February 2014 | Controversial Bill Addresses Abandoned Horses
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Controversial Bill Addresses Abandoned Horses

February 2014 - Amy Worden

A bill moving through the Pennsylvania General Assembly would give boarding stable operators the ability to attach liens on horses in their care.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Elder Vogel (R., Allegheny),  specifies that stable owners would have the right to detain a horse and secure the cost of its care or auction it for non-payment of board.

It was approved unanimously by the Senate in November and now awaits action in the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.

The Pennsylvania Livery Providers Fair Lien Act was drafted to address the growing issue of horse abandonment raised by stable owners, said Vogel, who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.

“I have heard from stable owners that customers have chosen to abandon their property rather than pay for the care of the horses,” wrote Vogel in his co-sponsorship memo to fellow lawmakers. “The stable owner incurs feed and veterinary costs of caring for the abandoned animal.”

The bill originally included language that specified how the process would work – that the lien is enforceable 30 days after written for nonpayment and that the stable owner would then be able to petition the district magistrate for lien sale authorization, following an additional 20 day comment period. Vogel said the length of time was sufficient to allow for due process.

But that language was stripped out in the final process after banking interests expressed concern that they would not recoup costs in exercising the lien.

The bill (SB 995) was supported by the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, which represents 10,000 horse owners, breeders and trainers in the horseracing industry, because of what the group said was an increasing number of abandonments in recent years, said Mike Rader, executive director of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“It's an issue - both from a financial perspective and also an animal welfare perspective,” said Rader. “If a person doesn't have financial wherewithal to board a horse, they don't have the financial wherewithal to care for it. In the absence of being able to put a lien on the animal, the financial burden continues.”

Rader says the bill creates a framework where stable owners have some ability to continue to care for the horse through sale or lien. He said it mimics agriculture lien which covers farm implements and buildings but doesn't have a “compassionate approach.”

The legislation states that a stable owner’s lien attaches to a horse the day the horse is placed in the stable owner’s care and specifies the amount due for the care of the horse.

Details Stripped
The original draft of the bill contained detailed language of how the lien process would work, but it was stripped out of the final bill that passed the Senate unanimously in December after the banking industry raised the issue of lenders having first access to funds in those cases.

The Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association advocated for the bill as a way to address a problem affecting many farm owners, said the group’s executive director Jeb Hannum.

“In the current economic climate, Pennsylvania farms have encountered issues with some horse owners failing to pay boarding bills, leaving the farm owner responsible for paying and providing ongoing care and upkeep of the horses, potentially indefinitely,” said Hannum.  “These costs can add up very quickly and represent an unfair burden on farm owners.  This legislation would provide a means for farm owners to recoup the expenses they incurred in caring for the horse, expenses that the owner of the horse has refused to pay.”

The Pennsylvania Equine Council did not take a position on the bill, saying stable owners were already protected under existing agriculture lien statute.

“It’s duplicative of purpose,” said council president Skip Seifert. “We already have a mechanism in place.” Siefert said stable owners can still go to a magisterial district justice and request that an auction take place for nonpayment of bills.

“Agricultural liens will do what needs to be done,” he said, adding he has not heard complaints from members about an increase in abandoned horses.

Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said she is concerned that the rights of horse owners are not protected under the bill.

“While we are certainly supportive of a measure that ensures that horses cannot be abandoned without care,” said Speed, “we are concerned that this legislation does not outline a procedure which protects the rights of horse owners and boarding facilities.”

The original bill also contained language that was removed that would have forbidden a lien holder to sell a horse for slaughter. Vogel said he would support the no-slaughter provision if it was reinserted in the House version of the bill.

Amy Worden is a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer and author of Philly Dawg, a statewide blog focusing on animal welfare issues.