North Dakotan Gary Dassinger faces animal neglect and cruelty charges
North Dakota’s bill S.B. 2211, enacted in 2013, makes it possible for authorities to seize livestock or pets without notice, and file felony charges against the owner for suspected animal abuse.
Influenced by the failed Measure 5 that was supported by the Humane Society of the United States, the animal cruelty bill, which passed the North Dakota Senate 43-3, and the House 80-12, establishes first-offense felony penalties for malicious acts of cruelty toward all animals and third-offense felony penalties for repeat offenders of lesser acts of abuse.
Governor Dalrymple signed it, making North Dakota the 49th state with such laws. South Dakota approved a similar law in 2014, so animal cruelty is now a felony in all 50 states.
Earlier this year, Gary Dassinger, a Gladstone, North Dakota, horse and cattle owner was charged under the law, based on the report of someone who had never been near his place.
According to Protect the Harvest, a non profit organization devoted to defending citizens against radical animal rights groups, Joann Countryman of Madison, Wisconsin, called in a complaint to the Stark County Sheriff Department in April. In this complaint, she admitted that she had never been on Gary’s property, said Missy Dassinger, Gary’s daughter, but that she was concerned that the animals were neglected. Charges were later filed against Gary on the grounds that his animals were not cared for within the parameters of North Dakota law Title 36, Livestock Chapter 36-21.1. Humane Treatment of Animals.
On Monday, July 10, North Dakota Southwest District Judge Rhonda Ehlis returned judgement that Gary’s livestock may not be seized, though he still faces criminal charges and a possible criminal trial to determine whether his animals were neglected.
Protect the Harvest reported that Gary, who owns a family counseling practice in Dickinson, hired John Connor, who claimed to be a master carpenter, horse trainer, and equine massage therapist, in December of last year to aid Gary in daily ranch operations.
In addition to other agreements, Connor was to feed horses, giving several thinner and older horses special care and feeding. Toward the end of winter, Gary observed some yearlings starting to look thinner than normal, though he was assured by Connor that he was following feeding instructions.
Connor said that he arrived in a snow storm, and was concerned for the animals, had he been any later.
“When I got there Jan. 1, in a blind snow storm, Gary had already been gone several days; there was no feed for cows, the water was frozen,” Connor said. “If I hadn’t gotten there, the cows would have been there without food or water for a week.”
In March, Dr. Chance Noyce, Gary’s regular vet, made a call at the ranch to perform Coggins tests on colts that were being sold later that month. Gary asked Dr. Noyce to check the horses and older cows that weren’t wintering quite as well, for which Dr. Noyce made recommendations, but showed no real concern. Connor said Dr. Noyce informed them the cows needed their hooves trimmed.
A few animals didn’t make it through the winter for varying reasons. A cow laid with her back downhill and bloated, an 18-year-old mare died near a tank after seemingly being electrocuted by inadequate wiring, which was repaired, a ten-year-old mare had colic, and a yearling died for unknown reasons. Connor was instructed to move the dead cattle to an area where the other livestock would not be in contact.
Connor said the mare did not die of electrocution, instead she “died of no water. Was left to eat snow [sic]. Ten-year-old mare didn’t die of colic. She needed her teeth floated. Her dam died [of] the same thing, bad teeth.”
Gary grew increasingly leery of Connor’s ability to care for animals as well as maintain the carpentry work as agreed upon, and he approached Connor about the matter. After needing to leave the ranch to do his taxes April 17, saying he would return April 18, Connor showed back up April 19 to a frustrated Gary, who said he would be terminating the monthly salary agreement, and Connor would only be paid for work completed.
On April 21, Connor was observed working with fervor, though it didn’t last long. On April 22, Gary discovered Connor had left. Some horses were without water and Gary took them to a tank to drink.
The same day Connor left, the Stark County Sheriff Department arrived to inform him that they had received a complaint on the care of his animals. He said his hired man had been caring for the animals, and that now he would be caring for his animals himself and things would be changing.
Later that day, Sheriff Oestreich and Dickinson veterinarian, Dr. Kim Brummond, informed Gary they had a problem and would be taking a mare and foal that didn’t belong to Gary, although they had been under his care. They said there would be no discussion. When Gary asked why, Dr. Brummond said, “So they don’t die,” as reported by Protect The Harvest.
“I told him I was leaving. He got mad when I told him,” Connor said. “He left from the tenth of April and was back the eighteenth or nineteenth of April. He said I’m not paying you anymore; this is where it’s going to end. I left two days after that. I did not call the cops; I didn’t call the state. I didn’t have nothing to do with it. I was mad when I left that day, I spouted off to a friend in Wisconsin. She called. That’s when they checked and mares were without water, and saw the crippled horse that couldn’t get up. I had been gone a week when this happened.”
Connor said he left a heifer and llama on the Dassinger place. “I didn’t think there would be hard feelings. I got subpoenaed to come to court June 5. On the court reports it shows Gary wasn’t taking me seriously. He was doing activities while I was testifying. I have basically nothing to do other than spouting off to a friend, Joann Countryman. She called for the wellness check that found the animals hadn’t been fed or watered for a week.”
