Woman found guilty of animal cruelty in Rutherford County

Published 11:05 am Friday, August 25, 2023

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Owner of Paws Ranch Equine Rescue Farm sentenced Thursday


RUTHERFORDTON—Delores Hanser, the 65-year-old operator of a former equine rescue farm where authorities seized 23 horses early last year, was found guilty Thursday on five felony animal cruelty charges in Superior Court.

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A jury found that Hanser maliciously failed to provide the care, feeding and medical care necessary to sustain the animals. Two of the horses seized had to be euthanized. Most were turned over to professionally run equine rescue facilities in North Carolina.

Hanser took the stand in her own defense Wednesday, telling the jury that she provided food, housing and medical care for the animals and that many of them already were in bad shape before they came to her Paws Ranch Equine Rescue Farm in Bostic, located about 10 miles north of Rutherfordton.

The jury disagreed, and in imposing his sentence, so did Judge J. Thomas Davis. “I’ll be honest with you,” he told Hanser. “It’s horrible to me. A picture is worth a thousand words.”

The pictures Judge Davis referred to were part of a raft of photos presented by District Attorney Ted Bell that showed horses that were little more than standing skeletons. The court told her she could no longer have any large animals.

The judge sentenced Hanser to 6-17 months each on two counts and consolidated sentencing on three other counts to 6-17 months. She will be jailed for two months and then be on supervised probation for two years followed by three years of unsupervised probation.

The case sharpened the focus on how Rutherford County responds to animal cruelty complaints. It also galvanized the equine rescue and anti-animal abuse community in Polk and Rutherford counties, with Bell delivering a strong case for a jury.

“I hope this encourages people in Rutherford County to take care of their animals. If they don’t, they will suffer the consequences,” Bell said after the trial ended.

During his closing argument, Bell told the jury that Hanser showed no remorse. “You only heard excuses,” he said.

On the stand, Hanser portrayed herself as someone who had set up her tax-exempt entity in Bostic to save horses. While she sought financial contributions to pay the bills, she failed to show that she had actually provided the care they needed.

Dr. Emilie Setlakwe of the Tryon Equine Hospital told the court that all the horses were housed in hazardous, unsafe and unsanitary conditions with no sign of food. Allison Bowling, owner of Red Feather Equine Sanctuary in Winston-Salem, who was there that day echoed her testimony. 

“These horses were emaciated because they were starving,” Bell told the jury. “Cowgirl was so emaciated she could not recover. She was starved to death.”

The horse named Cowgirl was prominent among the victims in the trial. She was taken from Hanser’s farm to The Sanctuary at Red Bell Run in Polk County where a team of medical and nutritional professionals tended her around the clock, but she could not regain her strength and died.

“Today marked a win for good,” said Mary Adams, owner and founder of Red Bell Run. “It has been a long journey to get justice for the equines seized in (this) case. It won’t bring Cowgirl back, and it won’t erase the suffering that Delores Hanser caused, but it does give everyone notice that animal cruelty in Rutherford County will be met with more than a slap on the wrist.”

Former Rutherford County Animal Control Services director Kathy “Kat” Hamilton, who was a key prosecution witness, said afterward, “The jury restored my faith in the justice system. While it won’t bring back the lives lost, it helps to bring awareness to what happened.” Hamilton now runs the animal shelter at the Foothills Humane Society.