Case Snapshot
Case ID: 11172
Classification: Neglect / Abandonment
Animal: horse
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Wednesday, Mar 21, 2007

County: Jackson

Charges: Misdemeanor, Felony CTA
Disposition: Alleged

Alleged:
» Matthew Mercier
» James Henderson, Jr.

Case Updates: 16 update(s) available

Sixty-nine horses are found in Jackson County starving and allegedly stranded.

Jackson County sheriff deputies are searching for James Henderson Jr. and Matthew Mercier, the owners of Turn 3 Ranch in Grass Lake Township.

Both are wanted for animal cruelty.

To touch her is nothing but bone," says Jackson County Animal Control director Kim Luce of a 4-year-old mare. "You can see the rib indentation, her hips," she says. That mare is one of 69 horses they found on this farm they've now impounded. They were left without food or water, the vet thinks probably since fall.

"What got us on the property was a running at large complaint and when we got here there a dead horse in the driveway," Luce says.

30 were stuffed into the barn, where horse manure and urine acumulated, and the rest were running wild in fields with string, wire, and woods with nails on the ground.

The problems seen endless, and they're about to multiply.

"We have approximately 30 pregnant mares," Luce says.

The goals for now are short term--get rid of the junk and make the ranch liveable, and get these animals back to health. Beyond that, they're not sure what they'll do with as many as 100 neglected horses.

Volunteers from the Leelanau Horse Rescue were called, let by Jackson County horse farm owner Laura Steenrod. "The biggest and most urgent need is hay--we need to get these horses fed," she says.

Volunteers have been at work now for about 48 hours, clearing fields, feeding the horses, and marveling at how anyone could do this.

"They just turned a blind eye and walked away," Steenrod says.

They are accepting donations to Leelanau Horse Rescue at P.O. 859, Leeland, Michigan 49654. They ask anyone with goods or services to call 517-937-0526

The two men face 93 days in jail on a charge of animal cruelty.


Case Updates

The Michigan Court of Appeals has reinstated criminal charges in a case involving 69 horses in Jackson County. In a 12-page opinion released Feb. 3, a three-judge panel reinstated three felony counts of animal torture against Matt Mercier and James Henderson Jr. on grounds the pair willfully failed to seek necessary care and treatment for the horses. The panel also ruled that the seizure of the horses was lawful.

Henderson and Mercier were originally charged with the felonies and three misdemeanor animal abuse counts in March 2007 after Jackson County animal control officials seized the horses belonging to Henderson from a ranch operated by Mercier. Following the seizure one horse was euthanized and three were adopted out. A District Court judge later ordered the remaining horses sold at auction to defray the county's cost of their care.

But last May, a Circuit Court judge ruled that the horses' forfeiture was improper, and ordered that Henderson be reimbursed for the horses' value. In August, another Circuit Court judge dismissed the criminal animal-torture against the pair on grounds that the District Court erred in finding probable cause in the case.

The Appeals Court opinion reverses both Circuit Court rulings.

"I feel vindicated," said Jackson County Assistant Prosecutor Jerrold Schrotenboer.

But Henderson's attorney Michael Dungan called the opinion "frankly frightening."

"It means that the owner of an animal is subject to liability without knowledge or fault," he said. "This ruling affects every single person in Michigan who owns an animal."

Dungan said he and Mercier's attorney Susan Meinberg will appeal both the criminal and civil forfeiture cases to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Source: The Horse.com - Feb 10, 2009
Update posted on Feb 10, 2009 - 3:30PM 
A Jackson County, Mich., judge ruled on Friday that James Henderson, Jr. was improperly forced to forfeit 69 horses during a controversial animal cruelty case, and that he should be reimbursed for their value.

According to Ronald J. Fabian, attorney for Matt Mercier, the horses' caretaker, Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Wilson ruled that there were no reasonable grounds for Henderson to forfeit his horses. Wilson also ordered the county's District Court to determine the value of the horses--most of which were sold to cover the cost of their care--and pay Henderson that sum.

In March 2007, Henderson and Mercier were each charged with three counts of felony animal torture and one count of misdemeanor animal abuse after Jackson County Animal Control authorities seized a total of 69 horses owned by Henderson from a ranch operated by Mercier. The felony charges were dismissed last month by Circuit Court Judge Chad C. Schmucker.

