Recent North Dakota legislation backed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Humane Society Legislative Fund (HSLF), a veterinarian with a twenty year old grudge and a judgement against her for defamation, an unscrupulous former employee and business partner, and inexperienced authorities who were trained in animal law enforcement by the HSUS, all combined to create the perfect storm designed to devastate Gary, his horse breeding program and his family members.
North Dakota Rancher, Gary Dassinger is fighting for his livestock and your rights
Here we go again. Farmers, ranchers and pet owners need to pay attention to what has happened to North Dakota Rancher, Gary Dassinger. What’s happening to Gary looks just like a cookie-cutter template we have seen previously executed by the Humane Society of the United States. Just ask Dan Christensen, whose experience provided the framework for the story-line in our movie, The Dog Lover. This time the situation has far reaching implications and it has the North Dakota Farm Bureau and North Dakota State Representative, Luke Simons very concerned.
Recent North Dakota legislation backed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Humane Society Legislative Fund (HSLF), a veterinarian with a twenty year old grudge and a judgement against her for defamation, an unscrupulous former employee and business partner, and inexperienced authorities who were trained in animal law enforcement by the HSUS, all combined to create the perfect storm designed to devastate Gary, his horse breeding program and his family members. He needs the support of the entire agricultural community. The results of Gary’s legal fight will have an impact on farmers and ranchers and animal owners in North Dakota and around the whole country. The story is long, and we hope you’ll stick with it to learn the truth of the matter.
BACKGROUND ON THE LAW
In 2012, backed by the HSUS and their Humane Society Legislative Fund, Measure 5, North Dakota Prevention of Animal Cruelty Initiative was on the ballot and was defeated. However, similar legislation was then introduced to the North Dakota legislature despite major concerns voiced by the North Dakota Farm Bureau and other livestock and crop producers, like Gary and his daughter. The bill passed and became law in 2013. It is now listed as “Title 36, Livestock. Chapter 36-21.1. Humane Treatment of Animals.” It was designed with gray areas that put all animal owners at risk. There are a number of concerns in the language and we encourage reading through it. For the purpose of Mr. Dassinger’s case, we’d like to bring to your attention the following:
♦36-21.2-01. Neglect–Definition–Exemptions—Penalty 1. Any person that willfully engages in animal neglect is guilty of a class A misdemeanor.
♦36-21.2-02. Animal abuse–Definition–Exemptions—Penalty 1. Any person that willfully engages in animal abuse is guilty of a class A misdemeanor for a first or a second offense and a class C felony for a third or subsequent offense occurring within ten years.
♦36-21.2-03. Animal cruelty–Definition–Exemptions—Penalty 1. Any person that intentionally engages in animal cruelty is guilty of a class C felony.
♦36-21.2-10. Veterinarian If upon examining an animal a licensed veterinarian determines that there is reasonable cause to believe an animal has been neglected, abused, treated cruelly, or subjected to any act or omission in violation of this chapter, the veterinarian may retain custody of the animal and shall immediately notify law enforcement officials regarding the determination. Note: Shall means must. Therefore, by law the veterinarian must immediately notify law enforcement.
♦36-21.2-05. Seizure of animal–Court order 1. A law enforcement officer may petition the court for an order directing the seizure of any animal believed to have been neglected, abused, treated cruelly, or subjected to any act or omission in violation of this chapter. 2. The court may act without notice to the animal’s owner or to the person having custody or control of the animal and may rely solely on testimony or an affidavit in considering the petition. 3. In the order for seizure, the court may direct that a veterinarian humanely destroy an animal if the veterinarian, upon examining the animal, determines that the animal is experiencing excruciating pain or suffering and that the animal’s pain or suffering is not likely to be alleviated using reasonable medical interventions.
♦36-21.1-14 Assumption of custody – Immunity from liability. Any sheriff, police officer, licensed veterinarian, investigator, or person who has custody of an animal under this chapter and who is acting in an official or professional capacity and making a good-faith effort to comply with this chapter is immune from any civil or criminal liability for acts taken or omitted while attempting to comply with this chapter. Note: The term investigator is not defined, so that could mean anybody.
