Court awards 60 horses to woman charged in record MD cruelty case

Nine months ago police and rescue groups descended on Canterbury Farms, home to a once-prestigious Arabian horse breeding operation on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and discovered a herd of 140 neglected horses in filthy barns and barren paddocks, many of them emaciated.

Seven were so sick they had to be destroyed on the spot.

Thirty-six others were found to be in critical condition, according to rescuers.

It was the largest horse seizure in Maryland history.

Yesterday, in a plea deal with the state that stunned the horse world, a Queen Anne County judge awarded 60 horses back to the owner.

Marsha Parkinson, 64, pleaded no contest to 10 counts of animal cruelty and received probation under which she will have to be surpervised for two years. She told authorities she had sold acreage on her 200-acre Colonial-era estate and now had money to care for them, according to rescue groups and local news reports.

Her lawyer, in a press release, said Parkinson denied neglecting her horses and accused the Humane Society of the United States with conducting an illegal seizure. Parkinson also retained Don Henneke, a Texas-based veterinarian who developed the body condition scale that is used in starvation cases. He said the rescue groups did not understand body condition and "exhibited extreme bias," according to a press release issued by Parkinson's law firm, Baldwin Kagan Gormely.

Parkinson, once a well-known and respected breeder of Polish Arabian horses, was originally charged with 133 counts of animal cruelty: failure to provide - one count for each of the horses removed from her farm in April. (See a photo gallery by The Washington Post showing horses at time of rescue here.)

The founder of one group that spent tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours nursing 10 of Parkinson's breeding mares back to health said she was "beyond furious" over the deal.

"I was not anticipating a plea deal that Ms. Parkinson would get half her horses back," said Christine Hajek, founder of Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mt. Airy, Md. "I find that obscene."

Hajek said while the majority of the horses may not have been in extreme states of ill health, the fact that Parkinson admitted she was no longer able to financially care for them led to their removal.

"Being at the scene, the need was so overwhelming how could you not want to help?" said Hajek.

Parkinson was allowed to choose which horses she wanted back and one of them is an 18-year-old mare that Hajek and her volunteers worked hard to rehabilitate.

One mare, who had clearly just lost a foal because of her poor health, was still lactating and hundreds of pounds underweight when the rescue took her in.

Gentle Giants, which had some 60 horses of its own at the time, had to rent a field just to accommodate the additional horses. The rescue's mission is to save and find homes for heavy breed working horses, not petite show horses. 

Hajek estimates the rescue has spent at least $38,000 on vet care, field rental, and blacksmith costs. She didn't even factor in hay, grain or labor to feed, socialize and train most of the horses she described as "feral."

"They were fearful, they didn't lead or tie, they didn't stand for the farrier," said Hajek. 

After nine months, the herd of wild horses was able to have halters put on and stand quietly. Their bodies are the right weight. Their overgrown hoofs are repaired and their skin diseases have disappeared. They had begun to trust humans.

Hajek said it breaks her heart to have to return mares who will be used for breeding again.

In a statement Parkinson said she should "have never been charged" and accused HSUS and other groups of trying to gain publicity by removing her horses.

“Although I would have liked to have had my day in court to prove my innocence of the false allegations and rumors of cruelty and abuse, I am happy to get my horses back and move on with my life on the farm,” Parkinson said.

There was no word of whether the agreement includes compensation to the rescue groups for their significant expenses.

Hajek initially said she would not seek the money, but with word of the plea has her rethinking that position.

"Our donors stepped forward to help, now I feel they were duped," said Hajek. "This was an extreme case that exhausted horse resources in Maryland. If we'd known that day when we saw the conditions that there would be a plea like this, I don't know if we'd have gotten involved and stretched our budget."

The alternative, said Hajek, was a lengthy court battle that Parksinson threatened to drag out for years. "Could we keep 10 horses for three years without support? I don't know."

Hajek called the plea not even a slap on the wrist. "It was a pat on the hand," she said. "This is what makes people say 'why bother calling animal control' when they see animal abuse."