A small fire at a pig farm on historic property in Elkridge Thursday led Howard County animal control officials to discover dozens of unhealthy rabbits living in abandoned cars and dilapidated cages on another farm on the property.
About 10 animal control employees converged on the rabbit farm off Mayfield Avenue near the Deep Run stream Friday to seize the 80 rabbits. The seizure took place the morning after a fire caused $5,000 damage to wooden pigpens, but didn't injure the 60 pigs.
The rabbits were taken to animal control facilities in Baltimore and Prince George's counties because the Howard County animal control facility is not large enough to accommodate them, said Sgt. Steven Keller, a county police spokesman. Animal control is a division of the Howard County Police Department.
Most of the seized animals lived in cages, but several were found in five old cars with windows that were either boarded up or rolled down a little. The inside of the cars and the numerous cages were filled with rabbit feces.
"Those rabbits were living in conditions less than humane," Sergeant Keller said. "That's why we were able to remove them without the owner's permission."
Police are investigating the farm operator, whom they declined to identify. The operator may be charged with animal cruelty -- a misdemeanor, police said.
The Rev. Roland Howard, who leased the land for the rabbit farm for one year, identified him as Bill Wilson of Elkridge.
Mr. Wilson arrived at his farm just as animal control workers -- wearing face masks to block the overwhelming odor of the feces -- were putting some of the rabbits in cages. A police officer at the scene ordered him to leave after he became confrontational.
Later attempts to reach Mr. Wilson were unsuccessful.
"This is awful. This is absolutely terrible," said Dr. Karlyn McPartland, a veterinarian for the Cat and Dog Hospital in Columbia's Owen Brown village, who was called to the scene. "I didn't know places like this existed. I can't believe this is only a stone's throw away from Columbia."
Animal control officials requested she oversee the workers who were removing the rabbits from the cars and cages with metal nooses. Many were unhealthy -- with missing or damaged ears and growths on their bodies -- but only one needed immediate treatment at the hospital for a skin infection, Dr. McPartland said.
"I let him rent this land for a rabbit farm. I didn't know this was like this," said Mr. Howard, who also leases parcels of his 2-acre plot to two pig farmers. "I didn't give him permission to bring these cars back here. This isn't a junkyard."
The land was listed on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties last year because Harriet Tubman frequented the property while helping more than 300 blacks escape slavery on the secret Underground Railroad.
The county agreed nine days ago to name the road leading to the land Homeplace Lane at the request of Mr. Howard. However, a sign hasn't been installed yet and county agencies nor nearby residents have been alerted to the name change.
Firefighters drove around the area for at least 45 minutes trying to find the blaze and the road, which is actually a private driveway.