AHS will appeal the verdict in Kittleson horse boarding case

July 1, 2021

On June 30, 2021, a Martin County jury awarded Dr. Shirley Kittleson $1.49 million in her lawsuit against Animal Humane Society over the cost of boarding 72 horses rescued by AHS humane agents as part of a June 2018 cruelty investigation. We are deeply disappointed that the jury seemed to follow their emotions instead of the evidence and the law in this case. We vehemently dispute this verdict and will immediately file an appeal.

The facts of the case are important:  

  • Kittleson’s lawsuit is not about the welfare of the horses or the care Animal Humane Society provides. AHS fulfilled its mission and its duty to the animals in the cruelty case. Our humane agents worked alongside the Watonwan County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the case. We successfully removed the horses to ease their suffering, ensured they received the medical care they desperately needed, and provided evidence that led the owner to be convicted of animal cruelty. 
  • AHS paid Kittleson in full for the veterinary and farrier care she provided. In July 2018 we learned that there was a misunderstanding about who was to pay for boarding. Once we were aware of this misunderstanding, we acted immediately to resolve it.
  • Kittleson admitted under oath that she was holding the horses hostage. AHS repeatedly offered to pick up the horses or release them to Kittleson, but she refused those offers and continued to hold them and charge AHS for boarding. The damages awarded to Kittleson inexplicably include boarding costs for two years after she refused these offers.
  • Two independent experts testified that the alleged damages were excessive. A southern Minnesota veterinarian and a University of Minnesota forages expert testified that a reasonable time period for boarding the horses was 4 to 6 weeks, and reasonable charges were significantly less than those sought by Kittleson.

Sadly, the 72 horses became pawns in this case, which ultimately sought a large and unreasonable payout from a respected nonprofit organization that is devoted to helping animals.

AHS has strong working relationships with veterinary, animal welfare, and law enforcement partners across the state. Regardless of the verdict in this case, we know our humane agents acted in good faith, both in assisting law enforcement with the removal of the horses and in their dealings with Kittleson. 

We will appeal this unjust verdict immediately. 

About this case

Animal Humane Society is committed to seeking justice for animals throughout Minnesota. Our humane agents are the only full-time professional humane investigators in the state. Over the past five years AHS humane agents have pursued more than 2,400 reports of cruelty and neglect, aiding nearly 9,000 animals, including more than 3,400 animals removed from conditions of abuse and neglect.

This case began in June 2018 and stems from a humane investigations case involving Michael Johnson and the horses on his property. A local resident had contacted the Watonwan County Sheriff’s Office with concerns about the condition and welfare of the horses. A sheriff’s deputy, who later reached out to AHS for assistance, was the first to visit the property. The sheriff’s deputy witnessed multiple dead horses and others living in poor health.

Many of the horses suffered from grossly overgrown hooves — some six to eight inches overgrown — which make it difficult and painful for them to walk and stand and reflect months or even years of neglect.

The investigation by AHS and the Watonwan County Sheriff’s Office led a jury to convict Michael Johnson on criminal animal cruelty charges for the 72 horses in his care. Those horses are no longer suffering because of our work on this case.

Although we can provide this care for dogs, cats, and other small animals in our shelters, we rely on trusted partners – local veterinarians and horse rescues across Minnesota – to help us care for abused and neglected horses and livestock. 

Over the past several years we have worked with partners across Minnesota to help us with dozens of cases involving more than 400 horses rescued from abuse and neglect. AHS reimburses its partners for veterinary and farrier services. In these cases, AHS typically agrees to release the horses to a partner who boards them during the investigation and proceedings. Once the horses are released, the partner is free to sell or place them.

Michael Johnson surrendered the horses to AHS under the condition they be taken to Goldmount Veterinary Center, the for-profit veterinary clinic owned by Kittleson. We later learned that Michael Johnson’s brother, Greg Johnson, is in a close personal relationship with Kittleson and also works for her. Greg Johnson did some of the farrier work on the horses after they were surrendered. Our understanding is that Kittleson would like to give the horses back to Michael Johnson. 

Kittleson began treatment of the horses from this case in June 2018. AHS sent a check to Goldmount Veterinary Clinic for all of the veterinary and farrier services invoiced in this case, and as of today, Goldmount has not cashed this check. AHS repeatedly offered to pick up the horses or release them to Kittleson, but she refused those offers and continued to hold them and charge AHS for boarding. 

Despite this fact, Kittleson has argued that AHS is responsible for the cost of boarding the horses. Although we tried to seek a reasonable settlement, our repeated attempts to resolve this matter in good faith were unsuccessful, and a trial began on June 28, 2021.

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