Vet: Horses kept at MSU farm were starving

BOZEMAN, Mont. — A local veterinarian charges that two horses kept at Montana State University’s research farm weren’t adequately fed or watered during last week’s subzero temperatures, which left the animals starving, suffering and at risk of dying.

Dr. Sid Gustafson, 63, a veterinarian for nearly 40 years, said Monday that he noticed the horses when he drove past Feb. 22. The horses had stripped the bark off of trees trying to get enough to eat, and they “had a posture of resigned helplessness.”

MSU responded Monday that the horses don’t belong to the university but are the personal property of the MSU livestock manager, who is allowed to board them at the Bozeman Agriculture Research and Teaching farm.

“We believe these animals are in excellent condition and health and are being properly cared for,” said Michael Becker, university spokesman. “MSU people see them all the time. They’re fed high-quality feed supplements, they have unlimited access to clean water.”

Gustafson called that a “misrepresentation” of what he had seen and photographed.

“They had no potable water for two days and were clearly underfed,” he said. “Those trees don’t lie.”

Tom Groneberg, MSU livestock manager, could not be reached for comment.

Gustafson said he stopped Thursday and found the horses didn’t have enough hay to eat, stay healthy or generate heat in severe cold. The hay they did have was inadequate and filled with their feces.

Gustafson charged their water trough held filthy, undrinkable water. The water level was so low, the heater inserted to keep trough water from freezing had made it too hot to drink. The horses resorted to eating snow, he said, which made it even harder for them to stay warm.

“We could count all their ribs, which means they had no fat under their skin,” he said. “They were dehydrated. Their eyes were sunken.”

The veterinarian said he tried to find someone at the equine center, off Stucky Road near South 19th Avenue, to feed and water the horses, but had no luck.

“Without water, that’s one of the worst deaths for horses,” he said.

Friday morning at daylight Gustafson stopped by again and the horses still hadn’t been fed and watered. There was a blue bucket put out with some supplemental feed, he said, but it was inadequate because in cold weather horses need forage 16 to 20 hours a day.

Gustafson said he tried in vain to find someone in charge of the horses. He finally called the Bozeman Police Department, which referred him to MSU Police. Officer Thomas Bonnell came out, saw the conditions and took his report. Groneberg then showed up.

“Within an hour they were fed properly and the water was restored,” Gustafson said. “Tom pretty much got the message — the water had to be filled two times a day and they can never be without high quality forage. Better late than never.”

A copy of the MSU police officer’s report was requested by the Chronicle, but hasn’t yet been released.

Gustafson said he’s concerned to see the person in charge of taking care of MSU livestock doing such a “horrible” job, at a farm that’s supposed to be a showcase, where students are learning the ethical treatment of animals.

He said this is part of a history of animal insensitivity at MSU. He recalled an incident in 2002, when nine MSU horses died of dehydration because a creek dried up at the Fort Ellis Research Farm. He cited a 2016 report that infections had killed two monkeys used in brain research at MSU.

MSU needs better protocols, better supervision of the people who oversee animals, and should hire an animal ethicist, Gustafson said.

“MSU takes animal safety very seriously,” Becker said. “In past situations where problems have come up, MSU has taken steps to correct those problems promptly, and we work with the appropriate agencies to ensure” proper care.

Becker said MSU staff who work with horses say that giving horses feed at all times is not a uniform practice. If they’re not being heavily worked, horses need to eat only 2 to 3 percent of body weight for maintenance, he said, and overfed horses can become overweight or develop diseases.

“It bordered on cruelty,” Gustafson said. “They’re fed now. That’s all I’m really concerned about.”