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Rural Minnesota man may get just 20 days for starving horses to death

Passersby saw several "emaciated" horses and a pair of dead horses lying underneath a tarp.

Passersby saw several "emaciated" horses and a pair of dead horses lying underneath a tarp. Getty Images

It was October of last year when Fillmore County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Brian Miner got a call about a farm in rural Chatfield, Minnesota. Someone had passed by and spotted four horses in a “tiny round pen” without a roof. Miner drove over to check it out.

That was where he met Jeremiah Smaglik, the owner. The two went out to the pasture, and Miner confirmed that there were indeed four horses in a small, roofless enclosure. The animals were thin and sickly-looking. One was wearing a blanket and limping.

Smaglik was quick to explain it all away, according to a complaint filed in Fillmore County District Court. The horses were rescues from a “kill pen,” he said – that’s why they were thin. He’d initially planned to bring home one as a pet, but he’d ended up taking seven.

He said the horse with the blanket just limping because she needed her hooves trimmed, and they were only out in this little pen because they were still under quarantine. He was just “doing his best."

Months passed. In March, Deputy Tim Rasmussen got another complaint. Someone spotted the horses again, and they looked “emaciated.” Two were seen dead under a tarp.

Over the phone, Smaglik assured Rasmussen that most of the horses were doing great. The two under the tarp passed away in November. One, he said, had picked a fight with another horse and hadn’t survived the ordeal. The other was a youngster that hadn’t recovered post-rescue. He planned on burying them once the ground thawed.

But a quick call to the vet told another story. Dr. Bryce Niemeyer said he told Smaglik he needed to feed the horses 20 to 25 pounds of hay a day in order to maintain their weight – more if he wanted them to gain. Smaglik had allegedly been feeding them about half that amount.

Two days later, a pair of investigators and an agent with the Minnesota Animal Humane Society met out at the farm. According to the complaint, they found paddocks full of dirt and manure, seven living horses, and two dead ones. They were so thin their ribs were sticking out. Some fence posts were chewed to nubs. Shockingly enough, there was plenty of high-quality hay available, but there was no trace of it in the animals’ enclosures.

After the animals were seized, vets found they were lice-infested, sick, and full of worms and other parasites. Several would need to have rotten teeth pulled. One – a nearly 20-year-old horse named Buddy – was too far gone and had to be put down. A necropsy on the two dead horses didn’t find any “obvious” signs of injury or sickness. Nothing, that is, except severe malnutrition.

Investigators called the rescue where Smaglik had bought most of the horses and got a very different account of their purchase. They hadn’t been thin at all, the volunteers said – they’d all been at a “good weight” and had “shiny coats.” 

Smaglik was charged with several misdemeanor counts and a few felony counts of animal torture and cruelty for keeping animals in conditions Barbara Colombo of the Minnesota Horse Welfare Coalition called “horrible” and “inhumane.” She told the Brainerd Dispatch that it takes “severe, long-term neglect” for a horse to die of starvation.

On Monday, he pleaded guilty, in exchange for dropping four misdemeanor charges and all felony counts.

Minnesota is in the middle of the pack when it comes to protecting animals, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Most of our credit comes from our meaty felony provisions for “cruelty, neglect, abandonment, and fighting” – which Smaglik deftly avoided. But our state could clearly do more to hold people who mistreat animals accountable for their actions, and better define what counts as care versus neglect. 

Prosecutors are asking Smaglik to serve a whopping 20 days in jail. If any of those felony charges had gone through, it would have been closer to four years in prison.