History with Dr. Brummond
Dr. Brummond and Gary have a history dating back 15 years. Gary was selling a stallion to a woman in Maine, who brought the horse to Dr. Brummond to draw Coggins and perform a health assessment to be shipped back to Maine.
“Brummond told the lady from Maine she paid way too much for this horse, and that she had a horse she would sell her for same amount of money but was way better quality,” Gary said. “The lady from Maine took my horse.”
Around the same time, Gary was missing a foal that was a few days old. It was located in and retrieved from an abandoned well. The Dassingers took the mare and foal to Dr. Brummond to be checked over. She said the mare had no milk and that Gary had an orphan colt. She insisted that Gary take the mare home, and she would “do all she could for the colt,” Gary said. That was Friday evening. On Monday morning, Gary went to retrieve the colt from the clinic, only to be faced with an $800 vet bill. Gary said he felt this was exorbitant for a few days of care and couldn’t pay the bill.
“I said I can’t pay $800 for an orphan colt. She kept the colt in lieu of me not paying the bill,” Gary said. “She told the press that I had had an animal seized in the past. I left it there because I didn’t want to pay $800 for a colt being fed for a few days. Even the state vet, when told about it, said, ‘What was she feeding the colt, pure gold?’”
The Dassingers question Brummond’s involvement in the case, given her history with Dassinger, and another situation, in which Brummond was found guilty of defamation.
In 2004, Dr. Alissa Forster was awarded more than $264,000 in “damages, attorney fees, costs and disbursements in Forster’s defamation action against them.” Dr. Brummond’s friend reported to the state veterinarian’s office that Forster was abusing a horse by riding it too hard for its health and age. Forster said she was not riding the horse due to a nerve injury. No charges were filed.
Following the report, Brummond presented Forster with a probation agreement, which she refused to sign. She then left the clinic and filed for unemployment benefits, which Brummond refused to pay. She was later awarded unemployment. When Forster applied for other jobs, and potential employers called for references, Brummond told the veterinarians she believed Forster had broken into her clinic, stolen drugs, and poisoned her horse, according to North Dakota Supreme Court Forster v. West Dakota Veterinary Clinic. There were never charges filed against Forster and the court ruled against Brummond.
“It is a huge conflict of interest when this law says that a veterinarian can seize your animals without a court order, and then take them to their clinic to charge the county, or the animal owner for care,” Missy said. “I could not believe that during the hearings Dr. Brummond stated that she did not think there was a conflict of interest with this. Also during the hearing, Dr. Brummond let it slip that Deputy Eldridge was on Gary’s property ‘the day before.’ Why was he out there a day before, when Deputy Eldridge says he received a report from Joann Countryman, on April 22?”
Connor said he doesn’t know Dr. Brummond or why she is the veterinarian on the case. “He [Gary] said me and the vet were conspiring, but I’ve never met the lady, never called her for anything,” Connor said. “She’s not our vet out there, so there’s no reason for me to ever call her. Chance [Dr. Noyce] was our vet; that’s the only vet I knew in the area. There’s no reason to conspire. I didn’t know the lady, still don’t know the lady. There’s no coercion to go against Gary. Gary made his own hole in this deal.”
Back to the present
On April 25, Gary received a written complaint from the State’s Attorney demanding compliance with a list of conditions. He was instructed to collaborate with a veterinarian to develop a health and nutrition plan to be returned to the Stark County State’s Attorney’s Office by May 1. He completed the plan with the aid of Dr. Noyce on April 27 and handed it in the next day.
Gary hired Dr. Carolyn Woodruff, at Missy’s suggestion, as a second opinion to assess the situation, “someone who doesn’t know us or our livestock and someone who isn’t in Stark County.” Dr. Woodruff stated the only way she would do this was if Gary agreed to letting her provide a report to the state veterinarian’s office, regardless of what her findings were. Gary agreed. She reported, based on her assessment May 17, that the horses were between three and seven on the Henneke horse body condition scoring system, which rates a one as poor condition and nine being extremely fat. Ideal horse conditions range from four to six.
Dr. Woodruff said that based on 39 years of being a vet, she thought it unlikely that they could go from a body score of one to what she saw on May 17, less than a month from the complaint.
On May 22, Gary received a Seizure Order, permitting law enforcement to seize any animals. Dr. Woodruff called Gary on May 23 to inform him that a “reliable, concerned source informed her that there was a plan in place to actually remove the animals,” as reported by Protect The Harvest. Cattle were to be removed on May 24, horses on May 25. They were going to be hauled to a feedlot in Park River, North Dakota, approximately 500 miles away.
“When you ask someone to comply, and they not only comply and go above and beyond what you have asked, what is the point of complying with law enforcement, when that’s what can happen to you after?” Dr. Woodruff asked in regard to Gary’s animals being seized.
