The story is becoming depressingly familiar. Horses, lots of horses, neglected and in trouble, living in squalor. In plain sight. Passersby are shocked. Police are called. Humane officers investigate. Still the animals seem no closer to rescue and safety. Doesn’t anyone care?
The answer is, yes. Lots of people care, and lots of people are frustrated, angry and profoundly saddened by the sight of animals in distress. But the path from problem to solution is not always straight. Nor is it obvious. That fact marks the beginning and leads to the ongoing resolution of what appears to be a stunning case of equine neglect in Pennsylvania. It’s a nightmare of a case in which the truth is as elusive as a dream.
In December 2012 five horses—reportedly severely malnourished--were taken from Rebecca Roberts’ farm on Laudermilch Road in Palmyra. In January the remaining 24 horses were removed. Amy Kaunas, Executive Director of Harrisburg Humane Society says that the conditions were horrific. “Most of the horses, when it gets to this point, they are actually wild, they can’t even be touched.” The case was made even more controversial as a result of the misinformation surrounding it, adding a lot of overheated accusations against the farm owner, the Humane Society, and the police—suggesting that the people who should protect these animals were ignoring their responsibilities. Kaunas says that the United States Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment, affords many levels of protection to the owners of animals in these situations. “The laws are constitutional rights. A person has a right to their property. You can only enter a person’s property when there are exigent circumstances, when the animal is dying in front of you.”
Roberts’ attorney, Tom Beveridge, says that the Humane Society misplayed their hand right from the beginning. “From a practical perspective, the mission of the Harrisburg Humane Society is not just to prevent cruelty to animals,” he says. “It’s also to educate the public. If there were problems here, why didn’t the Humane Society offer assistance in order to correct these concerns?”
Horses Suffering in Plain View
In Facebook posts, concerned citizens expressed outrage that horses in a pasture in Palmyra were starving, sick and apparently ignored by the agencies meant to protect them. Commenting anonymously under the names “Justice for Route 743 Morgans” and “Neglected Horses,” posters questioned why nothing was done to help this herd of horses for more than two years. They cited instances where investigators allegedly failed to process warrants properly. They stated that police were called frequently. The misery of the horses, according to the posters, went on for two and a half years before the horses were finally seized by the Humane Society.
“We got a referral mid-December,” Kaunas says. “We visited the defendant on December 28.” As for the assertion in the Facebook posts that repeated calls to the police did not result in any action, Kaunas says that’s just not true. “The state police have no records of multiple phone calls and complaints. They received one phone call two years ago from an anonymous caller. There were absolutely not multiple calls.” The State Police said that they could not comment on the case—or on the assertion that many calls had been made—since an active investigation was ongoing, and a court hearing was scheduled.
Kaunas says that when they got the call from the local State Police troop, the Harrisburg Humane Society officers “took a drive out and immediately we could clearly see from the road that there was a horse with a body score of 1.” The Henneke Body Scoring system measures a horse’s body condition, and a score of 1 indicates that the horse is “extremely emaciated, with no fatty tissue.” The system is used by police and humane investigators, because it is standardized, requires no special equipment, and the animals can be assessed visually.
Once they were able to see an animal in obvious distress, Kaunas says, they began their protocol for resolving cases. Their first step is to try to get the owner to get veterinary help for the animals, and to educate the owner about proper care for the animals. “We always try to do an education. We ordered vet care within a finite time frame,” she explains. Since they could not see the whole herd, they didn’t recognize how desperate the situation was.
“We have to have probable cause to even begin an investigation,” Kaunas says. “And there has to be probable cause for us to get a warrant. Even if you tell me there are five sick dogs in someone’s house, I can’t just bust into their houses and take the dogs.” She said police officers operate under the same standards.
Roberts, according to Kaunas, failed to get veterinary care for her horses. When Humane Society officers returned to check on the situation, they saw a dead horse, and that’s when the investigation began. Beveridge says that the dead horse had been euthanized by a veterinarian. “The horse was still there when they (the Humane Society agents) went back to seize the horses, because Rebecca couldn’t get the service to come out and pick up the horse,” Beveridge explains. “I know that Rebecca had a vet who regularly cared for the horses. I believe there was a herd evaluation done shortly before this began. When I visited the farm the horses were together and they were fine.”
Referring to the volume of posts on Facebook and other blogs, he says that this case has been unfairly and untruthfully characterized. “It appears that we have a situation where this has unfortunately been tried in the court of public opinion without Rebecca having an opportunity to be heard.” He says there are posts with gruesome photos purported to be horses on Roberts’ property. But they are not even her horses, and the property is not hers. He says one of the pictures even has the Rocky Mountains in the background.
He believes this case could have been handled better, and says that Roberts has a good reputation in the horse industry. “She has been in the horse industry for many, many years and has bred and sold Morgan horses. With the recession the market is not what it used to be. We look at this and say, in this circumstance, this could have all been handled so much more efficiently with some understanding from the Humane Society. Rebecca has lost the economic value of her horses, not to mention the emotional value of her horses.”
