A woman who starved to death three horses received a two-month jail sentence and a stern lecture from the judge.
Bobbi Jo VanKoevering, 43, of Ravenna was sentenced Friday, Nov. 22, after pleading no contest to felony animal abandonment/cruelty. Her sentence includes three years of probation during which time she cannot have any animals where she lives.
VanKoevering was convicted in 2006 of misdemeanor animal cruelty.
In addition to the dead horses, authorities removed two horses and a calf from VanKoevering’s care that were emaciated, authorities said earlier.
The felony charge carries a maximum two-year prison term, but in this case the sentencing guidelines were zero to six months in jail, said Muskegon County Circuit Judge Annette Smedley.
Smedley told VanKoevering that the guidelines “don’t even come close to what is deserved for taking a life.” However, Smedley also said she didn’t believe that jailing VanKoevering would do anything to help the next animal that is in her care because it won’t change her behavior.
She initially ordered VanKoevering not to own or possess animals during her three years on probation. However, she amended that later to include not having animals where she lives. That came after discussion about what to do with animals remaining on VanKoevering’s property during which the defendant claimed the animals were her boyfriend’s and not hers.
Smedley ordered the animals to be surrendered.
Authorities were summoned to VanKoevering’s property by a former roommate, authorities said earlier. There they discovered no feed for the starving animals other than hay and water buckets that were frozen solid, Muskegon County Assistant Prosecutor Katherine Matlock told the judge.
“They quite frankly were on the brink of death,” Matlock told Smedley about the animals that were removed.
While VanKoevering was aware of the condition of the suffering animals, she claimed it was someone else’s responsibility to care for them, Matlock said.
“What I don’t see is any ownership by the defendant’s part in that knowledge of what was going on,” she said.
On “multiple occasions,” VanKoevering asked an individual to shoot and kill one of the starving horses that was rescued because she knew how much it was suffering, Matlock said.
In a lengthy statement, defense attorney Paula Mathes told Smedley that VanKoevering is taking responsibility and has gotten help for “physical and psychological issues.”
“She does have a big heart that has a soft spot for animals,” Mathes said.
But VanKoevering’s health issues, financial constraints and a rough winter last year created a “perfect storm” that led to the animals’ suffering, she said.
But Smedley didn’t buy in to what Mathes said.
“Nature, health, finances – none of that brought about the deaths of these animals,” the judge told VanKoevering. “What brought the deaths of these animals is you not taking on the responsibility that was given to you.”
She said rather than call someone to come and euthanize the suffering horse, VanKoevering could have called 911 to ask for help.
“You did nothing, you did absolutely nothing and let these horses starve,” Smedley said.
Furthermore, the judge said that because there were healthy animals on the property, it was obvious that VanKoevering was favoring some over others.
“There was food for some and not for others,” Smedley said. “It was like you have one child you like and one you don’t and you choose to take care of one and not the other.”
VanKoevering, then using the last name Harris, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor animal neglect in 2006 in a case that resulted in five horses being removed from her custody, according to court records.
VanKoevering told MLive earlier that all the animals involved in both the criminal cases had been “dumped” on her property.
“These were rescue horses that were sick,” she said. “We tried the best we could.”
Nancy Smith of Points North Horse Rescue took the two horses and calf from VanKoevering’s property. One, a Mustang mare that had aborted a fetus, was the one that VanKoevering had tried to have killed, Smith said. The horse is now at Smith’s farm and doing well, she said.
She said she believes VanKoevering “loves the animals” but is incapable of providing them suitable care. Smith also said she was “pleased” with the sentence Smedley handed down, saying some incarceration was appropriate.
Smith previously was involved in rescuing eight starving horses from a Muskegon County boarding facility owned by Krystal Smith, who was sentenced earlier this year to 45 days in jail.
Nancy Smith has been involved in rescues of starving horses from around the state as part of what she said is a growing problem. She cited high feed prices as part of the issue.
“There’s a huge situation statewide right now with seeing more neglect of horses in particular,” Nancy Smith said.