choked to death'
Prosecution, Mills' attorney debate
whether animal neglect was factor
May 30, 2007
LAPEER — An animal pathologist from Michigan State University testified Thursday that "choke" and pneumonia were the likely causes of death of a horse that is the subject of an animal cruelty case.
The dead horse was discovered at the farm of Mark and Ellen Mills on Weyer Road on March 16, during a search of the property by Lapeer County Sheriff deputies and Animal Control officers.
In addition to the dead horse, investigators found the decaying corpses of several lambs.
After the discoveries and a subsequent necropsy examination of the horse, the Millses and their two adult children, Andrew, 20, and Kate, 18, were charged with animal killing and torture, a felony, and lesser charges of animal neglect, an unlicensed dog and failure to bury the carcasses of the dead animals.
During Thursday's preliminary hearing in Lapeer Circuit Court, Dr. Dalen Agnew testified that the 695-pound chestnut mare found on the Mills' property was markedly thin, with prominent pelvic bones and showed signs of severe esophogeal obstruction (choke).
In an effort to show probable cause, Asst. Prosecutor Jeffrey Stewart asked Agnew if poor nutrition could have contributed to the horse's death.
"The horse was in poor nutritional condition," said Agnew. "It is my opinion that that played a role in the animal's choke." He added that the condition had probably existed for some time. "Longer than a period of weeks," Agnew said.
Agnew explained that an animal suffering from malnutrition tends to overeat when finally presented with food.
"They'll often wolf down the food and that can affect the animal's ability to swallow," he said. "It just depends if there is an overflow into the trachea."
During cross-examination by the Mills' attorney, David Richardson, Agnew said the passage of time between the horse's death and execution of the necropsy was not ideal for forming conclusions.
"The ideal is to do the necropsy shortly after the (animal's) death," said Agnew. "It can hamper some of the conclusions that we draw."
Relative to the prosecution's allegations that the dead horse was dehydrated because of mineralization found in the animal's tissue, Agnew again said that time can alter the conclusions made during a necropsy.
"The carcass was rotting," said Agnew. "The carcass can lose its liquid matter over time."
In further questioning, Richardson attempted to establish that there are other causes for choke than malnutrition and dehydration.
"Choke is not always associated with abuse or neglect, correct?" asked Richardson.
"Correct," said Agnew. "There are multiple causes of choke."
"And can a horse be perfectly nourished and still develop choke?" Richardson questioned.
"Yes," said Agnew.
Agnew said no additional lab or bloodwork was done on the horse, which has since been incinerated. However, he ruled out the possibility that parasites contributed to the animal's death.
Animal Control Director Walt Rodabaugh also offered testimony, some of which suggested there had been a history of disagreement between county officials and Mark Mills.
"Mr. Mills was very irate and agitated about our being on his property," Rodabaugh testified. "He was screaming at the sheriff's deputies."
With Rodabaugh still on the witness stand, Circuit Court Judge Laura Barnard adjourned the proceedings to allow for the future exchange of more information between the attorneys.
The examination will be resumed on Tues., June 19 at 9 a.m. in Judge Barnard's court room.
In a related matter, Barnard allowed Kate Mills to waive her right to attend next month's continuation of the hearing.
A student at MSU, Kate Mills will be taking part in an internship in Wisconsin at that time.
"We'll excuse her from that appearance," said Barnard.