Neither Mercier's attorney Michael Dungan nor prosecutor Jerrold Schrotenboer were available for comment.
Source: The Horse Magazine - May 18, 2008
Update posted on May 18, 2008 - 9:07PM 
Attorneys for two horsemen vindicated of felony torture say they will win the remaining misdemeanor animal cruelty case and Jackson County will pay for the horses it seized.

Circuit Judge Chad Schmucker on Wednesday dismissed felony counts against farm owner James Henderson and herd manager Matt Mercier, saying there was no evidence the men intended to harm their horses.

"This is a case that never should have been brought in the first place," Henderson's attorney, Michael Dungan, said. "If Animal Control had only listened to their own veterinarian, and their own first choice horse rescue team, this case never would have been started."

Prosecutors maintain a history of neglect and poor conditions led to torture. They are still considering appealing Schmucker's ruling.

"If we do appeal, it will be in the next 10 days," Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mark Blumer said.

Animal Control investigated Turn 3 Ranch, east of Grass Lake, in March 2007 and took control of the farm and 69 horses. After the foaling season, the county eventually was responsible for maintaining more than 80 horses.

Nearly all were sold at auctions last fall, most at low prices reflecting the depressed horse market. Two barrel-racing stallions sold for $10,000 each.

The county's expense, not including prosecution, exceeds $133,000. The county sold the horses for about $50,000.

The tab could climb considerably if Circuit Judge Thomas Wilson rules the forfeiture was improper, or if Henderson and Mercier win in a threatened civil suit. Wilson will hear a motion May 16 to overturn the forfeiture ordered by District Judge Joseph Filip last summer.

Attorney Richard Ginsberg, who represents Henderson in the civil matter, will ask Wilson to toss the forfeiture ruling and order the county to make financial amends. Ginsberg could not be reached for comment.

Making Henderson whole again, in legal terms, could require replacing 83 horses, covering lost stud fees and other lost income.

The misdemeanor abuse case, separate from the civil forfeiture issue, is scheduled to go to trial June 16. The felony charges referred to three horses, while the cruelty case covers the other 66 horses on the farm in March 2007.

Ronald Fabian, attorney for Mercier, said Mercier will not take a plea in the misdemeanor case nor will Henderson.

"Jim would lose his job," Fabian said.

Henderson is a veteran probation officer for Ann Arbor, specializing in supervising defendants convicted of domestic violence.

Testimony in District and Circuit courts indicated Henderson was an absentee owner and that Mercier ran the farm. Testimony also has shown the farm was in disrepair, although a veterinarian testified before Schmucker that debris was mostly outside the horse pens and that Mercier followed his treatment recommendations.

The farm community has been uneasy about the action, fearing a foot in the door for further seizures of livestock deemed to be neglected, abused or tortured. Farmers fear animal welfare officers that confuse farm animals with household pets.

"Congratulations Jim and Matt," the road sign at the Napoleon Cafe declared this week after Schmucker's ruling.

"That is how the community looks at this case," Fabian said. "There was all kinds of testimony that these guys were regular farmers and that Animal Control's own veterinarian, Dr. Shray, said the horses were in good condition."

Testimony from various witnesses indicated Mercier and Henderson were not practicing the best of animal husbandry, and that some horses were undernourished and in need of veterinary care. Horses broke down fences and ran in the roads numerous times.

James Spink, a police officer, farmer and president of the Jackson County Farm Bureau, delivered donated hay to Turn 3 in the first two days it was seized.

"There were some issues with the condition of the facilities, and with enough feed on hand for that time of winter," Spink said. "But it wasn't felony torture. I think the judge ruled appropriately."

The Jackson County Sheriff's Office recently took over Animal Control, and there has been speculation that some Animal Control staff and the lead prosecutor on the Grass Lake case may have been forced out.

Undersheriff Thomas Finco said Friday no one was fired over the horse case, and that changes recently instituted were at the animal shelter and had nothing to do with horses.

"When we get cruelty to animal complaints, we are going to investigate them," Finco said.

As for the lead prosecutor, Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Lamp was hired as an assistant prosecutor in Ingham County. She said at the time it was a career move.

"No one asked her to leave," Blumer said.

