Kittleson’s place. Authorities responding to an anonymous tip charged Johnson with three misdemeanors involving mistreatment of the animals.
Many of the horses had severely overgrown hoofs, which curled up and made walking difficult and painful. Investigators also found several dead horses on Johnson’s property.
Johnson was convicted of two counts of animal neglect and sentenced to a year of probation and 90 days in jail, with the jail time stayed for a year. His jail time will be forgiven if he meets the conditions of probation.
Kittleson took in the horses, checked them over and trimmed their hoofs. Other than their feet, the horses were in good shape, she said.
“It’s a good breeding herd,” she said. “They weren’t really mistreated. They were fat and happy.”
After caring for the herd for a month, Kittleson sent a bill to Watonwan County for about $43,000, reflecting 23 days of care at $25 per head, per day, as well as hoof trimming and various exams and medicines. The next month, she sent another bill for $65,000. At that point, according to court documents, the county told her that the horses were the responsibility of the Humane Society.
A copy of the seizure paperwork in court files, signed by Animal Humane Society investigator Keith Streff, says that “Dr. Kittleson will decide disposition of the horses after AHS releases them to her.”
With her long experience in the equine world, Kittleson said, she could find new homes for the horses. But the Humane Society won’t release the herd, she said.
“I think the Humane Society thinks that if they sign the release, they will admit ownership and have to pay the bill,” she said.
Kittleson’s view “is not a correct statement,” said Katherine Bloomquist, an attorney representing the Humane Society. “Dr. Kittleson’s position is a misrepresentation of the Animal Humane Society position.”
The Humane Society claims the burden of payment lies with Johnson, the pony-farm owner. In a court filing, Johnson responded that the Humane Society should be responsible for the costs.
Ultimately, Bloomquist said, “that’s a question we’ll have to wait for the court to decide,” adding that all the parties are in talks to settle the case.
In the meantime, the horses will stay at Kittleson’s farm, where they’re housed eight to 10 ponies to a stall. They’re fed hay and grain and allowed out for occasional runs around the barn and the pasture. Kittleson said she’s had to hire an additional barn helper to tend the herd.
And she’s “trying to keep the boys and girls separate,” she added, so she doesn’t wind up with even more mouths to feed come spring.
The vet has grown attached to the waist-high beasts, now shaggy in their winter coats of white, brown and black. But she said the experience might make her less willing to accept rescue animals in the future.
“We’ve done our best to take care of the ponies,” she said. “We’ve done everything the Humane Society has asked.
“So we really expect them to do what they said they’d do.”