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HAMILTON - Last week, when Ravalli County commissioners debated what to do with Able, Casino and Diamond, there were plenty of tears. Wednesday, when commissioners took up the question again, tears were replaced by jabs and accusations.

Commissioners on Wednesday declined to take any action to amend their March 17 resolution to grant care and custody of the three abused horses to Willing Servants. The nearly two hours of debate that led up to the decision, however, showed a wide gulf of discontent separating Willing Servants with the Bitter Root Humane Association.

Commissioners Jim Rokosch and J.R. Iman said they still believed that Willing Servants was better situated to provide care for the horses. Rokosch, in an extended speech, said that while the humane association has done a good job of providing animal care for the county, he wanted to see a broader array of assistance organizations play a role in public-private care partnerships.

Commission Chairman Greg Chilcott, who was not at the meeting last week, agreed that Willing Servants ought to be the group to provide care.

Commissioner Kathleen Driscoll, who was not at last week's meeting either, said she felt, however, that since it was the humane association which has provided care for the animals for some 20 months, it was they who ought to continue with that care.

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In the end, there was no motion to rescind last week's order. Willing Servants' president Theresa Manzella agreed that the humane association members currently providing foster care for the horses could adopt them permanently if they wish, and that she would limit to a maximum of four the number of events Able would be taken to.

Commissioners said despite the division between the two groups, the care of the animals should come first.

"We have to work together," Rokosch said. "The animals deserve that."

Iman said animals should be treated differently through their lifespan, and that Able, at 5, has a lot of life to live.

"I am not in favor of putting all three horses out to pasture," he said. "In my opinion, the humane shelter is not a place we should be keeping horses."

The county became the guardians of the three horses after a court order in the wake of the guilty verdict of two Georgia men - Curtis and Craig Heydon - who nearly worked the three to death in a 2008 wilderness expedition gone awry.

The county attorney's office two weeks ago drafted a resolution which granted guardianship of the horses to the Bitter Root Humane Association. Commissioners met last week to discuss the resolution. Commissioners said horse-centric Willing Servants was better suited to offer care to the horses than was the humane association, which they said was better oriented to provide care for smaller animals like dogs and cats. Willing Servants said not only would they like to care for the horses but would like to take Able to up to four events a year to show how love and care can bring a horse back to health.

The decision sparked fury among humane association members, who peppered commissioners with angry calls.

Reporter Jeff Schmerker can be reached at 363-3300 or at jeff.schmerker@ravallirepublic.com.

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