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Charged with animal mistreatment, Pearson responds

A Park Rapids businessman and beef farmer faces charges of exposing animals to disease and two counts of the overwork, mistreatment or torture of animals. He calls the allegations "a bunch of lies."

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As of late January 2021, Tim Pearson said he was feeding a herd of approximately 200 head of Angus cattle, and the 180 head he recently shipped were all graded USDA Prime or Choice, while 76 percent of them rated Certified Angus Beef. "They’re good, fat, healthy cows," he said. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

Trial is impending for Tim Pearson, the owner of the Jones-Pearson Funeral Home in Park Rapids and a farm in Henrietta Township, on charges of animal mistreatment.

At an omnibus hearing on Dec. 28, 2020, District Court Judge Eric Schieferdecker denied pretrial motions by Pearson and his then-attorney, Zenas Baer of Hawley, to suppress evidence from a warrant search and to dismiss the case for lack of probable cause.

Pearson entered a plea of not guilty at a plea hearing on Jan. 19. He is currently represented by attorney Mike Undem of Walker.

In an interview with the Enterprise, Pearson said he believes the trial may not take place until this summer, due to restrictions on jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Complaint and probable cause

According to the criminal complaint filed on April 23, 2019 with the 9th Judicial District Court, Pearson is charged with three counts, which are as follows:

  • Count 1: the gross misdemeanor of exposing domestic animals to disease, is described as intentionally exposing a domestic animal to disease or putting them at risk of quarantine or destruction by actions contrary to reasonable veterinary practice. It is punishable by up to one year in prison and/or a $3,000 fine.

  • Count 2: the gross misdemeanor of overwork, mistreatment or torture of animals is also punishable by up to one year and/or $3,000. Statute describes this charge as actions resulting in substantial bodily harm to a pet or companion animal.

  • Count 3: the misdemeanor overwork, mistreatment or torture of animals, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or $1,000. It means to overdrive, overload, torture, cruelly beat, neglect or unjustifiably injure, maim, mutilate or kill any animal or cruelly work it when it is unfit for labor.

The accompanying statement of probable cause says that on Aug. 31, 2018, the Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office received a report of animal treatment at Pearson’s Ranch on County Road 18.
According to the report, sheriff’s investigator Bill Schlag interviewed two employees at the ranch, identified as D.S. and Greg Swallow, who had worked there approximately three weeks. They reported witnessing cattle eating rotting food, lying in their own feces and suffering from poorly groomed hooves.

D.S. said several calves on the ranch did not survive because they were not fed properly; one of Pearson’s horses had an infected leg injury; and the animals were denied veterinary care.

In court documents Greg Swallow described himself as highly experienced in ranching. He described a corral with 10 cows in it needing to be put down, and accused Pearson of allowing two bulls to breed them.

Swallow also reported issues with the cows’ lack of hoof care, alleged that at least 83 of Pearson’s cows had hoof rot and that at least three bulls had groin infections caused by worms. He doubted Pearson’s claim to have recently vaccinated his cattle and estimated that 200-300 cows on the ranch needed vaccinations.

Swallow estimated that Pearson owned at least 960 cattle and that 20 percent of the cows needed to be put down due to hoof issues, bore flies and other medical issues. He claimed there was a “hidden pasture” at the ranch for cattle with the worst medical issues, and there was also a bull that became too big for its muscle mass, forcing its bones through its hooves so that it had to walk on its knees.

Swallow claimed that he paid out of pocket to treat the horse with the injured leg when Pearson refused to provide medication for it. He reported that Pearson was feeding the animals raw potatoes, moldy hay and distillation byproducts, which are a common but not recommended cattle feed. Swallow also reported that the ranch had an area called the “boneyard,” where dead cows were left exposed rather than buried.

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The two ranch hands showed Schlag photos of dead cattle and of animals with hoof problems and injuries.

Warrant search

The probable cause statement goes on to allege that on Sept. 14, 2018, Schlag, deputies and a veterinarian visited the ranch with a search warrant while Pearson was not present. A deputy contacted Pearson by phone and was told Pearson was too busy to attend the investigation in person, but advised them to leave a copy of the warrant for him.

According to the statement, ranch hand Jim Willenbring said the animal that had to walk on its front knees had been in that condition for three years.

Willenbring said Pearson had been in a panic recently about the poor condition of the cattle and sent four cows to the Long Prairie packing plant the night before.

According to the statement, Willenbring provided law enforcement photos of a cow with an infected hoof and feed covered in mold that was given to the cows the previous winter. The veterinarian confirmed that the mold was not healthy for cows to ingest.

Asked why he had taken photos showing the condition of the ranch, Willenbring said he did it so he would not get in trouble if the ranch was ever investigated, the statement said.

