This is the time of year when Donald Savoy Jr., one of Baltimore's last a-rabs, might have had two or three of his horse-drawn wagons parked on inner-city corners, loaded with tangerines and oranges and late-season greens. But Mr. Savoy and other men who sold produce from his wagons are idle in this Christmas week 2009. A heavy-handed move by the city last month – after breaking promises to help the a-rabs maintain their livelihoods -- led to the confiscation of Mr. Savoy's seven horses and eight belonging to his nephew and niece, James and Shawnta Chase.
The fines the city seeks for what an experienced horseman calls relatively minor violations of city codes could put Mr. Savoy, the Chases and other a-rabs out of business for good.
On Nov. 10, Baltimore Health Department officials, working with the Humane Society of the United States, confiscated 19 horses owned by a-rabs, including Mr. Savoy and the Chases. The horses had been stabled in a muddy southwest Baltimore hollow since the condemnation of the old Retreat Street stable in 2007.
When the city moved 51 horses and ponies out of Retreat Street, they all appeared to be in good health. The building, however, was considered too dangerous to continue to house the animals. City officials pledged to help find the a-rabs a better place.
They tried, says Andrew Frank, the deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development.
But more than two years later, the horses and ponies were still under tents under a bridge near South Fulton Avenue, and the area had become unsanitary and infested with rats.
No one wants to see horses and ponies abused, neglected or malnourished. And, if those were the charges against Mr. Savoy and the Chases, then there would be little argument that the city had a duty to close down the temporary stables and send the animals to a rescue farm in Howard County.
But Mr. Savoy and the Chases, who are third-generation a-rabs, say the code violations do not rise to that level, and that the city took an extreme action that deprived them of a livelihood. In seeking thousands of dollars in fines, they say, the city appears to be trying to end the a-rab tradition here.
Bob Wood is an experienced horseman who runs the Triple Creek Farm riding and training operation in Carlisle, Pa. He took an interest in the a-rabs after reading news reports and seeing photographs of the city's horse confiscation in November.
"I saw horses with [healthy] round bottoms," he says, "and something about this didn't add up."
At the time the horses were seized, the Humane Society of the United States said "many of the horses were suffering from medical ailments including parasite infestation, malnutrition and extremely overgrown hooves."
Mr. Wood says that's an exaggeration, and that the words "parasite" and "malnutrition" appear nowhere on the citations against Mr. Savoy and the Chases. After reviewing the documents, Mr. Wood concluded that only two animals had serious problems. Most of the violations were innocuous, he says, or the kind of things common to stables.
Mr. Wood, who has trained horses for polo and cross-country jumping for 40 years, says the city has "moved the goal posts" on what traditionally constitutes mistreatment to shutter a stable, and horse owners everywhere should be concerned. "If [city health officials] move the standard from real neglect – malnutrition, abuse, lameness – to this kind of stuff," Mr. Wood says, "then anyone can have their horses taken from them."
What is "this kind of stuff"?
"Six of the 16 citations are paperwork violations, basically record-keeping shortcomings," Mr. Wood wrote in an e-mail. "Two are for manure in stalls -- not excessive manure in stalls, just manure in stalls. Except for the moment when I complete cleaning a stall, my stalls have manure in them.
"Two are for bedding that is not clean and dry, with a comment on a lack of daily cleaning. [Mr. Savoy told Mr. Wood that the city had "locked out" the horse owners from the temporary stables for three days prior to the date of the citations.] The bedding in my stalls is clean and dry until a horse pees, which is usually right after I put down fresh bedding.
"Two citations are for lack of fresh, clean water. . . . My water buckets are fresh and clean until a horse drinks from them, and then their saliva mixed with hay and grain makes them messy, no longer fresh and clean.
"There are two citations for hoof trimming and improper shoe-fit specific to 14 horses. What is not apparent, except to an experienced horseperson, is that in the last citation only one horse is stated to have one swollen joint."
The significance, Mr. Wood says, is that, had the a-rabs neglected hoof care, there would have been more swollen joints and a lot more lameness among the animals.
"There is no mention of any functional lameness in these animals," Mr. Wood says. "My opinion, as a 50-plus-year horseman, is that one swollen joint in 19 working horses is evidence of a remarkably high standard of conditioning and care."
Mr. Wood believes two citations for "sick and injured" horses might have given the city grounds for the confiscation, but even these violations do not appear to be severe enough. The documents he reviewed mentioned harness sores -- one each on three horses -- and two lacerations or cuts on one horse's leg.
"One horse with one sore showed no infection, hardly evidence of neglect or abuse," Mr. Wood writes. "Of the remaining three horses, one [had] uninfected cuts . . . . So I am left with two horses with infected harness sores. This is the worst of it. Forget that I am told by the owners that these animals were being treated for the infections under a licensed veterinarian's well-documented supervision and care. The city, based on my analysis, apparently confiscated 19 horses and ponies because of these two infected harness sores."
Mr. Wood believes the a-rabs' rights to purse a livelihood have been violated by an overzealous city government taking its cues from the humane society.
"By memorializing the violations in such detailed form on 16 citations," Mr. Wood says, "the city has . . . inadvertently recorded that the animals were not, in fact, abused or neglected in terms of any traditional common standard for confiscation -- malnutrition, [being forced to] work in spite of chronic or extreme lameness, untreated sickness, or abuse ... What the city has done with the citations is inadvertently document their own abuse of the rights of citizens."
Monday, I submitted questions about all this to officials of the city Health and Housing departments. Deputy Mayor Frank responded.
"We deferred to the Health Department, which made the judgment to seize the horses," he wrote in an e-mail. "I have no reason to believe that the conditions were exaggerated."
Shawnta Chase says she's facing $6,000 in fines. Her eight horses, which she used for parties, weddings and other social occasions, remain at the rescue farm, along with her uncle's. She says the city had promised a meeting to discuss the situation with the a-rabs last week, but the meeting was canceled.
If the city no longer wants to support, with time and money, the a-rabs of Baltimore, fine. If the city wants others to take up the effort to save the tradition, that's fine too. What's not fine is an en masse confiscation of horses used in the course of someone's livelihood, unless there's substantive evidence of abuse or neglect of each and every animal.
"Just give us our horses back," says Shawnta Chase, "and we'll find a place to keep them."
Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.