Thirteen horses were seized on May 25. Although some were en route to a horse rescue and others to Dr. Brummond’s West Dakota Vet Clinic for assessment, they were returned later that day due to a restraining order Gary filed against the state, granted by Judge Ehlis.
When asked if she thought the horses should be seized from Gary, Dr. Woodruff responded, “Absolutely not. The judge made a fair decision. She withdrew the seizure and disposition and returned the animals to their rightful ownership. It was a completely appropriate response. As far as neglect and abuse charges, it will be decided in court. Seizure was inappropriate, having a court case with criminal charges is an appropriate manner.”
While Stark County Sheriff’s Department had custody of the animals and was responsible for their care, Gary was still footing the bills. The judge’s order states, “The Stark County Sheriff’s Department had custody of the animals in the meantime and were responsible of their care under the seizure order.”
“This is an important point, because to conclude her judgement Judge Ehlis addresses the legal requirement that law enforcement be reimbursed for ‘costs of seizure and care of the animals’,” T. Arthur Mason said in his blog, The Minuteman. “She correctly states that part of that legal requirement is that a conviction must take place in order for the county to collect reimbursement and that this will have to be resolved in the pending criminal matters… or be pursued in a separate collection case’.” The concern is that Gary will have to reimburse the county for the care of his animals during the seizure, all the while he was the one caring for them.
“The only feed the Stark County Sheriff Department provided was one bag of feed to catch a mare that’s foal had been injured when the horses were moved around in preparation for the seizure on May 25,” Missy said. “Additionally, Sheriff Oestreich only came to check on this foal over 24 hours after the injury was discovered, whereas Gary secured treatment by a veterinarian within hours of the injury being discovered.”
Gary is relieved to have a decision from the judge dismissing seizure; however, he is concerned about the criminal trial. His lawyer is hopeful he may win the trial, he said, but if he doesn’t win, he’s concerned he will be banned from owning animals for six years or more.
The Court’s Decision
“The Court agrees that animals can get sick, they can be thin for various reasons, and sometimes, they die despite the rancher’s best efforts,” Ehlis stated in her 23-page summary. “This is not the situation on the Dassinger farm. These animals were not given proper nutrition and water. The animals’ medical needs were not addressed. While Dassinger’s piles of dead animals are not necessarily the issue, the fact that they are simply rotting within feet of his food source is a contamination concern.”
“Gary is charged with four counts of animal cruelty, a class C felony, and six counts of animal neglect, a class A misdemeanor,” his daughter, Missy, said. “It has been falsely reported that he is charged with animal abuse, which is the result of physical injury to an animal or that causes the death of an animal, but does not include any act that falls within the definition of animal cruelty.”
The law outlines instances of cruelty and abuse, however, the law states the production of food, feed, fiber and ornament, including all aspects of the livestock industry does not constitute violations of this section.
“The biggest focus is the misinterpretation of this law; currently farming and ranching is unregulated. If the State of North Dakota starts dictating terms, like the Stark County State’s Attorney’s office has done with Gary by issuing a list of demands on April 24, they are opening the flood gates for farming and ranching to be regulated in North Dakota,” Missy said. “Even this law says customary practice is the ‘letter of the law.’ Feeding the hay you have available is customary practice. Using whatever fencing or corrals you want or feel you need to do the job, is customary. We all know that even with fancy buildings and fences, animals can, and will find ways to be injured. With what they are trying to do with Gary, there is potential for them to try and regulate every farmer and rancher in the state.”
“My whole life I was taught to respect people, elders, law enforcement. I should have been videoing it,” Gary said of the treatment he has received. “After this I will go around telling farmers and ranchers what they have to do and what they should do. They totally destroyed my trust in the law enforcement. Everyone has to worry about Humane Society [of the United States]. Six months ago, if you had told me something like this could happen, I would have told you you’re off your rocker, you’re way out there. Now, I believe it.”
Missy has recommendations should this situation happen to someone else. She said, “One of the most important things is to contact an attorney immediately and have them file a restraining order against the State of North Dakota to try and get an injunction against the removal of their animals. Next, call your veterinarian, or any veterinarian, so you get a second or third opinion involved immediately. Video everything you can and take pictures.”
Stark County Sheriff Terry Oestreich’s only comment was, “The judgment speaks for itself.”
Rally the troops
Missy has been advocating for her dad and other livestock producers and animal owners on the Support Dassinger Ranch Facebook page.
“If I thought my dad had truly or purposely done anything that could be considered animal cruelty or neglect, I would not be standing with him,” she said. “I am supporting him because I feel that this is a personal attack from all parties involved. The fact that Stark County Sheriff Department let it get this far, as well as their conduct with deleting any positive comments from the Stark County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, makes their malice toward Gary even more obvious.”
Gary is concerned that the situation like his own could happen to other livestock producers. He warned that if it could happen in a rural area like North Dakota, “it can happen anywhere, to anyone.”
Dr. Brummond could not be reached for comment.