Amy Kaunas, Executive Director of the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area, visited with Hickory, one of the “untouchable” horses the rescue has been caring for since January 2013, in March. The “untouchables” were so fearful of people they could only be herded from one place to another. Credit Jeffrey C. Eyre
After almost two and a half years, one of the costliest and longest-running cruelty cases in the history of the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area has come to an end.
The more than two dozen Morgan horses, starving and feral, removed from a filthy Dauphin County farm in January 2013 were freed from their legal limbo with the death in March of their owner.
Rebecca Roberts, 55, an attorney and Morgan sport horse breeder, died shortly before a Dauphin County judge was scheduled to hear an appeal on her 2013 animal cruelty conviction.
The circumstances of Roberts’ death were unclear and her attorney Eric Winter did not return a request for comment.
“Yes, it’s over,” said Amy Kaunas, executive director of the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area, breathing a sigh of relief. She said no family members sought to claim the horses and the only lingering legal issue is restitution for a portion of the sizeable medical care, feed, board and training bills for the horses.
The Dauphin County District Attorney’s office, which was prosecuting the case, is seeking roughly $20,000 in restitution ordered by Dauphin County Magisterial District Judge Lowell Witmer in April 2013.
But that payment, if it is received, will barely put a dent in the bill for the horses’ care incurred by the humane society and rescue partner Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue, which now totals more than $250,000. The bill could reach $500,000 when the final costs are tallied, said Kaunas.
Seizure of 29 Horses in 2012
The case began in late 2012 when authorities obtained a search warrant to enter Roberts’ dilapidated Palmyra, PA farm where she operated Shadowland Morgans and Sport Horses. In all 29 horses were removed from Roberts’ property over two days, including pregnant mares, yearlings, stallions and one horse so weak it had to be carried onto the trailer.
The size of the seizure overwhelmed the cat-and-dog focused humane society, which at the time had no stable to house the horses (it has since built one.) Officials reached out to Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mt Airy Md., which stepped in to help even though Morgans are not a draft breed.
The sight of the herd of emaciated horses trapped in a paddock with no access to food, filthy water and standing atop piles of manure as high as the fences stunned even seasoned equine rescuers. The bodies of deceased horses in a falling down run-in shed and skeletal remains in the field added to the horror, recalled Christine Hajek, founder and director of Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue.
Getting the horses out of a bad situation was only the beginning of the ordeal. It took months to for experienced handlers even to put halters on the horses – who had become wild from complete neglect and lack of any human interaction - and get them the veterinary and hoof care they desperately needed, Hajek said.
The size of the herd has changed since the seizure. Miraculously, five foals were born in the care of rescuers and survived. But one stallion had to be euthanized after severing his leg on wire fencing while trying to escape from a pasture in Maryland and a mare bled to death after giving birth to a stillborn foal – likely the result of poor nutrition, caretakers said.
The 32 remaining horses are scattered across two states, some living at the humane society barn, others at foster farms and professional boarding facilities.
Serge, a bay stallion almost euthanized because he could not be controlled, is being boarded and trained at Sunset Valley Farm in Union Bridge, Md.
Hajek worries about what will happen to Serge and the others. Serge was gelded and has been working under saddle with a professional trainer, Jessica Millard, but he has a deep fear of men and must be sedated to get his hooves trimmed.
Even after two years, the horses are not ready for adoption, certainly not by novice horse people, said Kaunas. The humane society works with other professional trainers and has started several horses under saddle, but others are still far from being trusting equine companions.
“We’re looking to move toward offering them on a foster care-to-adoption basis,” she said.
The horses born after the seizure are progressing faster than those who survived the horrid conditions, who still have a distrust of humans and no understanding of boundaries, said Kaunas.
“They have no fear and no respect,” said Kaunas, who feels that some, because of age or behavior issues, may never be adopted, but she hopes that most will make suitable riding horses one day.
Hajek said because of the horses’ small size and confirmation - issues likely stemming from indiscriminant breeding and poor health as they developed - the individuals with the experience to handle the horses may not find them attractive mounts.
But she says after two and half years she’s looking forward to the day when Gentle Giants is no longer responsible for any of the Roberts horses.
“This was supposed to be a three-month stop gap measure,” said Hajek, who at one point cared for most of the herd and whose brother-in-law still boards six of the horses at his Mt. Airy, Md. farm.
The case highlights the difficulty of caring for large numbers of large animals seized in cruelty cases in Pennsylvania, a state with many horses and few large animal rescues. Restoring the physical and mental health of abused and neglected animals always means major expenses for cash-strapped non-profits and even tests more financially stable animal welfare organizations like Harrisburg Humane.
Pennsylvania’s “cost of care” legislation, which became law after the Roberts’ seizure, should help reduce protracted legal battles like the Roberts case. It stipulates that anyone charged with abuse must either surrender their animals or pay the cost of their care until the conclusion of the case.
But for those who rounded up the scared, wild horses and removed them from a desperate situation, the Roberts case will forever be a tragic textbook example of the difficulty of caring for large numbers of large animals seized in cruelty cases in Pennsylvania.