Horses that pulled wagons loaded with strawberries and cantaloupe were put out to pasture Tuesday after city animal control and humane society officials closed the largest stable that had housed the animals.
Baltimore City Health Department officials, in conjunction with the Humane Society of the United States, confiscated 19 horses owned by a-rabs, the name given to street vendors who sell produce from red wagons that have long swayed along city alleys and roads to the jingle of silver-toned bridle bells.
Tuesday's action was the latest move in a long-standing dispute between city officials and a-rabs over the care of the horses.
Daniel Van Allen, president of the Arabbers Preservation Society, said only two stables remain in Baltimore, one at 1102 S. Carlton St. and the other in the first block of N. Bruce Street, housing a few horses.
"Humane societies don't think that any horse should still be working in cities," said Van Allen, who is also a board member of Arabber Heritage, another local group.
He said that after the city closed a stable on Retreat Street in 2007, the number of working wagons fell to one or two. This summer, he said, the number of wagons had increased to "seven or eight."
He said that with the closing of the stables on Tuesday, he expects that only one or two wagons will remain in Baltimore.
An annual inspection of the stables adjacent to South Fulton Avenue revealed what officials called conditions of "severe disrepair." They also found "rat infestation" and "unsanitary conditions" that posed a health risk to the horses, their keepers and the public, officials said.
The horses were taken to a Howard County rescue farm.
A statement from the Humane Society of the United States said that "many of the horses were suffering from medical ailments including parasite infestation, malnutrition and extremely overgrown hooves."
But Donald Savoy, the 77-year-old patriarch of a horse-owning family, complained that the city was partially to blame for locating the horses in the Southwest Baltimore hollow in 2007.
"They had put us in a swamp," he said, adding that "the city and Sheila Dixon promised us a stable three years ago."
When the Retreat Street stable was closed, the horses were put in stables covered by canvas tents - an arrangement that was supposed to be temporary.
Brian Schleter, a health department spokesman, said that inspectors found problems with the stables after an inspection was made Nov. 3 to determine whether the facility was suitable for winter.
On Monday, city officials served a search warrant on the a-rabs, citing violations of the health code for "unlicensed and unvaccinated animals."
The a-rabs, who said their animals are also used for parties, weddings and other social occasions, denied the Health Department's allegations.
"We have worked with what the city gave us," said Shawnta Chase, one of the horse owners. "The horses were properly vaccinated, and we felt they were being kept well."
Reggie Scriber, deputy commissioner of housing and community development, who was at the Southwest Baltimore facility on Tuesday, said the city would continue to work with the a-rabs.
"This has been a long-drawn-out process," he said. "We have tried to come up with a plan that accommodates the needs of the a-rabs that have a long, proud entrepreneurial tradition in Baltimore. However, our main priority is the protection of the animals."
But Donald Chase, one of the horse owners, said of the city, "They are playing us for fools. ... The city promised a place for our horses, and now they are taking them away. My horses were in good shape."