Space and the City: Stray horses raise issue of backyard horsekeeping

The discovery Wednesday morning of two underfed horses roaming the streets of North Philadelphia raises two questions:

1) Who tosses a horse out on the street like garbage?

2) Why does the City of Philadelphia allow residents to keep horses in the first place?

According to The Inquirer report today, Yvette Chamberlain, 49, was on a break from her job at a homeless shelter near 7th and Diamond Streets around 7 a.m. when she encountered one of the horses.

"I was standing on the steps smoking a cigarette with my head turned when I felt this nudging," Chamberlain, of Olney, said. "I didn't know it was a horse. Then I turned around, and there was a horse. I jumped. It scared me."

The horses, she said, had been grazing earlier in an empty lot.

"No one was around," Chamberlain said. "The horses were just standing there by themselves. After the horse nudged me, it went back to eating the grass off the lot. And that's when I called 911."

Police arrived and corralled the horses at North 7th and Diamond Streets until investigators from the Pennsylvania SPCA arrived.

Both horses had halters and animal welfare officials were looking for their owner.

Sadly, this was hardly the first case of abandoned horses found in the city. The PSPCA reports they take in one or two horses a month.

Several years ago the PSPCA shut down an illegal stable where the proprietors were keeping horses in a filthy lean-to and in an abandoned house - in the dining room to be more specific. But keeping the horses in a filthy stable wasn't what shut down the place, it was the zoning issue.

PSPCA spokeswoman Wendy Marano said there are no space requirements for keeping a horse in the city, which is why humane police officers routinely pick up stray horses or horses stuck in a postage stamp size backyard filled with trash and weeds.

"While you can only have 12 cats and/or dogs (or combination), there is no limit on the number of horses a person can have," she said. "As long as they are meeting the [standards] of animal care (food, water, shelter, proper veterinary care) it is legal." 

Marano said while in many more rural locations in Montgomery or Bucks County, residents are required to have at least five acres to have one horse, there is no such requirement in Philadelphia.

But that may soon change.

Brian Abernathy, chief of staff to the city's managing director, said the city's Animal Advisory Committee is looking at the issue of horse keeping in residential areas.

"We'll be working through the summer to develop appropriate legislation," he said.

Meanwhile, the PSPCA is trying to find the horses' owner. The horses will undergo full veterinary examinations to determine if the owner will be charged with cruelty, Marano said.

 (Inquirer photo/Alejandro Alvarez)