Animal abuse in Fergus County: Uncommon but not unheard of


Diamond keeps his eyes on a string being bounced across the floor by owner Shirley Barrick last Tuesday. Although his back legs and tail were amputated this spring, Barrick reports the kitten has healed well and is even growing his fur back.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Diamond is a bold and playful kitten. He doesn’t run away from new visitors, and he will crawl up your leg to get to your fingers. He likes carpet better than wood flooring and his litter box is a little shallower than most, but those are Diamond’s only restrictions from his missing his back legs and tail.


From barn to house

Diamond started life in a litter of barn cats, and was destined to follow in the footsteps of his parents until this winter. During the season’s well-below-zero weather, the kitten went missing. He reappeared after two days, but the owners eventually took him to the vet for what they suspected was frostbite.

The vet discovered something else: Tight bands had been placed around Diamond’s rear appendages, and the loss of blood, plus the cold, was going to cost the kitten three extremities.

Shirley Barrick was happy to talk about her newest house pet.

“I grew up with pet cats and dogs,” she said.

So did her children, and when the last family pet died, Barrick decided that was the final pet. Sometimes it was just too painful to let go.

“I swore after I put the dog down, no more pets,” she said.

But then there was Diamond. When the vet revealed the extent of the injuries, he also listed possible options, amputation or euthanization.

Barrick comes from a ranching family, and understood sometimes it was best to put an injured animal down. The kitten, on the other hand, came from a ranch full of things to play with and chase. He understood jumping and tussling and purring when petted, and that’s what he kept understanding, even as his back legs and tail deteriorated.

Barrick saw his energy, and considered the fact the family had already paid one vet bill.

“We’d already gone through this much,” she said. “We thought, ‘Well, we’ll give him another chance.’”

The surgery was successful, but did reveal one grim detail.

“You could see the mark on the bone,” she said.

Whatever bands had been placed on the cat, they had been tight enough to mark the bone. For the vet and his client, it was obvious how the loss of circulation had led to loss of limbs. The revelation left no doubt in Barrick’s mind about what had happened to Diamond.

“I think it was done purposefully,” she said.

She and the vet suspected some sort of castrating bander, a tool with specialized rubber bands used by ranchers to castrate bulls.

“My concern is that somebody would take an innocent cat and then maliciously try to destroy it,” Barrick said. “The sad thing to me is him and his family were all minding their own business in the barn.”

While she has heard of animal abuse in Central Montana, she thinks this case was extreme.

“I think this is a very unusual circumstance of cruelty,” she said.


A quiet problem

Barrick may be right. Lewistown Police Department Assistant Chief Ryan Berry reported few animal abuse crimes, and even fewer spiteful ones.

The LPD averages a citation a year for animal cruelty, according to Berry, and many cruelty calls are groundless.

“A lot of the times those calls are unfounded,” he said.

Berry still encouraged citizens to report any possible abuse.

“If you do see something, we will look into it,” he said.

Crosby said the LPD does not always run into animal cruelty, but when they do, the abuse often results from a fight between people.

“An animal might be present, and just by the nature of the animal being there, the animal takes the brunt of the argument,” he said.

 Much like the LPD, Sheriff Troy Eades said the Fergus County Sheriff’s Department would respond to all calls. For both departments, their work ends with citations. Any punishment is decided by the next step in the process: the county attorney’s office.


They’re on the case

Because Lewistown’s City Attorney is also a Deputy County Attorney, every animal abuse case in Fergus County ends up passing through Kent Sipe’s office, and the Fergus County Attorney has seen several since he started his job.

“I have, in the last six months, seen a number of theses cases,” he said.

Animal cruelty ranges from unkempt fences and loose cattle, to hogs running wild and abandoned dogs, according to Sipe.

“Sometimes it’s an individual who has hoarding tendencies, and they have good intentions when, in fact, they aren’t able to maintain or take care of the animals,” he said. “Other times, it’s people that just neglect the animals and don’t take the responsibility for them.”

While the kinds of cases differ, the result is the same: prosecution.

“On the one hand, you’re attempting to change people’s behavior and you can have very bad abuse by defendants,” Sipe said. “On the other hand, you’re limited on how you can take custody of those animals.”

He explained large numbers were prohibitive to county repossession because the government doesn’t have the resources to feed and house that many animals. Sipe said prosecutors are also limited in what kind of action they can take.

“The court takes into consideration what the facts are and what is necessary to change that behavior,” he said. “Our [the prosecutor’s] main goal is to make sure that they don’t have animals in the future.”


Rising to the challenge

So while Diamond isn’t the only animal in Fergus County to face hard times, he’s still an unusual case. Luckily, things seem to be working out for the kitten. Barrick says he’s even up to facing challenges.

“He can kind of pull himself up the stairs,” she said.

Although, like the rest of us, he needs some help every once in a while.

“He will sit at the bottom of the landing and mew, though, because he wants me to carry him up,” she said.



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