Regardless of the criminal and civil outcome, the way Animal Control conducts business may change.

Spink said the farm community will not tolerate animal abuse or torture, but also will fight further attempts to seize livestock or to equate farm animals with household pets.

Jackson attorney Alfred Brandt, who has handled several animal cruelty cases involving farmers, said he recommends that farmers facing an Animal Control investigation should contact the Michigan Department of Agriculture for an independent investigation.

That move helped him defend a Leoni Township farmer who was accused of keeping sloppy pig pens and not properly burying dead piglets. A judge tossed the case.

"Always call the Department of Ag," Brandt said. Early in the Grass Lake case, Animal Control called state veterinarians who said the horses' body conditions ranged from poor to moderate. They also said trash and debris posed safety risks to the horses.

Spink said the Jackson County Farm Bureau is working with local legislators to pass a bill that would require animal welfare officers to seek search warrants based on probable cause.

"Now, they can walk in your house or barn on a hunch," Spink said. "They have more search powers than law officers. This case snowballed out of hand, and Animal Control did not have a grip."
Source: Jackson Citizen Patriot - May 2, 2008
Update posted on May 5, 2008 - 1:55PM 
There is no evidence the owner or manager of a Grass Lake Township farm intended to harm three horses they were accused of torturing, a judge decided Wednesday.

Circuit Judge Chad Schmucker issued a written opinion dismissing the three felony torture charges against owner James Henderson Jr. and manager Matthew Mercier, saying the felony case never should have made it to Circuit Court. It has been nearly a year since torture charges were filed.

"At a minimum, there is disputed evidence of neglect, but there is simply no evidence that these defendants intended to harm any of these three animals," Schmucker wrote.

Henderson and Mercier still face one misdemeanor count of neglecting the 66 horses kept with the three horses. The case will next come before the court May 30.

Jackson County Animal Control seized all 69 horses in March 2007, pointing to unsafe and unsanitary farm conditions. After foaling season, the herd grew to more than 80.

District Judge Joseph Filip in July ordered the horses forfeited to the county after an eight-day hearing in conjunction with a preliminary examination.

A few animals were adopted, one was euthanized and the rest were sold last fall.

Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mark Blumer said Wednesday's ruling has no effect on the earlier forfeiture decision.

"Legally, it is a 100-percent separate issue," he said.

Mercier and Henderson have said they will pursue a civil suit to recoup their property losses.

Mercier said he was "absolutely elated" that the felony charges were dropped, but said the case was a waste of resources. The preliminary exam involved 1,963 pages of transcript and 33 witnesses.

"I cannot speak how thankful I am how this judge looked at it from a reasonable viewpoint," Mercier said. "All this time and money were wasted on getting the felony charges. I would be absolutely outraged as a taxpayer."

Blumer said the prosecutor's office is reviewing its options and might appeal the Wednesday decision.

"The real issue here is, how do you define torture in these animal cases?" he said. "We respectfully disagree with the judge."

Prosecutors alleged that poor conditions Henderson and Mercier created at the farm caused the three horses to suffer. They said this amounted to torture, which, as defined by state law, is committed by someone "who woefully, maliciously, and without just cause or excuse, tortures an animal."

Blumer said his office stands by its decision to file the felony charges. "We charged what we thought was appropriate based on the circumstances," he said.

Defense attorneys said Filip was wrong in finding there was probable cause to justify the torture charges because Henderson and Mercier never deliberately hurt the animals, and Schmucker's opinion supports that view.

"Even assuming both defendants were on the farm, their mere negligent acts are not enough," Schmucker wrote. "They may have simply been below-average farmers making unintentional mistakes, which is what it appears the District Court concluded.

"I find that because there was no finding by the District Court to suggest that either of the defendants knew their actions were wrong at the time this crime was committed, or that they intended to cause physical or mental harm to any of these three animals, that the District Court erred in finding probable cause."
Source: Mlive - May 1, 2008
Update posted on May 2, 2008 - 2:25AM 
Friday, Matthew Mercier and James Henderson were back in court asking a judge to throw out three felony charges against them. In March of 2007 workers from the Jackson County animal control seized 69 horses from the turn three ranch in grass lake, which Mercier and Henderson ran.

