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For Want of a Horse

Will this generation of arabbers be Baltimore's last?

Photographs by Frank Klein
Dorothy Johns (left) stands with her father Ophas Allen (front right) outside the carlton street stable where they keep their horses.
Michael Garrett, Dorothy Johns' nephew, takes one of the Carlton Street horses for a ride.
Arabber Donald Savoy, Jr.

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 4/28/2010

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Animal welfare advocates have been trying to get the arabbers off the streets for years. In 1995, a year after several horses froze to death, an animal rights activist told The New York Times: "The only thing we're willing to negotiate is when will they go out of business--five years, four years?" Fifteen years later, the recent seizure has provided naysayers with fresh ammunition. The city brought in the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to help with the evaluation and transfer of the horses that were confiscated last fall. (HSUS also helped with the evacuation from the Retreat Street stables in 2007.) The organization's assessment was grim.

"I would describe the living conditions as squalor," says HSUS Equine Protection Specialist Stacy Segal, who was present. A video posted on the HSUS web site goes further. A dramatic soundtrack accompanies slow motion footage of the seizure of the horses. Scotlund Haisley, HSUS' senior director for emergency services, tells the camera: "It almost looked like vagrants just set up a squat right underneath the bridge . . . . These horses, they spend their entire day dragging these heavy carts. And these are the confines their owners bring them back to. Disgusting."

Arabber Preservation Society President Dan Van Allen says such videos are the work of an animal rights group, not "the Humane Society most people know." Unlike the American Humane Association, which it was once a part of, HSUS is not directly affiliated with local humane societies. It spends a good portion of its considerable funding on awareness campaigns, undercover investigations, and litigation. And, Van Allen says, HSUS has "an agenda to get horses off city streets."

HSUS' Stacy Segal acknowledges that is essentially true. "In this day and age, we believe that horses do not belong on city streets," she says. But, she contends, in working with the city of Baltimore, HSUS was simply looking for "certain standards of care." "We're definitely not on a mission to get rid of the arabbers," she says.

The city Health Department did not respond to questions about why HSUS in particular was chosen to help with the seizure of the horses. A spokesman e-mailed a statement that read in part: "The Health Department did not have the expertise needed to properly evaluate the health of the animals and make decisions about the medical care they need."

HSUS staffers were not the only equine experts present when the horses were taken. Dr. Rick Lewis, a veterinarian who serves on the city's Animal Control Advisory Committee, was there on a volunteer basis. His assessment mirrors that of HSUS. "This was a disaster. It was horrific. It was absolutely deplorable," he says. "Nineteen large ponies trying to nibble on straw sticking up through the manure. It just brings tears to your eyes."

The horses were taken to Days End Farm, where they remained until mid-March, when they were given back to the Savoys. Days End Farm manager Brooke Vrany, who was also present when the horses were seized, says there were three horses that were "very thin," and that most of the horses' hooves needed work. "Their living conditions were the biggest concern," she says. Besides the rats, the smell of ammonia, and the leaks, Vrany says there was not enough space in the tents. She says the arabbers need to take responsibility for the conditions, but she reserves most of her anger for the city.

"[This] became a political issue, and the care of the horses got lost in the mix," she says. "There's so much political shadiness involved." She points out that the city could have built a new stable with the money it spent moving the horses from place to place in the last few years. Their stay at Days End alone cost $40,000.

The Savoys, for their part, have repeatedly insisted that they did not mistreat their horses. They contend that the city would not let them clean the stables for two days prior to the seizure, which made them appear neglected. They say they were only allowed to feed and water the horses during that time.

"No one has ever made any allegation that there was any type of threat to the horses," says Joseph Mack, the pro bono attorney who represented the family in their negotiations with the city. "There was really no need for any type of dramatic seizure." Mack says the family was given no warning that conditions in the stables were unacceptable, and thus had no opportunity to correct them. A Health Department statement notes that "[t]here were previous notices posted or citations issued" twice, once in May of that year and once in June, five months before the horses were taken.

Animal welfare advocates say the citations the arabbers have accumulated over the years are warning enough. Bob Anderson, who retired as director of the Bureau of Animal Control in December, says the agency has fielded numerous complaints about poor treatment of horses by arabbers over the years, and acted on them when possible. "If you were to ask how many citations were written against those people in the last 10 years, it's multiple hundreds," he says. "They just do not try to follow the law."

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Tags: arabbers, humane society, horse

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