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Dogs seized from Big Horn County man accused of animal cruelty
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Dogs seized from Big Horn County man accused of animal cruelty

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Multiple dogs were seized near Hardin Thursday as part of ongoing criminal proceedings against a 70-year-old Big Horn County man accused of animal cruelty.

The cruelty charges outlined in a criminal complaint filed last Friday in Big Horn County Justice Court against Peter Ronald Ortegal describes how the Big Horn County Sheriff's Office received an anonymous tip in early March about underweight horses in a small pen being kept on a property off of Zink Road.

During the investigation dogs that appeared to be skinny were found on the property and Ortegal told a deputy at the time that they were skinny because they had just had puppies. He told law enforcement that he had seven adults and 13 puppies. 

According to the complaint, a sheriff's office deputy found four horses appearing to be underweight and kept in a small muddy pen. The deputy noted that one of the horses had its ribs showing. Ortegal said the horses were in the small pen because they were getting out of his larger pasture, court documents say. From Nov. 4 through Dec. 25 the sheriff's office received four reports of loose livestock and dogs around East Third Street and Zink Road near Hardin.

The investigating deputy spoke with Ortegal and came to believe the treatment of the animals was not intentional, but a result of him lacking the resources to take care of the number of animals in his care, the complaint says.

In mid-April, the deputy returned and spoke with Ortegal. The deputy reported that Ortegal told him he was concerned about one of his horses and thought it needed a vet. The deputy also noted that one horse had lost more weight and appeared "severely malnourished." The horses did not have water and the trough was "completely dry," documents say. 

On May 6, Tammy Devers with the nonprofit Helping Every Pet of Hardin took photographs of the horses in "a state of malnourishment and in obvious poor condition" and provided them to the County Attorney's office, according to the complaint. Charges were filed a day later.

Deputy Big Horn County Attorney Randen Schoppe confirmed that a number of dogs were seized Thursday afternoon from Ortegal, but said that he did not have exact details as the dogs had only recently been taken. He said that during the seizure of the horses over the weekend it was determined that the dogs also needed to be removed.

The county is responsible for the animals for the time being and restitution could be requested if there is ultimately a conviction, according to Schoppe. 

Helping Every Pet of Hardin has taken the horses in, while another Hardin non-profit, Freckles and Tomcat Rescue is involved in caring for the dogs. Freckles and Tomcat Rescue describes itself on its website as an animal food co-op and no-kill rescue organization. 

Thursday morning a post to the Freckles and Tomcat Rescue Facebook page put out a call for donations of emergency supplies needed that day. At the time the nonprofit was requesting metal water and food dishes "for a large number of incoming dogs." The rescue also requested "a bunch" of $2.50 Walmart blankets. More than 10 people responded to the post with offers to help. 

Chris Winterrowd with Help Every Pet of Hardin said that it can be tough for shelter facilities to take on a large number of animals, but that rescue organizations typically have a network of people who will help take care of or foster animals and in some instances ensure they are up to date on shots and other treatments.

"A lot of times when it's a situation like this you'll find that people will pretty much step forward," Winterrowd said.

After taking the horses in last weekend, Help Every Pet of Hardin also took to social media to ask for help supplying the horses with halters, lead ropes, feed buckets, brushes and hoof picks.

Ortegal is charged with two counts of cruelty to animals. One of those charges is a misdemeanor first offense, while the other is a felony second offense. Felony cruelty to animals is punishable by a prison sentence of no more than two years and/or a fine of up to $2,500. Misdemeanor cruelty to animals in Montana is punishable by a prison term of no more than a year and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

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