RICHMOND -- A rescuer of geriatric horses in the El Sobrante hills is being accused of animal cruelty by a county agency for allegedly allowing two of them to live out their days in pain instead of putting them out of their misery. The caretaker, in turn, is accusing the agency of "extreme vigilantism" for taking and euthanizing the animals over his protests.

Desicar, about 30, and Classy, about 20, were seized by the Contra Costa Animal Services Department last week and taken by truck to Martinez, where they were put down. The department has opened an inhumane treatment of animals case against Herk Schusteff for possible referral for criminal prosecution, Animal Services deputy director Rick Golphin said this week.

Schusteff acknowledges that Classy, which he said suffered from a congenital hoof and fetlock deformity, was nearing the point where she might have to be euthanized, but he insists Desi had several more good years ahead of him. Golphin, however, said veterinarians diagnosed the horse with equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, a neurological disorder, in addition to hoof and leg problems.

Schusteff says he has been feeding and caring for up to a dozen "indigenous" horses -- by that he means they have spent their entire lives in the area -- for the past 12 years on what once was more than 200 acres and now has dwindled to a little more than 60 acres. The area is a collection of large, intermittently wooded and grassy tracts held mostly by out-of-area owners, some with ideas of future development.

The horses that graze the hills are tolerated because they help control vegetation in an area that is prone to fires during the dry season, Schusteff said. His animals live all their lives outdoors, sometimes taking shelter under trees he trims to allow them to fit comfortably underneath. He says he spends about $350 a month to feed them.

Schusteff, 58, who lives nearby and is an artist, calls his horses and a handful of human friends "my family." The four remaining horses, which had been neglected and essentially abandoned, are between 24 and more than 30 years old, he estimates.

The episode highlights a chasm between people who treat horses as domestic animals that belong in stables and those who think the animals should live out their lives roaming the hills, free, with nature eventually taking its course.

"That's the way of the West," Schusteff said.

As Schusteff tells it, Animal Service officers first contacted him Feb. 18 after they spotted one of his horses, Belle, while they were on an adjacent tract responding to reports of a stray pinto that apparently belonged to someone else. The officers told Schusteff to do something about Belle, the 30-plus-year-old, who was underweight, apparently partly as a result of missing molars.

He called a veterinarian to work on Belle's teeth; on a subsequent visit, on Thursday, a dental practitioner came along and worked on two of Schusteff's horses.

At one point, Schusteff said, the veterinarian told him Classy needed to be put down immediately; an argument ensued. About 40 minutes later, Animal Services arrived, unannounced, Schusteff said.

"One of the officers said, 'You have two choices: Euthanize her on the spot, or Animal Services will take her,'" he said.

Schusteff did not consent. About an hour later, the agency decided to take Desi also, he said, so he begged officers to take Classy and leave Desi, to no avail.

Several hours later, with several more Animal Services trucks and officers on the scene, the agency trucked away the two horses.

"They severely traumatized Desi," Schusteff said. But Golphin said this week, "We don't just seize property or euthanize without a solid basis."

He said the investigation is not so much about Schusteff's alleged failure to have the two horses euthanized but rather for putting them through needless suffering. He said he could not comment further because an investigation is pending.

On Monday, Schusteff headed up the hill in the late afternoon, carrying two buckets with a mix of carrots and hay pellets. About five minutes into his climb, Belle appeared ahead.

As Schusteff spoke softly, Belle approached, neighing, followed by Tangueray, joined moments later by Sweetboy and Spirit, a mustang who mostly is cared for by a friend of Schusteff. As for the departed Desi and Classy, "Their spirit is there," Schusteff said. "I can feel the energy."

Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760 or tlochner@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.