Published: September 11, 2008 10:54 pm  

GRAND ISLAND: Lots of support for Sparks

By Rick Forgione
Niagara Gazette

A hearing on whether a Grand Island businessman is on the hook to pay the Erie County SPCA for caring for a dozen horses and five sheep they seized from him stretched into the night Thursday.

At press time, an SPCA veterinarian was testifying about what she believes was the “poor condition” of the animals seized on Aug. 12 from Sparks Trading Post on Bedell Road. Peter Sparks, the owner of the trading post, has pleaded not guilty to 17 counts of animal cruelty.

He’ll return to Grand Island Town Court for a hearing on the criminal charges on Oct. 8. The hearing, which had run for seven hours Thursday was in response to an SPCA request that Sparks pony up a bond of more than $9,000 to cover medical care and boarding costs for his horses and five sheep which are now being housed at a barn in the Town of Tonawanda.

The SPCA is billing Sparks at a rate of $164 a day for boarding swith medical costs added on.

In testimony from SPCA agents who participated in the raid and the veterinarian who examined Sparks’ animals, the case appeared to be boiling down to the agency’s claim that the animals were not being properly taken care of and Sparks contentions that, the horses in particular, were not ill cared for, but just old.

It’s a position those who know Sparks support. As they had at his last hearing, some 30 to 40 supporters showed up at the courthouse to watch the proceedings.

“Every Sunday, after church, we would take our kids out riding (at Sparks),” said Jim Gleeson, who said he had come out to support a man he’s known for at least 20 years. “My dad had a farm and I know little about horses. Pete has some old horses. It’s like a nursing home there. But to Pete, they’re beautiful.”

Sparks’ defense attorney Patrick Wesp repeatedly tried to question SPCA witnesses about their care of the animals since they were seized. Wesp took issue with how the horses were transported, as well as how they’ve been housed and cared for by the SPCA.

“The SPCA is seizing someone’s property,” Wesp said. “When they do that, they have a standard of care they have to meet.”

When SPCA lawyer Thomas Viksjo told Town Justice Mark Frentzel it was Sparks’ care of the animals that was the issue, Wesp shot back, “They are asking to keep these animals. It’s relevant that they are not taking care of these animals.”

SPCA investigators and the State Police raided Sparks’ stables after receiving a complaint from someone who had visited there. The investigators said Sparks appeared to have about 50 horses, a herd of sheep, some llamas, chickens and geese on his property.

The investigators described the horses and sheep that were seized as “emaciated” and said the horses had various other conditions and ailments that were effecting their health.

In a testy exchange, Wesp and SPCA assistant barn manager Patricia Burg, argued over the conditions that animals were living in, specifically the cleanliness of their stalls and whether they had a enough food.

“The (cleanliness of the) stables was not why we were called there,” Burg said. “It was the skinny condition of the animals. Having feed on your property doesn’t mean you’re using it.”

Dr. Jean Feldman, a veterinarian specializing in the treatment of large animals, who was called in to assist the SPCA testified that the both the sheep and horses were seized based on a preliminary exam at the trading.

“We went through all the barns and did a preliminary examination looking for animals that were (unusually thin),” Feldman said. “I noticed there were sheep that I could see were critically thin, I could see their ribs through their wool, and need to be taken somewhere else.”

Feldman estimated that the seized horses were between 17 to 25 years old. Wesp has said at least one horse is 35 years old.

Veterinarians expected to take the stand late Thursday night or early Friday morning indicated that they would testify the horses were in good shape for their age.

Though the raid was not the SPCA’s first visit to Sparks’ business, he has no prior animal cruelty arrests.