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Farmersville couple blames series of unfortunate events for animal cruelty charges

It’s been three weeks since their horse was discovered dying in a field.

Since then, the Cattaraugus County SPCA has seized more than 600 other animals from them, and they have been charged with animal cruelty.

Donald and Bonnie George have been criticized, vilified and reviled for the lack of care given the animals.

But the conditions at the Farmersville farm stem from a series of unfortunate events and bad timing, rather than cruelty, the couple said in an interview with The Buffalo News.

“We’re both born and raised on dairy farms, and we’ve been caring for animals our entire lives,” Donald George said when he and his wife were interviewed at their attorneys’ office.

The Georges moved out of the house in mid-January. Since then, they said they have made two trips a day to the farm to feed and water the horses, sheep, goats, birds and other animals.

They admit, though, that they got behind on chores, even though they paid a neighbor to help.

“We got behind in cleaning, we weren’t there all the time,” Donald George said. “They all got fed and watered every day. That was a priority, whatever else was going on.”

They have been married 47 years and have kept animals throughout their marriage. He is a crane operator, working the evening shift at Ford Motor Co.’s Woodlawn stamping plant. He has been there for 48 years.

She sells eggs and other goods at farmers markets.

Their troubles started, they said, when they decided to sell their Painted Meadows farm and move to another farm that was more suited to smaller animals instead of horses. The Painted Meadows farm used to have a horse-riding business, and they hired out their horses to summer camps for riding. As that business declined, they built up their farmers market offerings of chicken and duck eggs, plus rabbit, chicken, turkey and other poultry.

They had a contract to buy a farm in Wyoming County, and spent $20,000 replacing the roof on the barn so it would be ready when they moved their animals. They sold their Elton Road farm in Farmersville last August.

They had moved some equipment to the new place, but the seller neglected to tell them the farm was in foreclosure, and then the seller declared bankruptcy.

The deal was broken, and they had no place to go.

“We’re moving a whole farm,” George said. “This is not something you can put in a U-Haul van, just move it there and unload it.”

Now they are under a deadline to move the animals by Friday. The new owner has promised to ship the animals out to auction if they are still there.

The 400 birds, several which have been tested for avian flu, may be moved before then.

Horse breaks down

After trying unsuccessfully to find other farms to buy when the first deal collapsed, a friend from the farmers market told the couple she had to sell her farm following her husband’s death. The Georges agreed to buy her farm in Brant, and gave her lifetime use of the house. They knew the sale would take several months to complete, so they asked the owner of their old farm in Farmersville for more time.

But each time they wanted to talk to the Amish buyer, they had to drive to Ohio, because he does not use a telephone, they said.

They got his OK to stay in the house until Jan. 16, and the animals had to move by March 18.

Then the Georges found one of their horses down in a field Feb. 19. Donald George tried to coax him up throughout the evening, and did get him to roll over, he said. But it was near midnight, so he put two horse blankets on the animal, gave him a half bucket of grain and hay. He planned to return the next day to see if he could get the 18- to 20-year-old horse up.

He returned the next day and took his flat skid, used to carry heavy objects, into the field with his tractor. The horse still could not stand up, so he was starting to move his legs to position him on the skid to take him to the barn.

In the meantime, a snowplow driver had seen the horse down and called the SPCA because the blanket over the horse was frozen to the ground.

“If I wouldn’t have been able to get him to the barn, I was going to call the vet and I knew I was going to have to put him down, because it had been quite a while since he was down,” George said. “Maybe I should have called for help, but I’ve been in that position before, I’ve been able to help it.”

He said his veterinarian was not available. Another vet was called who euthanized the horse in the field, and the animal investigator left.

Investigators return

But investigators returned several hours later and looked in the barns, where piles of manure filled stalls. SPCA representatives later described deplorable conditions at the farm, with manure piled so high horses had to tip their heads or bump a ceiling beam; horses covered in filth; and dirty bird cages stacked on top of one another.

George said he purposely creates a manure pack in stalls in the winter to create a warm cushion for the animals.

According to the Cornell University Small Farms Program website, a “deep bedded pack system” is a viable alternative for small farms. Manure and urine mix into the bedding pack of straw or sawdust, and the breakdown provides heat that keeps the animals warm in the winter.

“A little bit of manure in the barn is not life-threatening to any of the animals,” George said. “The manure builds up, they’ve got good footing, it’s like a mattress and it’s warm.”

But some volunteers who helped clean the barn described piles of waist-high manure, and horses with foot problems and atrophied muscles.

John Gilmour, one of the Georges’ lawyers, said the farm’s longtime veterinarian told them he had not encountered conditions he would consider to be animal cruelty.

Arraignment Tuesday

This was not the first time the Georges faced animal cruelty charges. In 2006, the SPCA seized more than 40 dogs from their farm. If they are convicted this time, their names will go into a registry. Cattaraugus County legislators last week created a registry of those convicted of animal cruelty, and prohibited anyone convicted of cruelty from owning any animal for 10 years.

The couple is to be arraigned in Farmersville Town Court on Tuesday evening.

One thing the court needs to consider is a request from the SPCA for the Georges to put up a bond of $39,900 to care for the animals. The animals include: 250 ducks, 35 turkeys, 82 chickens, 13 pigeons, 14 quail, 14 geese, 45 horses (including nine stallions and one mare in pens, 33 mares and geldings in a field and two Percheron horses), 38 Guinea fowl, 26 goats, two cows, one bull, 100 sheep, two donkeys, nine rabbits, two dogs, one cat and five partridges, according to papers filed with the court. There also have been two kids and three lambs born since the animals were impounded, according to the papers.

Two dogs and one cat were removed from the property after the seizure, as well as several newborn animals.

The SPCA and lawyers for the Georges are negotiating to see if the animals can be put into foster care. The Georges would still own them, but the animals would be moved from the farm.

“We’re trying to be creative in coming up with an idea to take care of this during the time of the court case,” SPCA investigator Stephen B. Phillips said.

He praised the community, which has donated food, bedding and medical items, and volunteers who have worked to clean the barns and feed the animals. He said there was not enough food at the farm for the animals.

“If it wasn’t for SPCA employees and volunteers, those animals still would not be getting fed,” he said. “We would much prefer they don’t keep any of the animals.”

But George said he has been buying hay and grain weekly, and has receipts to prove it.

“We have been taking care of it, but we got behind and once you get behind in anything it starts to add up to you. One situation after another complicates the situation,” George said.