Gary Dassinger has a Masters in Social Work at the University of North Dakota and Bachelor of Science in Animal Science at North Dakota State University. As a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, he owns a family counseling practice in Dickinson, North Dakota, near his ranch in Gladstone. When Gary is not at his practice, he is working over 1,000 acres on his family’s ranch, which has been in his family for three generations. He raises cattle and grows hay. Over the past 40 years Gary has been developing a line of sought-after ranch horses. He is proud of the registered horses he raises and his clients are horsemen and women from all over the country that are looking for solid-minded using horses with great color and conformation. Gary currently runs around 50 head of cattle and 80 head of horses. Gary took early social security and has not been able to sell as much of his livestock over the past 3 years. This is due to the restrictions on the income he can make. 2017 is the first year he would not be as restricted by his income from livestock. Gary was planning on selling his cattle in January of 2017. Gary and his daughter have been researching horse sale opportunities to have a partial dispersal in the fall.
THE SET UP
In the last three years, Gary has developed some medical issues with his spine along with hip problems. In January of 2016, he had hip replacement surgery. Although he was feeling better, Gary soon realized that he was faced with more work than one man could handle. He began searching for reliable help on his ranch. After a few failed attempts, Gary decided he would sell off his cattle so he could focus primarily on the horses, since his previous attempts at finding help didn’t’ pan out. His next applicant, a man named John Connor, entered into the picture. John Conner claimed to be a twice divorced guy down on his luck that needed a break to get on his feet. He also presented himself as a master carpenter, horse trainer and equine massage therapist. On paper, he sounded like just what Gary needed to help him keep up with the care of his animals, train and prepare his young horses for sale, and help with much needed maintenance projects around the ranch. Plus, as someone who had also been divorced, and as a family counsellor, Gary was empathetic to John Connor’s story.
THE DEALGary Dassinger first became acquainted with John Connor in the North Dakota Horse Connections Facebook group. John Connor visited the ranch at the end of October 2016, and helped fix fence with Gary as a working interview. He then watched over the ranch for several days during Thanksgiving.
A deal was struck. In return for caring and feeding the horses, as well as horse training, John Connor was offered a place to live in Gary’s home and was to receive a share of the horse sales. Additionally, John Connor would be paid $12 an hour for carpentry work on Gary’s house, buildings and corrals. The construction work would provide John Connor with the opportunity to generate a regular cash income. In October, November and December, John Connor took a number of pictures of the livestock, proudly displaying their images on his personal Facebook page. He even used a picture of a group of Gary’s yearlings in a corral, eating feed as his cover image.
John Connor officially moved onto the Dassinger Ranch in December of 2016. He told Gary he needed to take some time off over the Holidays. Gary had been hopeful that John Connor would be working full time as soon as he took up residence at the ranch. However, he didn’t want to lose his new hired hand. Gary was worried about having to go it alone for another North Dakota winter. Although Gary had been planning on selling off his cattle, he asked John Connor if he would be interested in taking the cattle on share as a way to “sweeten the deal” so that John Connor would stay on. Gary already had hay on hand, and he would provide the feed, equipment and facilities. Gary reiterated that under this agreement, John Connor would need to take over full responsibility of the horses and cattle in January, 2017.
Both men wrote out an agreement:
They agreed that Gary would not sell the cattle because John Connor was taking the cattle on share.
John Connor would receive a portion of any horse sales he secured.
He would earn $12 an hour for carpentry work.
John Connor would take over full responsibility of the horses and cattle in January, 2017.
Gary would help with the care of the stallions and geldings.
Gary would provide feed for the animals until May, 2017.
In the middle of January, John Connor asked Gary for money. John Connor claimed he was behind on his child support. Gary also has children, and had to pay child support while they were growing up. Empathetic to John Connor’s situation, Gary advanced John Connor $300. In February, John Connor said his father was sick in South Dakota and he asked Gary for a loan of $600 so he could afford to go home to see him. Gary loaned him the money.
When John Connor was in South Dakota, he contacted Gary and told him that that the current arrangement was not working for him. John Connor said he wanted a salary, rather than the $12 an hour. They agreed that John Connor would receive a salary of $1,000 per month, paid twice monthly in the amount of $500.00 in addition to the share agreement for the cattle and a percentage of the horse sales. Gary was nervous about his new help possibly walking off the job, so he wired John Connor $1,000 as an advance for February’s work.
Gary Dassinger continued to work at his family practice but also helped with some of the responsibilities on the ranch. He filled in when John Connor needed to “take a day off every once in a while”. John Connor left the ranch at least once per month, often more.
In December 2016, the colts were weaned and the thinner mares were separated from the rest of the herd to receive special care and feeding. Gary had purchased supplemental feed and had given instructions to John Connor to provide it to the horses that needed it. This included the other yearlings as well as an older dun mare that was pregnant. John Connor was instructed to feed oats to this older dun mare and a few other horses every day. One mare was not maintaining her condition during the winter. She was separated from the others in order to give her access to better feed.
