Horse Sexual Abuse: The Elephant in the Room

A few days ago, I was telling a veterinarian friend about the surveillance article by Susan Quinn, Esq., published on Horse Journal Online last week. I told her I thought it was a strong article but worried that most people would skip it, thinking it wasn’t something they could afford or didn’t need.

Credit: Foley With a sound monitor installed in the barn, we can hear this alarm in the house if someone opens a stall door.

I explained that the article idea had come to mind when I learned that in my own area there were two recent cases of animal abuse on large animals. In both cases, the problem was intruders who entered the barn at night and sexually abused the animals. I think one such incident is too much, and it isn’t a risk I want to take for my horses. But, I asked her, should I blog about such a thing?

 “Yes. It’s the elephant in the room,” said my friend. “No one wants to believe it could happen, so they look for every other reason under the sun. But it’s a big problem and a real problem. The issue was addressed at the recent North American Veterinary Conference,” so that veterinarians were able to recognize the signs of sexual abuse in animals. She later gave me a copy of the seminar notes from the NAVC conference.

One of the cases in my area involved a dairy farm, and the media reported that the criminals had been captured. The dairy farm owner had noted that milk production was unexplainably down and that the cows were acting funny, but he couldn’t figure out why. So he installed a video surveillance system, which provided the answer.

The other case was a mare. The veterinarian who examined the horse said that, although he was skeptical when he received the emergency phone call, there is now no question what had happened to that horse. He verified it with examination and sonogram. Like the cows, the horses in the barn were all acting odd the next morning, which was the owner’s first clue.

Other than that, she noticed a few oddities, the front door was cracked open and a couple buckets and a halter and rope were slightly misplaced. When she noticed that someone had given a horse a full bale of hay in her stall, she went to get help, as it showed that someone had been in the barn overnight. The horses were inspected for injuries, and the injured genitalia and blood were found. The police and veterinarian were called immediately.

The veterinary conference talk on animal sexual abuse was given by Martha Smith-Blackmore, DVM, of the Animal Rescue League of Boston. In the talk she explained that this crime is frequently not reported for a number of reasons, including a lack of knowledge, fear of getting involved in a case, and that sexual animal abuse is a “taboo subject.”

The lack of knowledge comes down to self education for veterinarians and horse owners alike. “Signs that should arouse suspicions of non-accidental injury include inconsistent history, untreated injuries, recurring injuries, unusual meekness of an animal, suspicious behavior or the owner, and injuries consistent with abuse. Injuries to the anus, nipples, or genitalia should immediate bring the mind the possibility of animal sexual abuse,” said Dr. Smith-Blackmore in her lecture.

There’s no reason to over-react, however, or jump to conclusions. If a mare came in injured from turnout with other animals, sexual abuse is far less likely.

 “It is not uncommon to find horses turned out together biting the genital areas,” said the examining veterinarian. “Swelling can be due to bites, or the horse may have rubbed herself on a post or tree,” he said. These types of injuries frequently require sutures. “But when a horse was fine the night before, had no contact with other horses and shows this type of swelling with internal injuries, there’s no question,” adding that the quieter animals are frequently the victims.

  • Try not to disturb the crime scene.
  • Do not touch any surfaces you don’t absolutely have to disturb. 
  • Do not clean out the horse’s stall, as there may be evidence in the stall. 
  • Look for unidentifiable footprints around the barn and outside. 

The sooner you can convince police to come out and take evidence, the better. However, getting the 911 operator to take you seriously may require help from your veterinarian. And even your veterinarian may doubt the likelihood, but a thorough exam will make the difference. Be sure you have your facts in order and act calmly in order to be taken seriously.

Some law authorities may be unsure how to proceed as well. As late as 1990, said Dr. Smith Blackmore, no state had laws opposing these crimes. Fortunately, many do now have such laws, although you may find the crime has to be recorded as burglary with the intent to do harm in order to move the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony. As more states gain laws, we hope this type of abuse will be considered a felony everywhere.

My advice to you is to be sure you know what’s going on in your barn when you’re not there. And make note of odd occurrences, such as a person pulling into the driveway for no apparent reason. May criminals make note of your usual day’s schedule, so they know when it’s least likely for someone to be in or around the barn.

Consider getting a camera system, as in our article, as it’s the best way to go because then police have a face and body recorded. At the very least, you can deter entry with a makeshift system from Home Depot supplies.

Add motion lights inside the barn, so that if an intruder enters, the barn lights up.

Use battery-powered window/door alarms on stall doors and entry doors.

Get a monitoring device to carry the sound from the barn to your home. Something as simple as a baby monitoring system might be just the ticket. 

 There’s a Graco baby monitoring unit with a 2,000-foot range for less than $40 at Walmart, so when someone opens a door in the barn, the alarm will go off and we hear it over the monitor.

Be aware, though, that these systems have limitations, can and do cause false alarms. In addition, the monitor may lose connection from time to time, and you do have to be near it to hear it. The motion detection lights must be seen from your home, so you’d have to be looking out the window at that moment to see them. Of course, if the stall alarm goes off and the motion lights go on, chances are someone has entered the barn.

Overall, your most foolproof method is a video camera monitoring system that records to a device that is offsite. That way, if you have an intruder, you can give the video to police. A recording device that’s in the barn itself can be picked up and taken away by the criminal. If you can afford professional installation and monitoring, all the better, but be sure the system is acclimated to the dusty, humid barn environment.

It’s not just the theft of tack that’s a concern anymore. When criminals are targeting our animals, we have to work to protect them.

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