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Law enforcement and the veterinarian spent several hours driving around the farm’s pastures and wooded areas. They observed several cows whose hip bones and ribs were clearly visible; an animal that was limping due to a large growth on its front left leg; a cow that had a large growth on the right side of its head; and the so-called “boneyard,” where several dead cows and at least one calf had apparently been dumped and left to rot, with animal bones scattered throughout a radius of approximately 100 yards.

Veterinarian’s report

The sheriff’s office provided the Enterprise with a copy of the veterinarian’s report, dated Sept. 17, 2018, in which Dr. Alan F. Olander, DVM, of Nevis wrote what he found during the search of Pearson’s ranch.

Olander reported that one of Pearson’s horses had an open wound and swelling at the site of an old injury on its leg that had not been treated properly when it first occurred, reportedly several years earlier. The horse was not lame, “at least at a walk,” he said, and the horses in general were in satisfactory condition but should, in his opinion, be fed more “as they could use a little more body fat going into winter.”

Olander described a cow with a large swelling on the right side of her head and jaw that seemed to hinder her chewing, and that had reportedly been treated but without effect, and a bull with a deformed left front leg, apparently a birth defect. Olander thought both animals should have been sent to slaughter or euthanized.

Olander observed the feedlot, where he found 30 calves in good condition with no apparent disease, fed with grass hay of adequate quality and quantity, and signs that they were also fed grain and possibly beet pulp.

Olander found a bull penned near the horse pasture that was reluctant to stand on his front feet but was down on his “wrists,” where he had reportedly spent 90 percent of the past several years. Olander felt this animal should have been slaughtered or euthanized.

Olander reported that the cows, calves and bulls in the pasture areas ranged from thin to slightly fleshy, and the calves were in “satisfactory condition.”

“I saw no evidence of foot rot, pinkeye, respiratory disease or other common diseases of cattle,” Olander wrote, adding that the pastures were not overgrazed and the watering tanks were full.

Olander observed several unburied carcasses on the “bone pile,” and bones scattered into the woods within 50-75 yards of the pile.

Based on his discussion with Willenbring, Olander also noted that Willenbring did not think the cattle’s winter feed was adequate in quality or quantity, including silage that was improperly stored and became moldy.

Olander said Willenbring showed him photos of cows and calves in winter that were very thin and reported that many of them died that winter; reported many cases of foot rot, often not treated properly; criticized the management of the cattle’s breeding schedule, resulting in many calves being born in the winter and suffering a high death rate; reported that veterinarians were seldom called for problems on the ranch, and more effective prescription drugs were not used to treat diseases.

Olander concluded that Pearson’s cattle “do reasonably well during the summer months (except for foot rot), but because of inadequate quantity and poor quality of feed during the winter, the death loss is unacceptably high.” He also attributed “high losses due to the weather and disease” to the “poorly managed breeding schedule,” and noted that the ranch did not have enough hired help to adequately care for a herd of that size.

“For an operation of this size, the ranch should be utilizing the services of a veterinarian much more frequently,” Olander wrote. “I feel that after evaluating all that I observed and what was reported to me that the animals on the Pearson ranch are not being cared for in a humane manner.”

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Tim Pearson says he enjoys breeding and feeding his herd of Angus cattle on a farm north of Park Rapids. However, he also faces charges of mistreating animals following a 2018 investigation by the Hubbard County Sheriff's Office. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

Pearson responds

When contacted for comment in late January, Pearson provided the Enterprise with a written statement as well as three interviews about the case – by phone, at his funeral home and at the ranch.

Pearson said the charges make him physically ill, and wonders why law enforcement never attempted to interview him to get his side of the story.

Pearson said the evidence stems from “a bunch of lies.”

Pearson also argued that law enforcement cherry-picked evidence, for example, by looking hard at the animals in a sick pen (kept separate from the herd and treated for illness) and a culling pen (preparing to be shipped out for slaughter) but finding no disease in the herd at pasture or the calves in the feedlot.

Pearson said some cattle wasted away due to a condition called Johne’s disease, also known as paratuberculosis or BJD, which causes diarrhea and wasting.

“Normally, when we have a cow that is starting to lose weight, the first thing you do is hit her with a broad spectrum of antibiotics, in case she’s sick or is hurt,” he said. “But with Johne's, there is no antibiotic therapy, so it doesn’t help them at all; but you’ve still got to hold them for 38 days from being shipped, and in that length of time, because they lose weight so drastically, they’re basically starving to death.”

During a driving tour of his ranch, Pearson pointed out “good, fat, healthy cows” and prided himself on the percentage of his cattle that finish with a high grade – USDA Prime or Select and in many cases, Certified Angus Beef.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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