As John Connor was planning to market and sell the yearlings, Gary removed one of the best yearlings from the group. This was a black filly that Gary wanted to keep as a breeding stock replacement. This yearling was with a group of fillies and was only getting grass and hay but her body condition was maintained, and actually continued to improve with that feeding arrangement. Gary observed John Connor providing the supplemental feed to the horses and spoke with John Connor to confirm that he was following the feeding plan. John Connor assured him he was following instructions.
By the end of February, Gary noticed the condition of some of the younger yearlings, who were August babies, starting to slip. Gary discussed his observations with John Connor. John Connor assured Gary he was following his instructions. As a part of the instructions, Gary told John Connor to make sure the yearlings were being fed individually. Gary wanted to make sure these younger horses were able to eat what they needed.
On March 10, Gary’s veterinarian, Dr. Chance Noyce, visited the ranch to Coggins test colts. They were being prepared to be sold at the Hermanson Horse Sale, March 17 – 19. Gary also asked Dr. Noyce to check the horses that were thin as well as the older cows. The older cows were between twenty and twenty four years old, which is an advanced age for cattle. Gary noted that these cows had still raised good calves and as they were still producing, he did not have any sign that he needed to sell them yet. Dr. Noyce made some recommendations but did not find anything significant with the horses or the cows. Dr. Noyce observed that one of the cows had longer toes. Since this cow was pregnant, he recommended waiting until she calved to trim her hooves. He did not want to risk pre-term labor or the cow aborting the calf. Dr. Noyce also suggested that a red roan stallion may benefit from some dental work. Dr. Noyce recommended deworming a yearling that had started losing weight. On a follow up visit, Dr. Noyce reexamined this yearling since it was not improving. He recommended treating the yearling again with a different type of wormer to help ensure complete elimination of possible parasites.
On March 20, the winter weather was fading so Gary instructed John Connor that, at minimum, he needed to start working with the yearlings. Gary noticed that John Connor only seemed be getting the livestock fed. Gary was unhappy about this because John Connor was not meeting the terms of the agreement regarding building repair and horse training as well as massaging a few of the older horses who John Connor said he could “get fixed up.” The yearlings still needed more handling as they had been briefly halter broken the previous fall. Gary also wanted them to receive individual grain rations, to ensure they were all getting adequate amounts. To address this, Gary instructed John Connor that he was to handle the yearlings one at a time and then feed them their blend of oats, 14% pellets, and molasses based feed before he turned them back out.
In the middle of March, Gary moved the dun mare to a paddock closer to the house. He wanted her nearby when she foaled. He also wanted to ensure she was receiving the oats, 14% pellets and molasses based feed he had instructed John Connor to give her. This was the same blend that was given to the yearlings.
Over the winter and spring, three of the older cows died. A younger cow got overbalanced and the timing of John Connor’s checking the livestock did not match up to when she needed help. By the time John Connor found her, it was already too late to help her get off her back and she died. A young mare was found dead by a water tank and appeared to have been electrocuted by a broken tank heater. The thin mare that was separated from the herd for extra feed was not responding and had to be put down. Gary had a rough spring in terms or livestock losses, but none of these animals starved to death. It is also important to note that numerous ranchers in the Midwest had also lost some livestock over the winter. It is a fact of ranching and farming that sometimes you lose livestock.
Gary had heard about a farm program that reimbursed for lost cattle. Therefore, Gary instructed John Connor to remove the dead cattle to areas where live animals would not come into contact with them. However, they were not disposed of completely. Keep in mind; this is North Dakota in the winter time. The ground was frozen and covered in snow. So even if Gary could not take advantage of the cattle reimbursement program, at this time full disposal was very difficult.
In order to maximize the amount of grass that could grow in his pastures, Gary moved his remaining hay. He wanted it closer to the stock that still required feeding. The hay was moved into the yard, near an area where there was some dead stock. However, the bales were far enough away so that Gary was not worried about any possible contamination to the hay.
Gary was growing frustrated with John Connor. Over the past six years Gary had a 100% calf crop. Now that he had a hired hand, he was losing more stock. He lost two calves, and would later lose one more before he was done calving. Some of his cows had also died and Gary told his daughter that he was becoming increasingly concerned about John Connor and his care, or lack of care, of the animals. He told her he was starting to question John Connor’s experience managing cattle and his claims of being a horse trainer.
