Stallion #11, now also known as Sarge, was the most incorrigible of the seven stallions seized from the Palmyra, PA farm of Rebecca Roberts. He had begun to charge the staff at Gentle Giants and reared up on his stall bars when anyone walked by. Euthanasia was considered but instead of was placed with experienced stallion handlers at Sunset Valley Farm in Union Bridge, MD. He is now a "puppy dog" in the care of trainer Jessica Millard, pictured. (Credit Christopher Gardner Photograpy)
When Amy Kaunas opens the stall door, a petite black mare stretches out her nose to greet her, leaning in for a good neck scratch. Kaunas, the executive director of the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area, obliges, telling a visitor only months ago the horse now known as Sioux would cower in the back of her stall, terrified of human contact.
“They have such bonds with people now, for having been wild,” said Kaunas.
It has been a long road to rehabilitation for Sioux and the more than two dozen other horses, most of them Morgans, seized from horrendous conditions at a Palmyra farm more than a year ago.
And their ordeal is not over yet.
In all, 29 horses owned by Rebecca Roberts were removed by authorities in separate raids in late December 2012 and January 2013. First the humane society removed the five most emaciated horses, one so weak she had to be carried onto the trailer, and in the second raid rescuers removed another 24 horses from the barren mud pits that served as their corrals, manure so high it obscured the fence line.
In April Roberts was found guilty by a Harrisburg magisterial district justice on 30 counts of animal cruelty – 29 counts for each of the living horses and one charge for a mare on whom vet care was ordered but was found dead when they returned. Two other horses in various states of decay lay in the storage shed covered haphazardly with a tarp.
Adding to the heartbreak over the conditions of the live horses, said Kaunas, were the piles of horse bone found in a neighboring pasture the surviving horses were unable to access. Some of the bones were so small they clearly belonged to foals, she said.
The shelter’s law enforcement officer could not charge Roberts in connection with the equine remains because it was not clear how or when those horses died.
At the hearing, humane society police officer Bill Sandstrom and veterinarians who were on site, testified about the sick, starving and injured horses they saw and showed photographs of the desperate herd trapped in filthy paddocks with no food or water.
When it was over, Magisterial District Justice Lowell Witmer said he was stunned by the images and the testimony he heard.
He ordered Roberts to pay $27,638 in restitution to cover the cost of care of the horses, forbid her from owning or having contact with animals for seven years and five months and issued a $22,500 fine.
Witmer told Roberts at the hearing he would not send her to jail because she obviously needed psychological help and urged her lawyer to help her get treatment.
At the time, last April, Kaunas said the case was “far from over.” She was right.
Roberts, an attorney and owner of Shadowland Morgan Horses and Sport Horses, soon appealed the ruling to Dauphin County Court.
Her attorney, Eric Winter, said in a February, 2014 interview that Roberts is seeking to have the decision thrown out on procedural motions, including failure to follow proper search warrant procedures.
Barring that, he said, they want a new trial.
“The horses weren’t in perfect shape but they were not neglected to the level of cruelty,” said Winter.
Almost a year later, Kaunas says the Roberts case – the biggest large animal seizure they’ve had – is now one of the costliest animal cruelty cases in the shelter’s century-long history.
“It changed the face of the organization,” she said. “As a line item the horse care is now 10 percent of our budget. If we weren’t such a strong organization it would have crippled us.”
So far, the cost of caring for the horses has topped $110,000 and that doesn’t include countless hours of volunteer – and some professional -- labor, as well as roughly $50,000 in donations of food and supplies.
The shelter even bought a small farm in Dauphin County to care for the horses and others that were in the possession of Harrisburg Humane – and will come into the care of the shelter in the future - because of cruelty investigations.
Gentle Giants to the Rescue
For the first six months after the raid, the burden for caring for most of the horses fell to Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mt. Airy, MD.
When rescue founder Christine Hajek learned that Harrisburg Humane was conducting a large seizure and had no place to put all the horses, she offered to help move the horses and house them temporarily at her old facility even though they were not draft breeds.
A decade-long veteran of horse rescue, Hajek had no idea what she was in for.
The rescue took 24 of the horses; all but one behaved like wild Mustangs right off the range, she said.
“It had been a survival of the fittest environment for them,” said Hajek after seeing the horses in what she described as deplorable conditions. “We weren’t prepared for how profoundly dangerous they were. They had no respect for humans.”
Weeks turned into months as Hajek and a band of volunteers tried to round up the horses and get them to the point where they could safely put halters on to evaluate them. Virtually all needed heavy sedation when they were examined by a veterinarian or had their overgrown feet trimmed by the farrier.
Hajek knew there were pregnant mares in the herd but it wasn’t until much later that she realized she had even bigger problem: there were seven stallions in her field.
All of the factors in this unusually difficult abuse case added up to a costly and dangerous undertaking, rescuers said.
At one point last year Hajek told Kaunas she was near her breaking point with one out-of-control stallion who had begun to charge at people and reared up on its stall bars when anyone walked by.
It was either euthanize him or put him in a different environment, she said.
Today Sarge, as he is known, is thriving in the care of experienced stallion handlers in Union Bridge, Md. The farm where he is being boarded, Valley Farm, has stallion-proof fields and trainers give him constant attention, Hajek said.
But many still have a long way to go in their training.
The duration of the case has led to happy events, like the birth of five foals, but also brought tragedy.
Soon after the raid, a pregnant mare, known as Big Momma, delivered a stillborn foal and then bled to death, the result of malnutrition or infection or both, a veterinarian testified at the trial.
Several months ago a stallion, while under the care of a farm operator in Maryland, got tangled in a section of high tensile wire fence, severely injuring his leg, and he had to be euthanized.
Cost of Care Act
Legislation that passed the state House early last summer and was signed into law by Gov. Corbett in July could have made the difference for the stallion and increased the possibility that most if not all of the horses would have had permanent homes by now.
The “cost of care” act requires that anyone charged with animal abuse either forfeit their animals or pay for the care of the animals in a shelter -- an amount capped at $15 per day plus veterinary expenses – for the duration of the court proceedings. However, the law was passed after the seizure occurred and so does not apply.
Kaunas said she believes that, had it affected this case, financial demands may well have ended the case.
“She has the money to fight the case, she should have had the money to feed the horses and keep the property serviceable,” said Hajek.
With no end to the appeal process in sight, Kaunas says she and others will continue to work with the horses, ensuring they have proper ground manners and begin under saddle training so that they may more easily find homes one day.
“We are putting a lot of time and energy into horses from a vet standpoint and a behavioral standpoint,” said Kaunas. “The goal is to go from a feral horse community to perfect riding companions. We can’t guarantee we will get there with every one, but every single one of them has made strides and are coming around for us.”