A Feral Herd of Desperate Horses
Kaunas describes the roundup of the herd as a frightening, wild event. “There were seven stallions. When you get horses that are this reactive, they’re going to do things that domesticated horses won’t do.” Christine Hajek, who operates Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mount Airy, MD assisted with the collection of the horses on the Roberts property. “It was really challenging to be able to move them safely, because they hadn’t been handled and it was stressful for them,” she explains. “We had to move them in groups. It wasn’t possible to cut stallions from mares, because they had been running in a band for so long.” And then there was the mud. It was everywhere. Hajek says that there was incredibly deep mud all over the property. The humans trying to herd the horses into chutes were struggling just to move around in the mud.
Beveridge disputes implications that Roberts’ farm was disorganized and dangerous for the horses. “Was she able to provide care for the horses at a level sufficient for the horses? Yes,” he says emphatically. But he points out that there’s no such thing as perfection. “Could she have provided better care? The farm needed a lot of work.” He said when he visited he noticed things that needed repair. “I looked at some of the fencing that could be replaced and some areas that could do with some grounds keeping and some roofing work that needs to be done on the barn. Things like that.” But he says there was nothing that was dangerous for the horses. “The turn in the market has really taken a toll on her. She doesn’t have the market to sell the Morgans that she used to have, but her economic situation did not result in neglect of the horses.”
Twenty-one of the 29 horses are still at Gentle Giants. The others are on farms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Hajek says it’s going to take time to rehabilitate them all. “We actually have all but six of the horses in our care are now in halters and are able to be led around. They’re very intelligent horses. But we have our six remaining holdouts. They’re quite feral and suspicious of humans. We’ve tried to win them over with food. They understand now, when they see us coming they nicker.” Little by little, she and her staff are wearing the holdouts down. “Now we’re working on ‘will you eat with me 50 feet away? How about 40 feet away?’ This is the portion where we win by inches.” Those six horses, Hajek says, need hoof care, but it’s out of the question until they can be handled safely.
She already had 60 horses on her property when the horses from Palmyra arrived, and she knows that the Morgans will gradually blossom into very adoptable horses. But she sees the failure to socialize horses properly as its own form of neglect. “In a way, to me, my personal opinion, neglecting to handle your horses is a form of abuse in itself.” She understands that owning a horse brings responsibilities that many people don’t want to think about. “It’s difficult for me, even as a horse owner, while I never have any intention of ever selling them, I am not so arrogant to think that something couldn’t ever happen to me, and if it did happen, I want my horses to be valuable in the world. Part of that is to make sure they’re well trained.”
She says that one of the challenges right now is to get all the horses socialized enough so that they can go to foster homes. “There are not that many safe places in the world for a feral horse to fall,” she says.
Beveridge says that his aim is to get the horses back to Roberts as soon as possible. “What we’re really hoping is that Rebecca can get her horses back, and if there are concerns (about their care), they can address them,” he says. The situation has been exceedingly difficult for Roberts. “She misses the horses terribly. It’s such an integral part of her life that has been taken from her. She’s been very upset.”
Humane Organizations Overwhelmed
The state’s website lists about 230 humane officers that serve Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Some counties have none. And many of the officers are counted multiple times, because they’re responsible for 10, 15, even 20 counties. They investigate incidents of cruelty, neglect and abuse of all animals—from cats and dogs, to pigs, cows and horses. It’s a daunting numbers game and too often humane officers are blamed for abuse that is not discovered and prosecuted quickly.
When animals are seized from farms or homes, the humane organizations that take them have to figure out a way to pay for their care. As in the case of the horses seized from the Roberts farm in Palmyra, the care can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars. Veterinarians, blacksmiths, qualified handlers and trainers are responsible for ensuring that the animals rescued from abuse are not neglected.
Beveridge takes issue with some of the ways the Humane Society is approaching this funding dilemma. “The Humane Society is having a benefit for the horses, which we think is great, but they wanted to bring one of the horses out to meet the public.” He points out that the seized horses are evidence at this point, and should not become some sort of display for the public.
Kaunas says that a bill pending in the state legislature could offer some relief for organizations like hers. HB82, sponsored by Representative Brian R. Ellis (R., Butler County) would permit organizations like the Harrisburg Humane Society to seek costs from the individuals whose animals were seized. “Unfortunately restitution can already be granted under the law,” Kaunas says. “The reality of restitution being granted is that it’s okay, but most of the individuals we’re dealing with are not solvent.” Despite that, Kaunas believes that if the law passes, it will provide some incentives. “It’s one more tool we can use, to help defendants understand the seriousness of the situation. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether they’re solvent or not, the law makes it clear they’re digging themselves deeper and deeper” if they fail to take responsibility for the situations they’ve created.
Representative Ellis was not available to answer questions, but his bill did pass in the House and on January 25 it was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.