A disturbing scene straight out of Anna Sewall’s classic Victorian-era novel “Black Beauty,” played out on a Lancaster County road last month: A man in a straw hat bending over a horse lying on the pavement, appearing to beat the animal with his hands. Behind the bay horse was a wagon full of watermelons.
A horrified passerby stopped to snap some pictures she posted to Facebook and reported the incident to the police. The downed animal had to be euthanized later that day and a huge outcry erupted on social media.
Ephrata police on August 5 charged Marvin M. Sensenig, 20, with two counts of animal cruelty – one for kicking the horse in the abdomen and punching it in the head; the other for forcing the horse to “pull a farm wagon with a burden too great for a single horse.”
Sensenig’s father told Lancaster Newspapers that the family disagreed with the charges, but said they would accept them “if that will make anyone feel better.” John Sensenig said his family would never intentionally abuse a horse and accused passersby “who have absolutely no knowledge of horses" of exaggerating the situation.
The following week Marvin Sensenig pleaded guilty to the charges and paid a $760 in fines and court fees.
But that was far from the end of the story.
The case pointed up the rising number of clashes between Amish and Mennonite farmers - many of whom who breed dogs, raise livestock and rely on horses to power their carts, wagons and plows - and the non-farming public.
For the Sensenigs and other Old Order Mennonite families and the Amish, horses are utilitarian sources of power and transportation.
“They have a very different lifestyle than the non-Amish,” said Christine Hajek, founder and president of Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mt. Airy, MD, which has saved between 400 and 500 Plain sect work horses from Pennsylvania in the last decade. “In my experience there is no emotional commitment to a horse, even one you’ve had for 20 years. If he can no longer work and you can get another $500 at the auction all the better.”
At a press conference announcing Sensenig’s arrest, Ephrata police Lt. Christopher J. McKim denied a witness report that an officer had said that the Amish and Mennonites were “immune” to the cruelty law.
“All Pennsylvanians are subject to Pennsylvania law,” McKim said. “At the time it was unclear how the law applied until we investigated.”
The case also exposed weaknesses in Pennsylvania’s animal cruelty law. Most cruelty cases do not rise above summary offenses – same as a parking ticket - and that limits law enforcement and prosecutors with the level of charges they can seek and restricts judges in the fines and sentences they may impose.
Adding to that is the farm exception to the cruelty law.
Under the section of the state Crimes Code that details the animal cruelty law, not all Pennsylvania animals are treated equally.
Nicole Wilson, director of Humane Law Enforcement at the Pennsylvania SPCA, described a stipulation involving farm animals that allows for “normal agricultural operations” such as work pulling plows or wagons.
She said the PSPCA cruelty tip hot line gets many calls for what some might consider abusive behavior, such as pulling a wagon in extreme temperatures, but do not constitute cruelty.
“Beating a horse till they collapse obviously does not constitute normal agricultural operations,” she said.
The wagon horse case and several other high profile animal cruelty cases in Lancaster in recent months led Lancaster District Attorney Craig Stedman to hold a press conference and call for stiffer laws for animal abusers.
Conviction on a summary offense may result in a fine as low as $50. Rarely does a judge impose animal ownership bans and when they do it might be for only 90 days. Rarer still is jail time.
Wilson, who has investigated hundreds of cases throughout the state, said only on one occasion in her career did someone go to jail for cruelty. In that 2013 case in Centre County, a repeat offender starved his cattle herd and received only a summary citation for each dead or emaciated cow. But nonetheless an aggressive district attorney sought and won jail time for the farmer.
Still the district attorney, Stacy Parks Miller, decried the weak cruelty laws at the time and vowed to petition the legislature to strengthen them.
“A major disappointment in Pennsylvania is the lack of an aggravated cruelty statute to obtain a felony for torture of an animal on the first arrest,” Parks Miller told StateCollege.com in 2014.
Stedman expressed his own frustration with the current law in an interview with Pennsylvania Equestrian last month. “You can whip a horse to death and it’s a summary violation,” he said. “We have to have more penalties; we need to have a deterrent.”
State Sen. Rich Alloway of Franklin County is preparing to introduce Libre’s law, named for the puppy with severe mange left to die in a pen by a Lancaster County dog breeder in July before being rescued and heroically nursed back to health by veterinarians in Dillsburg. Details of the bill were not yet available at press time.
But Alloway’s bill would be only the latest legislation to try to stiffen cruelty penalties with an abused dog’s name attached to it.
An earlier version, “Angel’s Law,” failed to win passage after its introduction in 2012. That legislation would have amended the Crimes Code to increase the grading for all animal cruelty summary offenses to third-degree misdemeanors.
In the meantime, Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue has found a way to give very sick, injured or old horses a humane end.
After hearing about horses left in fields to die or sold to the “lion man” for exotic animal food, Gentle Giants decided to start an outreach program with Amish and Mennonite farmers to provide basic veterinary health information and, if necessary, humane euthanasia.
She said her rescue has begun offering farmers a nominal amount in order to ensure the animal is humanely euthanized by a veterinarian. In a few cases they have found horses that the farmers had written off as dead and restored them to health. They have purchased a trailer outfitted as an equine ambulance to remove the horses safely.
“What we’ve seen is there is a great need for access to emergency care services,” Hajek said. “It’s an ongoing problem.”
If you see animal cruelty call the Pennsylvania SPCA Cruelty Hotline at: 1-866-601-SPCA. The tip line operates 24/7 and accepts calls from Philadelphia and the 23 counties where the PSPCA operates including Lancaster. For more information visit www.pspca.org