During the next several weeks, some yearlings were being prepped for sale. In March, 4 horses were taken to the Hermanson sale in Mandan and were sold. These colts were in good sale condition. In fact, John Connor took a picture of these colts and used them as his cover photo on his personal Facebook page (see image above).
At this sale, Louis, a horse trainer from California, bought some of Gary’s yearlings and wanted to buy more. Louis was very impressed with the quality of Gary’s stock. He mentioned to Gary that he did not own a lot of broodmares and they discussed plans for Louis to bring his stallions out to North Dakota. The goal was to produce even higher caliber foals and increase the market value of Gary’s stock.
On April 15, Gary hauled 4 broodmares to western Montana to sell to a private buyer from Idaho. This sale was initiated by John Connor. When Gary arrived, the buyer initially wanted to pull out of the sale because John Connor had led her to believe the broodmares were very gentle and in show condition. These broodmares lived out on large pastures in North Dakota. When they were delivered they did not have slick coats and were not clipped. Fortunately, Gary was able to negotiate a lower price, and the sale still went through. The buyer talked with Gary about John Connor. She told him she was not impressed. She said she did not believe John Connor was trustworthy and expressed concerns about how John Connor was representing Gary and his livestock. She even recommended that Gary “get rid” of him. In addition to this, when Gary was on the road trip, John Connor told him that another calf had died. This brought his total loss to three calves in one calving season, which was very unusual for Gary.
JOHN CONNOR NOT WORKING AS AGREED
In early April, Gary became even more frustrated that John Connor was not working as outlined in their agreement. By this time Gary had multiple conversations with John Connor about their agreement and the work that needed to be done. John Connor had only done minimal training with the horses. The young horses were not gentled or broke to lead as directed. He had not started to ride any of the older horses. Gary was not happy with how John Connor was handling his livestock either. John Connor’s method with the yearlings was to leave halters on them, and attach at least one, if not two lead ropes so he could catch them more easily. Some of the yearlings had received small injuries to their head. This method was not working. If anything, these yearlings seemed to be more fearful.
John Connor had also not followed through on any maintenance and repair projects as agreed. After all the snow during the winter, there were more corrals and fencing that needed repairs in addition to other projects. Gary realized that John Connor would not “self-start” and his daughter recommended that he needed to provide more direct management. With a new approach, Gary was optimistic that if he kept better tabs on John Connor, he would start doing more around the ranch.
THE LAST DAYS
On April 17, John Connor texted Gary that he needed to “go home and do taxes.” John Connor indicated that he would be back on April 18, at 3:00 PM. This was a pattern with John Connor. On a regular basis something would come up and John Connor would have to leave the ranch. So, Gary was once again taking care of the livestock, waiting for John Connor to return. John Connor did not return on April 18. He returned on Wednesday, April 19. Gary put his foot down. John Connor was not following through with the promises he made in those previous conversations. Because of this, Gary told John Connor that he was terminating the monthly contract. John Connor would be paid only for work completed and at a specific amount per job.
The next day, April 22, Gary was happy to find that John Connor started working on the fencing. It was the most work John Connor had done the entire five months. Gary believed that John Connor was finally on the right track. That afternoon Gary left to meet with clients. When he returned home John Connor was gone. Gary assumed John Connor was out at one of the local watering holes, which is something he regularly did.
The following day, April 22, Gary noticed that one of John Connor’s horses was not in its pen. He then discovered that John Connor had cleared out and taken all his belongings. Upon that discovery, Gary realized that he would have to restock the feed for the animals. Gary noted that the older dun mare with a foal was out of water. He watered the mare quickly so she could drink something until he was able to refill her water tanks more completely. He headed out to take care of the rest of the livestock.
THE COMPLAINT – MADE FROM OUT OF STATE
April 22, after Gary checked on the heifers that were left to calve, a Deputy Sheriff arrived at his ranch unannounced. The Deputy informed him that a complaint had been made. He said they were notified about dead animals on the property and that there were some that were thin. Later, through legal discovery, Gary and his attorney learned that the complaint was made by a person who had never even visited the ranch.
Gary informed the Deputy that there were some dead animals and some thin animals on the property. He stated that his hired man (John Connor) had been responsible for taking care of the livestock. He then told the Deputy that John Connor had skipped out on him that day or the afternoon before. He also told the Deputy about the animals that had been receiving additional feed. He indicated that he would be caring for them himself and that things would be changing. The Deputy assured Gary that they just needed to check things out. The Deputy noted they were getting off a long winter and that this would probably be the end of the investigation. He left the ranch.