A central Pennsylvania man charged with starving a herd of thoroughbred horses - all mares and young foals - will spend 270 days on probation under a plea deal announced Monday.
James W. Houseman, 45, of Littlestown, pleaded guilty to three counts of animal cruelty in Adams County Court. He also was ordered to pay $9.800 in fines and restitution to the Meyers Animal Shelter/Adams County SPCA for vet care for the severely malnourished horses and is prohibited from owning or possessing horses in Pennsylvania for five years.
A total of 21 horses were seized from a barren field with no water last fall after the owner of the property Houseman was renting observed the sick and emaciated horses and called authorities. A dead mare was found under a pile of straw in the barn.
Two of the young horses died shortly after the raid and a third had to be euthanized because of severe health problems. The state ruled their deaths the result of starvation.
A fourth horse, a male yearling, who had appeared to have recovered, was euthanized last week after a stick became wedged in his hoof causing an infection. Stremmel says a necropsy is being conducted to determine if the yearling succumbed to the infection because of his food deprivation as a foal. A fifth horse was returned to its out-of-state owner.
SPCA president Joan Stremmel said she was thrilled that the 16 surviving horses will now be able to be adopted.
"We are so overjoyed that we have custody and can finally adopt them out," said Stremmel," who has been caring for two of the horses on her property.
In February, Houseman was found guilty on 14 counts by a district judge and was sentenced to 1,200 days probation and ordered to pay $34,000 in restitution. He appealed that charge to the court of common pleas, claiming the horses were underfed when he got them. The trial was to start on the same day the deal was made by the Adams County District Attorney's office.
During the emotional February hearing, in which courtroom spectators wept openly upon hearing of the conditions of the horses, a witness said Houseman told him he was bringing in pregnant mares - some of them from out-of-state breeders - to take advantage of Pennsylvania's
PA Bred" program that awards bonuses to horses born in Pennsylvania who win at state tracks.
Property owner Denise Dutterer called the SPCA after seeing two horses trapped in a stall with no food, infected mucus pouring from their nostrils and barely able to stand. Veterinarian Gary Kabala testified that when he arrived the young horses appeared "lifeless."
The court ruling has no effect on Houseman's ability to keep horses in another state. Littlestown is just a few miles from the Maryland border and Houseman has a herd of thoroughbred mares and foals in Frederick County. They are under observation by humane officers in that county, according to SPCA officials.
Representing Houseman at the county proceeding was Jeffrey Conrad, an attorney with Clymer, Musser, Conrad, a Lancaster firm that specializes in defending individuals charged with animal abuse whose rights are "trampled" by law enforcement that "oversteps" their powers.
The firm has represented defendants in some of the highest profile animal cruelty cases in Pennsylvania and sued in federal court on behalf of a group of Amish and Mennonite dog breeders who unsuccessfully tried to overturn the state dog law.
One of the firm's founding partners, Leonard Brown, was elected to a judgeship in November and now sits on the Lancaster County bench where he is likely to hear animal cruelty cases.
When asked if she was sorry Houseman didn't get jail time, Stremmel said: "What would that do? I would have rather he served a long sentence of community service so he could see what hard work and effort the volunteers have put in on these horses, that he didn't."
One or two of the brave survivors may end up back at the property where they were found - although this time under much happier circumstances. Among those interested in adopting several of the horses is Denise Dutterer and her husband, Stremmel said.
The Adams County SPCA is now accepting applications from anyone interested in adopting the horses. They also are seeking donations to cover the expenses (food, bedding, blacksmith and veterinarian) of caring for the 16 horses until they are adopted.