Animal neglect charges filed against ranch owner
Local veterinarian’s concerns lead to 34 charges of animal mistreatment, including four felony counts in deaths of horses
Gary King | Editor
TOWN OF MILLTOWN - A 58-year-old rural Milltown man faces a total of 34 criminal charges for allegedly mistreating animals at his property on Hwy. 46, formerly known as Otter Creek Ranch.
Michael A. Feist made an initial court appearance Monday morning, Nov. 25, in Polk County Circuit Court where a judge set an initial appearance for Dec. 17. Feist is free on a $10,000 signature bond.
Charges against him were filed late Friday, Nov. 22, by Polk County District Attorney Dan Steffen.
Concerns of a veterinarian led to an inspection of the ranch in September with follow-up visits which led to the discovery of four dead horses in one of the barns on the property.
Veterinarian Lesley Szenay made contact with the Polk County Sheriff’s Department on Sept. 19, saying the conditions of horses at the ranch, which includes 80 to 100 horses and other animals, had caused her “grave concern.”
Szenay said she observed horses in a pasture which she felt were undernourished, and she looked at the ranch’s Facebook page and observed multiple photos which showed malnourished horses. She said she intended to contact the USDA, as she believed the ranch was also in violation of “multiple requirements” by that department.
Her observations underscored the concern of some area citizens who had contacted authorities more than a year ago, alleging animal neglect at the ranch. Recent concerns have led to an online petition calling for authorities to act, and protesters have gathered in front of the ranch to call attention to the situation.
“We understand a lot of people are upset action wasn’t taken sooner, but we needed a full investigation before filing charges,” District Attorney Steffen said. “We had to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt - we’re not going to jump the gun without the final results of an investigation."
Steffen went on to praise the job by Polk County Sheriff’s investigators in filing a thorough report.
Sheriff’s investigator Jeff Hahn led the investigation of alleged neglect, enlisting the services of local veterinarian Dr. Mark Nelson of Interstate Veterinary Clinic and fellow sheriff’s deputy Tamara Larson, who operates an animal rescue facility.
The culmination of an initial visit by Hahn and Nelson with Feist at his ranch in September and follow-up visits, including the obtaining of a search warrant and inspection in early November, led to the discovery of four dead horses in one of the barns - a 15-year-old Appaloosa named Dreamer, a 3-year-old male horse named Red, a 16-year-old female horse named Demi and a 20-year-old Appaloosa named Daisy.
The report states that one dead horse was located immediately inside the door of the barn, and the second dead horse was located in front of several stalls. Deputies located three living horses in a rear stall, with the remains of the third and fourth dead horses. The third and fourth dead horses appeared to have been dead for several days and showed signs of being walked on by other horses.
Sheriff Pete Johnson said the results of a necropsy of two of the dead horses are still pending but that the initial reports of his office’s investigation were sent to the district attorney last Wednesday, Nov. 20.
Feist’s wife, Brenda Weierke, helped authorities identify the deceased horses.
Deputy Hahn did an in-house check with sheriff’s office records and found "numerous complaints" of animal cruelty at that address.
Hahn and Dr. Nelson made contact with Feist on Sept. 20 at his ranch. Feist escorted them throughout the entire property, including all outbuildings. Dr. Nelson noted that 10 to 12 horses were “exceptionally thin” and in very poor health. He said animals that thin would not survive the winter months in Wisconsin. He also noted conditions which included a manure-filled barn area and poor conditions for feeding, including placing hay bales directly on the ground.
Feist said he had a plan to correct the horses’ diminished nutritional intake, including a barley fodder program. Feist said an “incredibly high nutrition content feed supplement” would be grown on scene with the fodder system.
He also admitted he needed to clean out his barn, but that his skid steer was out of commission.
When asked what food products he had on hand for the present time, Feist noted that due to heavy rains he had no place to store hay and so he purchased it every other day and hauled it in to his horses. He said he had been using alfalfa cubes to supplement.
Nelson recommended Feist be given 45 days to initiate the changes and then be reinspected.
Hahn returned to the ranch on three consecutive days in early November and said he did not observe any feeding efforts and felt that any feeding of hay, either round bale or square bale, would have been evident to him.
He said he saw horses routinely trying to eat grass which was worn down to dirt. He also saw horses chewing on the wooden fence rails throughout the pastures.
During a second full inspection of the property with Dr. Nelson on Nov. 8, Hahn said the conditions of the horse pens in the horse barn “showed that the stalls had not been cleaned for at least two weeks,” and that there was no straw or hay on the property. Dr. Nelson stated that with the current conditions of the pens, the horses would remain wet, and the cold temperatures could cause a serious health threat to the horses. He felt that several of the horses within the horse pen would not last many more days in the current conditions and suggested immediate feeding with horse feed and large quantities of hay and the laying down of straw bedding.
On Nov. 15, Hahn met with Dr. Nelson, Brian Hobbs of the Polk County Health Department and Mary Bruckner of the Arnell Humane Society. The purpose of the meeting was to determine the best course of action to make a professional examination of the horses at risk.
Another search warrant was obtained and the four traveled to the ranch on Nov. 15 to evaluate each horse on a scale of 1-9 based on fatty deposits in six areas of a horse's body. Of 15 horses graded, none scored above a 3 and seven scored at 1.5.
Hobbs rendered an opinion that 27 horses enclosed in one barn were deprived of quality food and water for “an extended period of time.”
Other animals at the ranch were also allegedly neglected.
According to the criminal complaint, the mud and excrement throughout one area of the ranch was so deep that the sheep were walking with their entire legs buried in the excrement and their coats were matted with mud and excrement and they appeared very wet. An alpaca in the same area was in the same condition.
Other animals at the ranch included cattle, guinea pigs and pigs.
The charges consist of four felony counts of mistreatment of animals in reference to the death of the four horses, 15 counts of failure to provide proper food and drink to confined animals and 15 counts of mistreating animals - intentional or negligent violation.
The felony charges could each bring a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment of not more than three years and six months, or both. The other charges carry a possible $10,000 fine and nine-month sentence.
The complaint noted that Feist is a convicted felon with a criminal history in Minnesota.
A call to the ranch was not immediately returned. According to an article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the ranch’s Facebook page stated that allegations have been going on for a year and “each time we have not been found negligent.”
“Rest assured, the horses are not being starved,” the Facebook page stated. “Our side has not been spoken in the media, nor will be at this time, for legal purposes. Make no mistake about it, we love each and every one of our babies here," it stated.
Feist and his wife were investigated for animal neglect by the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Department in 2011, when they owned a horse ranch in New Richmond called MicaBren Acres, according to a report by minnesota.cbslocal.com. The current owner of that ranch, Pat McNamara, said it took him a year and a half to clean up the ranch, noting there was 4 feet of manure in the barn with “no water, no lights, no nothing.”
There were no charges filed and the couple moved to Milltown to open Otter Creek Ranch, taking most of the horses with them.
Several members of a protest group calling themselves "Standing Together For The Horses," spent the entire day in a vigil out front of the Otter Creek Ranch, outside Milltown, on Friday, Nov. 22. The group was protesting the conditions around the care of dozens of horses on the ranch. Moments before this photo was taken, Polk County prosecutors had filed 34 criminal charges against the operation's owner, including four felonies. - Photo by Greg Marsten.