Animal control says the horses were starving and malnourished.

But the men's attorneys say they can't be charged with torture because they did not intend to hurt the animals.

Mercier and Henderson's attorney: "Prosecutors can't prove these guys did anything on purpose."

Jerry Schrotenboer, Jackson County Prosecutor's Office: "Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required only at trial. All we have to do is prove is conscientious disregard of risk."

A judge will decide on the motion to dismiss charges in the next couple weeks.
Source: WLNS - April 26, 2008
Update posted on Apr 27, 2008 - 11:23PM 
Jackson County is taking a budget hit after tending to more than 80 horses seized last spring in an animal cruelty investigation.

As of Nov. 30, overtime wages for county animal control employees had come to nearly 400 percent of the amount budgeted for 2007, officials said. Food and medical expenses also were inflated.

County commissioners on Tuesday were to consider transferring $84,100 for wages and $20,000 for food from its contingency fund to cover the expenses.

"All of it is related to those horses," acting county Administrator Randy Treacher told the Jackson Citizen Patriot. "Horses eat a lot."

Animal control officials in March swarmed the Turn-3 Ranch, a horse farm in Grass Lake Township about 65 miles west of Detroit. They found 69 horses - including quarterhorses and thoroughbreds - standing amid piles of trash, rusted auto parts and animal feces. Several of the horses were visibly malnourished, according to news reports.

The owner of the farm, James Henderson Jr. and Matthew Mercier, who managed the horses, are charged with felony animal torture relating to three of the horses.

One of the horses was euthanized for a hip injury after the seizure, and more than half of the horses were late found to be pregnant. About 15 foals were born after the raid.

A few horses were adopted out, but most were sold at auctions that raised less than $50,000 for the county, Treacher said.

Donations for the horses poured in at first, but trailed off as the case continued.

The county budgeted nearly $400,000 for its contingency fund, which covers unplanned expenses, county finance officer Gerard Cyrocki said.

Henderson and Mercier have denied that the horses were harmed.
Source: Battle Creek Enquirer - Dec 10, 2007
Update posted on Dec 10, 2007 - 5:16PM 
The impending case against two Jackson County ranch owners accused of animal abuse will continue well into 2008 before its resolved. The original trial date was set for January 7, 2008, for Matthew Mercier and James Henderson. The two are charged with three counts of felony animal torture and misdemeanor animal cruelty, for
failing to properly care for 66 horses living on their grass lake farm.

The judge has now planned for a three-day evidentiary hearing. The trial is not likely to begin until late winter a year after the charges were filed.
Source: WILX - Dec 3, 2007
Update posted on Dec 3, 2007 - 3:04PM 
A Grass Lake man facing trial on animal cruelty charges was questioned Oct. 6 about allegations he was stalking two animal control officers and "keyed" their vehicles at an auction.

James Edward Henderson Jr., 42, told a Lenawee County deputy sheriff he followed a Jackson County animal control officer at the auction as he was going to a restroom, according to a report released Friday. Seven horses seized from him earlier this year were being auctioned at Tom Moore Sales, 11771 W. U.S. 223. Officials seized 69 horses after allegations were made that the herd he and Matthew Patrick Mercier, 32, of Manchester owned were suffering from neglect and dangerous living conditions.

The animal control officers told a deputy that Henderson followed one of the officers when she exited the auction barn to call a Jackson County assistant prosecutor. As she walked around the barn, the officers said, Henderson continued to follow her from about 10 feet away. He did step into another barn for a short time, they said.

Later, the officers found their vehicles, one a pickup owned by Jackson County and the other a privately owned sport utility vehicle, had been scratched on their passenger sides.
Source: Lenawee Connection - Oct 14, 2007
Update posted on Oct 14, 2007 - 4:34PM 
A pre-trial date is now set for the end of August.
Source: WLNS - July 31, 2007
Update posted on Aug 2, 2007 - 1:21AM 
Both Matthew Mercier and James Henderson are being charged with three counts of animal torture and one count of animal abuse. A judge ruled their case will go to trial. Mercier and Henderson's next court date is set for July 31st.
Source: WLNS - July 21, 2007
Update posted on Jul 22, 2007 - 8:20AM 
Two men at the center of a Jackson County animal abuse case take the stand in their own defense. The men are the last of three to testify in their preliminary hearing. Matthew Mercier spent three and a half hours on the stand. He told the court he was the main caretaker on the Grass Lake farm where animal control officers found nearly 70 starving horses living in poor condition. Mercier blamed a broken electric fence for the downplow of the farm. He says it made it difficult to manage the herds' nutritional needs. When asked why the horses were found standing in their own waste, Mercier admitted he was a month behind cleaning the barn because his backhoe was in the shop.

