Hadley woman sentenced to 5 years’ probation in animal cruelty case

SHANNON RICE-NICHOLS

SHANNON RICE-NICHOLS

Thistlebloom Farm in Amherst, where Shannon Rice-Nichols kept cows and goats, is seen in August 2022. An investigation determined the animals were malnourished and neglected and she was charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty.

Thistlebloom Farm in Amherst, where Shannon Rice-Nichols kept cows and goats, is seen in August 2022. An investigation determined the animals were malnourished and neglected and she was charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 01-11-2024 11:48 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A Hadley woman charged with animal cruelty in 2022 after nine cows and 22 goats were seized from the Amherst farm where she was keeping them will spend five years on probation after pleading guilty Friday to three counts in the 35-count indictment.

Shannon Rice-Nichols, 51, told Judge Edward McDonough she took responsibility for her actions, which led to the deaths of two named cows, Mama and Patience, and a goat, Grande.

“To say I will live forever with remorse and grief is an understatement,” she said after being sentenced on the felony charges in Hampshire Superior Court.

The commonwealth declined to prosecute Rice-Nichols on the remaining counts.

McDonough endorsed the terms of the plea agreement, which prohibits Rice-Nichols from possessing or working with livestock, and requires her to complete the online Benchmark Animal Rehabilitation Curriculum (BARC). The judge noted that violation of her probation could lead to a prison sentence up to the maximum sentence of seven years.

Rice-Nichols’ attorney, Zoe Zeichner, said her client acknowledges she should have asked for help and tried to find new homes for the animals sooner. She characterized the events leading to Rice-Nichols’ arrest as “the worst series of failures in her life.”

Recounting the facts of the case, Assistant District Attorney Erin Aiello said Amherst’s animal welfare officer, Carol Hepburn, responding to a complaint from a neighboring farmer, visited Thistlebloom Farm on March 11, 2022, and found one cow that was dead and another downed. Seven cows in the barn were found to be malnourished and covered in feces.

Hepburn contacted the state veterinarian, Lorraine O’Connor, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. Farm co-owner Catherine Bell told investigators that she hired Rice-Nichols, who had previously worked as farm manager for Hampshire College, to help run the farm, and that she had then brought the cows and goats over. Bell said the cows were in poor condition when they arrived, and their condition deteriorated while at the farm.

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Sgt. William Loiselle, an MSPCA investigator, reported that the cows had not been out of their pens in six weeks and were standing in 2 to 3 feet of feces with no grain feeders, Aiello said. Twenty-two goats were similarly mired in feces, with hay on top for feed. The downed cow was euthanized on scene, and an emaciated goat was euthanized later.

Rice-Nichols told investigators the animals were hers, that she alone was responsible for the animals’ condition, and that Bell and co-owner Karl Zimmerman were not to blame. Nine cows and 22 goats, all described as severely neglected and infected with parasites, were taken to the MSPCA’s Nevins Farm in Methuen.

Aiello told the court that, beyond the suffering of the animals, the case constituted a significant drain on resources, with the involvement of several state agencies and the cost of handling the animals alone running to many thousands of dollars.

Two months after the animals were seized, the MSPCA told the Gazette that all the cows had been adopted and that half the goats would be adoptable, but that the other half had been euthanized because they were infected with caprine arthritis encephalitis (CAE).

In her emotional statement, Rice-Nichols spoke of how “animals can be a part of you ... like an internal vibration,” and gave some of the history and character of the animals who died. She said Patience was suffering from Q fever, a bacterial disease she said she herself had contracted, and that she had spent a lot of money on vets to find this out.

During the pandemic, she said, she had focused on helping others but had been unable to help herself.

“The shock of it all has been so gut-wrenching,” she said.

In a follow-up email to the Gazette, she wrote, “I will take this time to heal from the devastating effects of Q fever infection,” which she said had damaged her brain and exacerbated other injuries.

“Out of respect for my animals, I will also work hard with stakeholders in the region to provide resources and support to other farmers who suffer from brain injury or sudden illness.”

Aiello acknowledged that the long term of probation under the plea deal was not a typical sentence.

“The goal is to make sure the defendant can’t own, possess or work with livestock,” she said.