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Animal neglect jury trial continues

NEW ULM — Veterinarians testified Thursday for the State of Minnesota and two Sleepy Eye women facing 18 misdemeanor counts each for animal mistreatment in Brown Country District Court.

Cassey L. Mertz, 33, and Corrine Mertz, 61, of rural Sleepy Eye were each charged on April 24, 2018, in the three-day jury trial alleging mistreatment of five horses and four miniature ponies.

The women may face another charge. Deputy Brown County Attorney Dan Kalk requested the complaint be amended to add gross misdemeanor animal mistreatment.

Kalk said adding a gross misdemeanor count due to purposeful neglect or ignorance to the case happened after expert witness Dr. Zach Loppnow of Anoka Equine Veterinary Service testified that one of the Mertzes’ horses suffered substantial bodily harm from serious respiratory problems.

Judge Robert Docherty said adding a gross misdemeanor charge would require proof of intent. He took the added count request under advisement.

Earlier Thursday afternoon, Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation Director Drew Fitzpatrick said four of the Mertz’ five Morgan horses remain alive and well in that organization’s care.

She said one of the horses that was about 30 years old and about to be adopted to a new owner died several days ago. Fitzpatrick said the four of the Mertz’ miniature ponies were adopted and are doing well as far as she knows.

Brown County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Fairbairn testified that he was told to check on the horses at the Mertz farm on April 24, 2018, after a complaint called in to the Brown County Sheriff’s Office by a neighbor of the Mertzes.

“I saw a horse that looked emaciated and sickly with hip bones and ribs showing. I petted it and my fingers almost went into it’s jaw,” Fairbairn said. “I saw another horse that looked the same if not worse. There was no feed in the feeding troughs. The pens didn’t appear to be properly cleaned.”

Fairbairn said he took about 20 photographs of horses including a photo of a horse eating its manure. The photos were shown to a jury of four men and two women.

Fairbairn said he talked to the Brown County sheriff and Brown County Attorney’s Office and they found a place to care for the horses, due to the condition they were in.

Expert witness Dr. Kirk Smith of the New Ulm Regional Veterinary Center testified that the sheriff’s office requested that he evaluate the Mertzes’ horses. He said it was uncommon for adult horses to eat their own manure and that he didn’t see any hay or feed around the horses.

“There was several inches of manure in the pens with ponies. It was less than ideal to say the least,” Smith testified. He described the horses he saw a “emaciated, extremely underweight.”

“One horse passed manure, then turned around and ate it,” Smith testified.

Julie Hellendrung, a Brown County 911 dispatcher who runs a stable, testified that she took a 911 call about neglected horses and was asked by a deputy to take three bales of hay to the Mertz farm to feed to the horses.

“The horses hadn’t been fed in a long time. The water was bad,” Hellendrung testified. “I never saw horses that neglected in my life. I could see their hip bones and other bones I shouldn’t have seen. The horses didn’t have round hips. I hauled the horses in trailers to the Anoka Equine Veterinary Services.”

Fitzpatrick said the horses came in with many types of ailments including a club foot, but are in much better condition now and remain at the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue facility in Zimmerman.

Luppnow testified that the Mertzes’ horses were about 200 pounds underweight each with lice and intestinal parasites. He testified that one of the horses had “harsh-sounding lungs,” a symptom often linked to an inflammatory airway disease.

Another expert witness, Dr. Shirley L. Kittleson of Sherburn testified that she cared for the horses but never visited their farm because they brought the horses to her every few months.

“Their horses were thin, but everybody had trouble getting hay last spring,” Kittleson said. “When horses get old, they lose muscle, like people. They’d eat feces if their teeth are bad. I think it’s pretty common for an old horse. It seemed like the pictures made the horses look bad.”

She admitted to Kalk that she was getting paid to testify. Kittleson testified that she offered to board the Mertzes’ horses and that the horses could’ve had better food and shelter, but that their lives were not endangered and the horses were not neglected.

The jury trial continues at 9 a.m. Friday with final arguments and jury instructions.

Fritz Busch can be emailed at fbusch@nujournal.com.

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