Gail Nichols will spend 90 days in jail followed by 10 years' probation for failing to care for her miniature horses.
BARTOW — Lakeland veterinarian Gail Nichols, who was convicted of animal cruelty in June for failing to care for her miniature horses, was sentenced Wednesday to 90 days in jail followed by 10 years' probation.
Circuit Judge Wayne Durden also ordered her to surrender her veterinary license within 30 days, and he prohibited her from owning, possessing or treating any animals in the future. If she should require a service animal at some point, he said, Nichols would have to provide proof before that would be permitted.
Nichols, 68, who's been in custody since her conviction June 6, was given credit for the time she's already served in the Polk County Jail. Given that, she's expected to be released in early September.
She faced up to five years in prison for each of the four animal cruelty convictions, which are third-degree felonies. She also was found guilty by a jury on two counts of misdemeanor animal abandonment.
Before Durden handed down his sentence, Nichols, who attended Wednesday's hearing in a wheelchair, read a prepared statement seeking leniency because of her health problems. She also sought permission to continue owning and treating animals.
“I would ask that I be able to continue working as a well-established doctor of veterinary medicine that I have proven myself to be over the past 22 years,” she said. “In addition, there have been no complaints by clients against my license during my entire professional career.”
She stepped through her professional career and offered anecdotal stories about animals she treated for those whom she anticipated would never pay her.
“I have dedicated my entire adult life to the care and well-being of animals,” she said.
Several veterinarians sent letters to Durden praising Nichols' professional record, along with her compassion and dedication to animals, according to her court file.
During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence that miniature horses owned by Nichols and housed at her 3211 West Bella Vista St. property in North Lakeland had been neglected. Jurors saw photographs of animals with hooves so overgrown they curled up atop the horses' feet, impeding the animals' ability to walk. Some of them were experiencing bone loss because of the hoof problem, according to testimony by veterinarians.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office had seized the 28 miniature horses following an inspection triggered by a tip, and prosecutors pursued criminal charges involving six of them.
Nichols' husband, Paul Craig Smith, 76, who also was arrested for animal cruelty and abandonment, pleaded no contest a week after Nichols' trial to six counts of animal abandonment. He was sentenced to five years' probation, according to court records.
By pleading no contest, he neither contested nor admitted to the allegations against him, but legally, the plea is the equivalent to a guilty plea.
Suzie Schottelkotte can be reached at email@example.com or 863-533-9070. Follow her on Twitter @southpolkscene.