Matthew Mercier, defendant: "It was cosmetic of the bond, I mean the bond got uglier. I don't get housekeeper of the year award. It wasn't pretty, I mean I wasn't to the level where it was detrimental to the animals' health."

The other defendant, James Henderson, also took the stand. Henderson says he bankrolled the farm and owned most of the horses. The judge is expected to hear from one more witness before deciding whether or not there's enough evidence to send Mercier and Henderson to trial.
Source: WLNS - July 17, 2007
Update posted on Jul 17, 2007 - 3:50PM 
One of the 69 horses impounded on a Grass Lake Township farm was treated for a leg injury Thursday after a brief court battle.

The 2-year-old filly was treated by Dr. James Irving of Oakdale Large Animal Clinic for a wire cut on its hind leg. The animal was taken there at the request of the horses' owners, Matthew Mercier and James Henderson Jr., who are charged with animal neglect.

"We wanted to make absolutely sure she was going to be seen by the best," Henderson said. "It's very unfortunate that the animal suffered."

Irving said the injury is healing well, but the horse will have a "nasty-looking scar."

The horse was taken to the clinic by Jackson County Animal Control and Mercier, then was taken back to the farm to the care of Animal Control. The filly's body condition was about a 3 on a 9-point scale, with 9 being obese, Irving said.

"She looked like a horse that wintered outside in Michigan," he said.

Animal Control had filed a request in District Court to take the horse to Michigan State University, where a year-old colt -- ranked as a 2 on the 9-point scale -- was examined and euthanized last week.

The horses' owners objected Wednesday, and a judge ruled in their favor.

"These two men still have an ownership interest in these horses," said their lawyer, Michael Dungan. "They want to know how their horses are treated."

Henderson said he had scheduled an appointment for the horse earlier, but had to cancel it when the horses were seized.

Messages left with county Animal Control Director Kimberlee Luce were not immediately returned.

Henderson also said he was not informed the colt was euthanized until after the fact -- a reason they fought Animal Control to care for this horse.

"If a vet said that he had to be euthanized I would have listened, but I would have liked to have had an opinion," he said. "I would have had him seen by an independent specialist."

Animal Control seized the Turn-3 Ranch horses last month. Veterinarians with the state Department of Agriculture said the horses were malnourished and suffered from "obvious neglect."

But a vet for the owners said most of the horses were in fair to good condition.
Source: The Citizen Patriot - April 20, 2007
Update posted on Apr 20, 2007 - 8:35PM 
One of the neglected horses confiscated from a Jackson County farm has been euthanized. Officials tell us that a young colt had a hip injury that could not be treated and that the horse was living in severe pain, and had to be put down.

During the last week of March, Jackson County Animal Control seized the turn three ranch on suspicion of animal cruelty. The farm owners have since pled not guilty to charges of animal neglect.
Source: WLNS - April 12, 2007
Update posted on Apr 12, 2007 - 10:57AM 
Half of the 69 horses impounded on a Grass Lake Township farm last month likely are pregnant and many of them are close to foaling, officials say.

The animals were seized March 21 after officials discovered several emaciated horses and hazardous conditions on the Turn-3 Ranch. All of the farm's mares were exposed to stallions.

Jackson County Animal Control said many of the horses have been bumped up to fair condition and are doing much better than they were several weeks ago. But it can be dangerous for pregnant horses recovering from neglect, Director Kimberlee Luce said Wednesday.

Officers are preparing the farm for a possible influx of foals by keeping the grounds quiet and creating a fenced area in the pasture for the mares and foals.

