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Animal Crime Institute speaker pleads for horses' wellness in Butler

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Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013, 1:26 a.m.

The Western Pennsylvania Farm Alliance hosted a seminar Monday outlining for horse owners what constitutes neglect and how to prevent it.

The presentation follows a lawsuit that was filed by several alliance members in June against Equine Angels Rescue. The plaintiffs say the Butler County horse rescue group illegally seized and sold their horses this spring over alleged neglect and abuse.

Elan Lewis, 57, of Clearfield Township is one of the five horse owners suing Equine Angels for alleged civil rights violations of due process, invasion of privacy and unreasonable searches and seizures, among other claims. She said the rescue group falsified information about the plaintiffs' horses and illegally obtained photographs that led state police to seize numerous horses. Equine Angels alleges that they were malnourished.

The owners each faced animal cruelty charges earlier this year as a result of the Equine Angels investigation.

But Butler County District Attorney Rich Goldinger dropped all charges because of insufficient evidence.

Lewis said she and the other owners felt “attacked” by Equine Angels. So they formed the farm alliance to protect one another from what they say are unwarranted allegations and to better understand animal cruelty and its implicit legal issues.

For its first meeting on Monday, the group invited Colleen Shelly, the Animal Crime Institute's chief training officer in Pennsylvania, to discuss what constitutes neglect and cruelty, how it can be prevented and who's authorized to intervene.

“There's obviously a big lapse in knowledge related to equine rescue in the county,” Lewis said. “We wanted someone to come in and use a kinder and gentler approach to discuss the balance between the rights of horse owners and the health and safety of the animals.”

Shelly's three-hour speech at Family Pathways along Brugh Avenue touched on the most prevalent conditions caused by neglect, how malnutrition is measured and the most common abuser profiles.

The former state police trooper concluded her speech with a plea for audience members to monitor one another for signs of neglect and provide assistance when needed.

“I don't know what happened here, and I don't want to know,” she said. “But if you're forming this alliance to protect one another, it's so important that you help each other out and don't let each other try to get away with abuse and neglect.”

Goldinger, the district attorney, attended and lauded Shelly's presentation as an “eye-opener” for the horse owners in attendance.

“I thought the information was very valuable, and people will have a better idea of the preventative measures they need to take,” he said. “Most importantly, I think it puts us one step closer to getting a countywide investigative protocol put together, so we don't have any disputes over how information is gathered.”

Brian Arendosh of Fairview Township had his animal cruelty charges dropped this year because of evidentiary and investigative issues.

“The DA said my case was a mess,” he said. “I never had a state trooper actually step foot on my property. He was given all of his information by cellphone.”

Arendosh also alleged that Equine Angels founder Pam Vivirito trespassed on his property to gather photographs of his horses for state police.

Both he and Lewis believe Vivirito launched a countywide campaign against local animal owners to drum up support and raise funds for her nonprofit organization.

But Vivirito, contacted by phone, said Lewis is the one defaming her to her organization's contributors.

“I have voicemails that some donors kept of her saying I'm attacking horse owners for my own organization's benefit,” she said. “It's not an easy thing for them, I would imagine, to be caught mistreating your animals. It must be hard for them, and now they're retaliating.”

Equine Angels has temporarily ceased adopting seized horses amid the lawsuit.

Vivirito wouldn't discuss the suit but expressed discontent with the district attorney dropping criminal charges.

“They just have no idea what the horses have been through,” she said. “They've never seen a horse near death, and they don't know what it's like to bring one out of neglect.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or

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