LAND O'LAKES — Deputies weren't surprised on Wednesday when they got another complaint about malnourished horses on Ellen Marie Marek's property.
"She's been on our radar for two and a half years," said Cpl. Gennis Folsom of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office agricultural crime unit.
They had visited Marek after receiving four complaints about neglect and six complaints about loose horses, they said. Each time, deputies said, she promised to do better. They even let her choose a veterinarian to instruct her on proper care.
But a visit this week proved to be the last straw.
Deputies went to the white house with green shutters at 9856 Pangola Loop. According to a sheriff's report, here's what they found:
• A foal, surrounded by buzzards, lying dead along a fence.
• Four horses and a pony in the back pasture. The horses' hip bones and ribs poking out from their hides. No food or water. Folsom, who had photos taken of the horses in February, described their weight loss as "extreme."
• A goat and a pig with no water in their pens.
• Five more horses in the front pasture. While not as underweight as the others, their weight loss was described as "noticeable." One horse had sores from having been saddled too long with a tight girth.
Deputies seized all the animals and took them to a pasture at the county jail, where they were given hay, grass and water. They also arrested Marek, 52, a registered nurse at Kindred Hospital Central Tampa, a long-term, acute care facility.
She faces one count of animal cruelty, a first-degree misdemeanor. Whether she faces more counts will be up to prosecutors, Folsom said.
"Our goal is not to put Ellen Marek in jail," he said. "It's to make sure these animals are cared for properly."
An unidentified person who answered Marek's phone said she wasn't available and had nothing to say. Kindred Hospital issued a statement Thursday saying Marek had been suspended pending the resolution of the charge.
"These allegations are unrelated to her employment with Kindred," the statement said.
On Thursday, the animals grazed on grass and nibbled from a large hay bale in the jail pasture. A nearby trough was filled with fresh water.
Folsom said they started eating immediately after being released from the horse trailer.
"The first horse only got his two front legs out before he stopped and started grazing," Folsom said. "We had to move him so we could get the others out."
A veterinarian is set to examine the animals today.
Folsom described the case as "moderate" and said the horses should return to normal weight in about five or six months.
The Sheriff's Office will seek a civil court order to keep the horses and then auction them.
"We sell them so we can recoup the costs of our investigation," he said.
Deputies haven't determined the reason the animals were so underweight. Maybe it was financial, Folsom speculated. He sees more of that in a down economy.
"It's certainly not from a lack of education," he said. "I have no doubt that she loved these animals. But she hasn't provided what Florida law requires."