A Montgomery County animal rescue group removed three frail ponies yesterday from East Baltimore stables used by street vendors after two animals died of exposure and starvation there -- a few yards from about 100 bales of hay.
"They were to be picked up on Jan. 5 by the city, and nothing's been done," said Sylvia Block, of the Baltimore-based Citizens for Animals. She said she received an anonymous complaint about the five animals Dec. 29, and immediately notified the city's Animal Control Bureau and health commissioner. "I've pursued and I've pursued, and nothing's been done."
But Animal Control Director Earl Watson said the bureau's inability to act sooner "has nothing to do with negligence."
Animal Control did not have the legal authority to pick up the animals until the previous weekend, and after that it was hampered by icy roads, he said. The owner of the animals is in jail, Mr. Watson said. Before the bad weather, the animals' caretaker was ordered to clean the stalls and feed the horses with 95 bales of hay the bureau donated.
Mr. Watson called the rescue group, the Montgomery County-based Maryland Horse Rescue Center, after Ms. Block recommended the organization.
"Had we been called earlier, it would not have been a problem for us to get out here," said President Pam Rutherford, standing behind a horse trailer parked on North Castle Street in front of the stables.
The group took the three ponies -- a white stallion, a gray mare and a bay gelding -- to its farm in Potomac to nurse them back to health before finding homes for them. On a nine-point scale used by veterinarians to judge horses' health, the ponies were a three or a two, "thin" or "very thin," respectively. She noted that the animals' hip bones were pronounced, and the outlines of their ribs were visible.
Left behind in two stalls were a dead horse and pony which Ms. Rutherford said were killed by a combination of starvation and exposure to extreme cold weather.
Mr. Watson said he will ask the city health commissioner to determine whether veterinarians at the University of Maryland should surgically examine the carcasses.
He said the horse rescue volunteers asked for the examination to determine whether the dead animals had a condition that might afflict the three surviving ponies.
It was the first time the rescue group, called Wednesday, had done work in Baltimore.
Ms. Rutherford said that on Wednesday, with record cold temperatures and deadly icing on streets and highways, she drove to Pennsylvania to pick up a horse.
"I've never had to call a rescue group," Mr. Watson said.
He said he had planned to move the animals to one of the city's four licensed stables last week, but weather prevented that.
The reason he did not take action sooner than last week was that an animal's owner has the right to due process, which in this case meant he could have the animals examined by a veterinarian before giving them up.
When authorities arrived at the stables earlier this month, Mr. Watson said, the caretaker, Bernadette Harrison, invoked that right.
Mrs. Harrison refused to name the owner or say why he had been in jail since May. Mr. Watson said efforts by authorities to identify the owner have been unsuccessful.
About two weeks ago, the Animal Control Bureau received a letter from an attorney representing the estate that owns the stable saying no one was authorized to keep animals there. That allowed authorities to return to the property and seize the animals, Mr. Watson said.
Authorities will return this week to remove other property, including five vendors' carts, and continue investigating to determine if anyone should be charged.
Mrs. Harrison wept as rescue volunteers led the animals out, and neighbors tramped through the manure-strewn stables to get a look at the two dead animals.
She said she paid for $200 worth of hay for them, and expected that street vendors who used the animals as recently as two weeks ago would put the food out for them. Instead, the vendors apparently absconded with her money, she said.
"I feel like it was my fault, because I should have come around here and checked," Mrs. Harrison said.
She said she could not report names of those responsible because she does not know exactly which of the vendors was supposed to be caring for the animals.
The rescue group's volunteers said they did not blame Mrs. Harrison, who has back problems and would have difficulty keeping up a feeding routine for the animals.