Citing ponies' deaths, Ambridge calls for probe of Animal Control Bureau

February 08, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

The deaths of two ponies and near starvation of three others in an unlicensed East Baltimore stable prompted a councilman's call last night for an investigation of the city Bureau of Animal Control.

Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, said the bureau was "negligent" in failing to remove the ponies before the deaths. Since then, the councilman said, "my phone has been inundated with complaints" about the agency's handling of other animal cases.

"Either they're understaffed and overworked or mismanaged," Mr. Ambridge said before introducing a resolution seeking City Council hearings on the bureau's operations.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner, said the problem is understaffing. The Bureau of Animal Control, an agency that is part of the Health Department, has a staff of 30 to handle inspections, remove dead creatures, care for or dispose of strays and handle animal shelter operations. In 1989, the bureau had 42 employees, Dr. Beilenson said, adding, "Obviously, we don't have any less work."

The state's attorney's office is investigating whether animal cruelty laws were violated by the people responsible for care of the ponies, and the Health Department is reviewing the Bureau of Animal Control's actions subsequent to its receiving the first complaint Dec. 29.

Dr. Beilenson said a bureau investigator made almost daily visits to the stable in the 800 block of N. Castle St., beginning Dec. 29 -- ordering the people in charge of the animals to clean up the premises, provide food and water, and have the ponies examined by a veterinarian.

The city even arranged the delivery of about 100 bales of hay, but little was fed to the ponies, and there was no veterinary examination.

Among the problems was the absence of the animals' owner, who was in jail and had left a friend in charge of the ponies. She, in turn, asked a relative to do the necessary chores, city officials have said.

"There were two people responsible for taking care of the horses," Dr. Beilenson said. "They're not the responsibility of the city. . . . We should not have to make sure the bales of hay are under the horses' noses."

Dr. Beilenson acknowledged, however, that the bureau had the right to remove the animals without permission of an owner before the deaths occurred -- but whether the ponies were in jeopardy and the action necessary "was a judgment call," he said. "One judgment was if we got the food and water, and the stable cleaned up, they would be all right."

Earl Watson, the city's animal control chief, said earlier that he could not have taken the animals without permission of either the owner of the ponies or the owner of the property where they were kept.

The city was informed about Jan. 12 by a representative of the property owner that the people using the stable were trespassing but took no immediate action to remove the ponies. Mr. Watson blamed icy weather for the bureau's delay -- but the icy conditions did not set in until Jan. 17.

Sylvia Block, an animal rights advocate who first informed the city of the ponies' plight, said the bureau knew by Jan. 20 that one of the ponies had died, and by Jan. 22 that another had perished.

By then, she had put the city agency in touch with the Maryland Horse Rescue Center, a private group that moved the surviving animals from the stable to a leased farm in Potomac on Jan. 23 -- nearly a month after the city was first informed of the pony problem.

The rescue center's founder and president, Pam Rutherford, said the ponies have gained 50 pounds each since the rescue -- but her organization now needs a rescue of its own.

Ms. Rutherford said the owner of the property has given her until Feb. 22 to move off the farm. A veterinarian has offered to care for the three rescued ponies, and she asked anyone interested in providing a new home for the center or its other ponies and horses to call her at (301) 942-4688.

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