Last chance for Baltimore's a-rabs

April 04, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Though it agreed two weeks ago to return 17 of the a-rab horses it confiscated in November -- without ever establishing that the animals had been mistreated -- it appears that the city has moved closer to erasing one of its important traditions, one of the things that makes Baltimore Baltimore.

Unless something is done by a foundation or a new group of preservation- and business-minded volunteers, we may soon see a-rabbing vanish. There are only a couple of a-rabs still in operation -- due to strut in an Easter parade on Pennsylvania Avenue today -- and there could be more again, but getting anything more from the city than a donation of land for new stables seems like a nonstarter.

The city made a promise nearly three years ago to help the a-rabs after having to evacuate them from a crumbling city-owned stable in West Baltimore. But many of the animals ended up in a ramshackle stabling area in a muddy hollow under a bridge, and the a-rabs took the blame for the lousy conditions there. Last fall, prodded by the Humane Society of the United States, Baltimore health officials took all the horses to an animal rescue farm in Howard County, creating a distinct, made-for-TV impression that the a-rabs had abused their animals.

Since then, it's become clear that claims of mistreatment were greatly overstated.

Now, of course, the city has liberated the animals from their Howard County sanctuary and returned them to their owners in a deal that will have the a-rabs going through patronizing "training" and inspection by the Humane Society, which believes horse-drawn wagons and carriages constitute a "business of cruelty."

The city won't provide a stabling area, and one of the last of Baltimore's a-rabs, Donald Savoy Jr., is on his own to find new accommodations.

Mr. Savoy and his nephew and niece, James and Shawnta Chase, own 15 of the horses that were confiscated. They have lost all income from a-rabbing since November. They have transferred their horses to another farm outside Baltimore, meaning they would have to move them by trailer each time they need them -- an impractical prospect.

Soon there could be only a couple of a-rabs, those one or two still working out of the old Bruce and Carlton street stables.

And, of course, there's the whole question of whether a-rabbing still makes sense. Do we kiss another Charm City tradition goodbye or try to preserve it within the frame of a sustainable business model for 21st-century Baltimore?

The University of Baltimore chapter of Students in Free Enterprise took a look and concluded that a-rabbing won't work as a way to address the problem of food deserts -- places in the city with little or no easy access to grocery stores and supermarkets with fresh produce.

It's a timing problem -- getting fresh fruits and vegetables onto the wagons and into Baltimore's neighborhoods. Jim Kucher, executive director of entrepreneurship programs at UB, says even a decentralized plan -- my idea, with four or five stables and delivery areas in different sectors of the city -- won't work because it requires a produce wholesaler to make too many stops each day. Mr. Kucher believes trucks or vans would be better suited for neighborhood food delivery.

He and his students might be right.

But, given what's at stake -- the loss of another tradition in the old palatinate -- then all concepts deserve a full study.

There is already a group of civic-minded volunteers working on this. They haven't given up. They see a new generation of a-rabs spread throughout the city, maybe working out of stables on the northwest side of town (Pimlico) or over on the east (Clifton Park), and they see them selling things that Baltimoreans want -- coffee beans by the bag, fresh produce for locavores through a connection with small farmers in the region, even Christmas trees and wreathes when it's time. They see the a-rabs as part of both the city's green movement and its heritage tourism -- part of its past, part of its future. This is worth more effort, one last time. If you want to get involved, get in touch.

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