ELLSWORTH — Two Ellsworth horse breeders at the center of an Antrim County animal cruelty probe could regain some of the 18 horses that authorities seized during an animal neglect probe.
Antrim County Prosecutor Charles Koop said he dismissed criminal charges against Timothy Eugene Allen, 56, and Tracey Lee Buzzell, 50, after they signed a settlement agreement Tuesday to reduce the number of horses at their farm and meet certain health conditions for those that remain.
"It's a deferred prosecution for two years," Koop said. "They will eventually end up with five horses."
Allen and Buzzell breed Avalondale Egyptian Arabian horses at a small farm on Toad Lake Road. Antrim County authorities seized the horses May 7 following allegations the animals were severely malnourished.
The agreement states the horses' condition was based on a combination of factors, including a lack of money for sufficient care and feed.
Jill Fritz, president of Michigan Horse Welfare Coalition, said the group has a hay bank available for owners who are unable to pay or find feed.
"You have to take care of your animals," she said. "Claiming you're experiencing financial hardship is not an excuse, just as it's not an excuse for other crimes."
Allen and Buzzell agreed to reduce the number of horses in their care to five, and they agreed to provide proper feed, water, care and shelter at their own expense. Koop said Allen and Buzzell may face their original felony animal abandonment and cruelty charges if the horses return to their original condition.
"I doubt very seriously because of the overview of animal control that they would get in that condition again," he said.
Six of the horses being boarded at the farm will be returned to their original owners. Another five are to be transferred to different owners and two will be sold in five months.
Allen and Buzzell also must provide a plan showing how they'll feed the horses over the winter. Buzzell told investigators they couldn't find sufficient feed since December.
Some horse welfare advocates expressed disappointment with the settlement.
"It's not in the best interest of the horses," said Nancy Hubbard, board member of Michigan Horse Welfare Coalition, which helped remove the horses. "I don't feel anyone was looking out for the best interests of the horses."
Hubbard said the horses had numerous health issues stemming from neglect or improper care. The original veterinarian report found all 18 horses were in varying stages of neglect.
Marv Rubingh of the Antrim County Farm Bureau said three other veterinarians challenged the original medical report. The other veterinarians found the horses' condition to be "below normal for horses" but consistent with other local horses for winter.
"Horses going through winter with cold weather and winter conditions aren't going to be in as nice of shape as some out in the pasture over the summer," he said.
Rubingh said the Farm Bureau was pleased a settlement was reached and the horses were being returned to their "rightful owners."