Fourteen months ago, Baltimore officials raided one of the city's last arabber stables, declared conditions deplorable, accused five horse owners and a stable hand of animal cruelty, confiscated 14 horses and sent them to a rescue farm some 30 miles away.
A year later, all the charges have been dropped, the horses are gone, and you can count the number of Baltimore arabbers on one hand.
The case of the Carlton Street Six was laughably weak — on the first day of trial last month, the city's expert witness said there was nothing wrong with the horses — but it pushed the arabber tradition closer to oblivion.
It's not for nostalgia that I feel strongly that the arabber tradition continue, though it's certainly one of the cool things about Baltimore. It's because arabbing presents a challenge that smart people ought to embrace.
Saving this 19th-century tradition in the 21st century calls to civic-minded and industrious people — the arabbers, Maryland horse people, retail and marketing specialists, preservationists, nutritionists and public health experts, arts and tourism boosters — to come up with a successful business plan for horse-drawn produce sales in the city.
Never make a problem out of an opportunity. Instead of seeing arabbers as walking anachronisms or public nuisances, we should find a safe, sustainable way to maintain and celebrate their existence, see that the horses are treated well, and that the arabbers are able to make a decent living selling fresh fruit and vegetables around the city.
We should have done this years ago, of course. The city government could have rallied the private and philanthropic sectors to help. Instead, the city took a mostly adversarial approach. Consider the criminal case that ended Thursday with all charges being dropped.
The raid occurred in January 2015 near Hollins Market, at the old South Carlton Street stables. Animal Control and city health officials discovered what they considered poor conditions. Dr. Leana S. Wen, the city health commissioner, told The Baltimore Sun that her staff had concerns about "significant neglect," including a lack of veterinary care and access to clean water for the horses.
The five horse owners, including William Murray Jr., who owns the stables with his father, faced criminal charges. A stable hand was also charged. The Murrays' stable license was revoked. The 14 horses were taken to Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine, Howard County. The charges effectively put the arabbers out of business.
When the case got to District Court last month, the prosecution said the arabber horses had been living in "squalor" at Carlton Street; the stalls had not been cleaned, the horses did not have fresh water and the small amount of feed was moldy.
Defense attorneys contended that the conditions had been exaggerated and that the stalls simply had not been mucked out when a city inspector arrived. Eric Berman, an attorney for one of the arabbers, said the charges never should have been brought.
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton covered the trial. When I got to the following sentence in his news story on the first day of testimony, I wondered why there would be a second: "Veterinarian Richard J. Forfa, one of the state's expert witnesses, testified during cross-examination that the horses seized from the stable were not in poor health and showed no signs that would require the owners to be reported for abuse or neglect."
And that was a prosecution witness.
Two days later, Judge Nicole Pastore-Klein found all six men not guilty of abuse and neglect. Some additional charges remained, and the judge continued the case into March. On Thursday, she acquitted the men of all remaining counts but one. Murray was convicted of a minor charge: failing to post proper identification at the stable.
Murray is among those who'd like to get his horses back, says Ed Smith, his attorney. Another is Malik Muhammed. "When he heard that he had been acquitted," said his attorney, David Mabrey, "the first thing he asked me was, 'Where are my horses? How do I get my horses back?'"
But the horses are gone.
"I'm happy to report all have found placement," said Erin Ochoa, executive director of Days End, and by that she means all have been adopted — and not by arabbers.
A Health Department spokesman said one of the arabbers "signed over" his horse to the city soon after the raid, and the others did not try to reclaim their animals within the required 72-hour period. Later attempts by some owners to get their horses back failed, the spokesman said.
But I have to ask: How could men accused of animal cruelty expect to get their horses back while the criminal charges against them were pending?
This is all wrong, and sad, in so many ways. The city should not have seized the horses unless there was clear neglect or abuse, certified by a veterinarian. The city should be working with the arabbers, not against them; it should be trying to save this tradition, not kill it.