James Henderson Jr., a probation officer for the 15th District Court in Ann Arbor, and Matthew Mercier, who co-own Turn-3 Ranch, are each charged with one count of animal neglect, a 93-day misdemeanor.
Source: Ann Arbor News - April 5, 2007
Update posted on Apr 6, 2007 - 6:24AM 
Two men accused of severely neglecting 69 horses on a Jackson County farm on Monday disputed the charges and provided The News with a letter from a local veterinarian who says the horses were in good to fair condition.

James Henderson Jr., a probation officer for the 15th District Court in Ann Arbor, and Matthew Mercier, who co-own Turn-3 Ranch in Grass Lake, are each charged with one count of animal neglect, a 93-day misdemeanor.

The men also could face a steep bill from Jackson County for medical and other expenses being incurred while county employees and volunteers work to nourish the horses and clean up debris at the farm.

The investigation into conditions at Turn-3 Ranch began last month as a result of neighbor complaints about horses roaming free and a dead horse on the property, Jackson County Sheriff Dan Heyns said. When the department's animal control officer visited the farm, not far from the Jackson-Washtenaw county border, she discovered "shocking and appalling'' conditions on the 180-acre farm, Heyns said.

"I understand there were 69 horses in varying states of abuse and neglect - with parasites, disease and starvation,'' Heyns said.

Henderson and Mercier were arraigned through their attorney Friday and face a pretrial hearing on the charges May 4.

Henderson, an 11-year probation department employee who is assigned to domestic violence cases, declined to comment Monday and referred questions to his attorney.

The attorney, Dennis Hurst of Jackson, pointed to a March 27 letter from a veterinarian who evaluated the horses along with the animal control officer March 16.

"It appears there is a significant difference of opinion as to whether the animals were properly cared for,'' Hurst said.

In the letter, Robert Sray, a veterinarian with Northwest Veterinary Clinic in Jackson, said that he visited the farm March 16 and found ample water and food for the horses. He said three were in poor condition, but two of them were more than 25 years old and all three were responsive and eating hay.

Sray also wrote that most of the horses in a herd of 40 were in good to fair condition, with no signs of illness and injury, and several mares were due to foal in the next few months.

Kimberlee Luce, Jackson County director of animal control, said she sought opinions from veterinarians from another county and the Michigan Department of Agriculture, who described the horses as being in states ranging from emaciated to poor condition. She described the conditions on the farm as unsanitary and unsafe - with horses crowded into too-small stalls with nails, needles, garbage and huge mounds of manure on the grounds.

"We haven't had to put down any horses at this time, and they should be able to recover, depending on the extent of the underfeeding,'' Luce said.

The horses were impounded by animal control officers March 21. A state veterinarian brought in to evaluate them said they appeared to have been neglected for about six months, officials said.

Turn-3 Ranch advertised stud fees and said it specialized in raising top-quality horses that can race and win at barrel racing. The horses were described as thoroughbreds, quarter horses and paints.

There is no home on the property, Luce said. Both men are believed to be Jackson County residents.

Keith Zeisloft, court administrator for the 15th District Court, confirmed Henderson's employment Monday but said he didn't have any information on the criminal case. Mercier's employment was not known.

Jackson County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mark Blumer said the investigation is ongoing, and he can't say whether the men could face any additional charges. He said his office moved quickly to authorize charges because that allows for billing the men for the costs of caring for the horses and property.

"You're talking a substantial bill for the costs incurred by the county to take custody of and care for 69 horses,'' Blumer said. "I don't know if they'll all make it, but I understand most will be able to be nursed back to health. I've been a prosecutor a long, long time and have never heard of an animal investigation of this kind of scale.''

Since the investigation became public last week, volunteers and donations have been pouring in, and a horse rescue group based in Leelanau County is assisting, Heyns said.

"It's amazing how people have poured out their hearts,'' Heyns said. "It's not going to be an easy recovery process.''
Source: Ann Arbor News - April 3, 2007
Update posted on Apr 4, 2007 - 1:57AM 
The two suspects accused of starving nearly 70 horses on a Jackson County farm have turned themselves in. 31-year-old Matthew Mercier and 42-year-old James Henderson Junior ran the Turn 3 Ranch in Grass Lake Township.

After eluding police for nearly a week, the two faced a Jackson County circuit court judge Monday. They have now both been charged with animal neglect.
Source: WLNS - April 3, 2007
Update posted on Apr 4, 2007 - 1:53AM 

References

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