In late July, Kate Brown was delighted to run into Roman, the draft horse she once owned, while he was being ridden near Northwestern Stables in Chestnut Hill.
Last September, she'd donated Roman to the Philadelphia Police Department's Mounted Patrol Unit. His massive size and easy demeanor would, she thought, be an asset to the unit, which uses horses for crowd control, routine policing, and community engagement.
As she petted him, though, her antennae shot up.
The last time Brown had seen Roman was in December. He looked lean, but okay. But now, she thought, he looked skinny. Over the next few weeks, she learned that some workers in the mounted unit were concerned about feeding operations there. The grain was sub-par, they said, and horses weren't getting enough hay or time in the pasture.
Last week, Brown drove to the mounted unit's barn in Pennypack Park to inspect Roman when he wasn't covered by a padded blanket and saddle. What she saw took her breath away.
"I could see his ribs, hip bones, and shoulder blades" which would normally be obscured by fat and muscle, says Brown, the head equestrian trainer at Penn and also the head trainer and barn manager at Northwestern Stables. "I was devastated."
Furious, she told Lt. Joe McBride, who oversees the mounted unit, that she was returning with a trailer and taking the horse home with her. The next day, she had Roman evaluated separately by two veterinarians, one of whom drew blood and took a fecal sample for testing.
"I wanted independent opinions," Brown says.
One vet said that Roman was "obviously thin," needed to gain 100-150 pounds and that his "feeding program needs to be addressed." The other vet said the horse was 200 to 300 pounds below his healthy weight of 2,000. The lab-work revealed no underlying medical condition that would have caused Roman's weight loss. But his blood level of AST, a liver enzyme, was greatly elevated. In an otherwise healthy horse, the vet told her, the number is an indicator of muscle atrophy, which can be a consequence of poor nutrition.
"Atrophy is normal in older horses," whose life expectancy is between 20 and 30 years, Brown says. "Roman is only four."
Roman is now getting the rest and nutrition he needs, she says.
"But what about the other horses?" she asks. "Are they okay?"
Last Wednesday, I visited the unit's barn, after hours, with Lezlie Hiner, a member of the Mayor's Animal Advisory Committee, a 10-member group of animal experts who offer advice but have no policy-enforcement authority. She's also founder of Work to Ride, the award-winning nonprofit that teaches equestrian skills to disadvantaged kids.
She, too, had been hearing murmurs that some of the unit's horses weren't getting adequate nutrition and that one had barely left his stall in weeks.
After eyeballing the animals, Hiner was worried. At least four of them, she thought, looked underweight, especially Wellington, a former dressage horse. His ribs, shoulders, and hips were prominent.
According to a schedule posted on the barn wall, Wellington was scheduled to work four eight-hour shifts over 56 hours; two of them would be back-to-back, to accommodate duty at The Linc for Thursday's pre-season Eagles/Steelers game.
Hiner had been told that the horses are watered during their working shifts but not fed. The city's own licensing codes call for work horses that are ridden to be fed and watered at "reasonable intervals" during their shifts and that they work no more than 10 hours in any continuous 24-hour period.
Hiner was upset by Wellington's schedule.
"He should not be out working. If we saw a carriage horse in this shape, there'd be an uproar," she said, referring to past public outrage about the working, living, and/or physical conditions of horses used by carriage companies to ferry tourists around town.
(Indeed, last November, the owner of Philadelphia Carriage Co. was savaged during a hearing before L&I's Review Board regarding numerous code violations, many of them reported by the public. The company ceased operations in January under a consent decree with the city.)
On Monday, I met with Deputy Police Commissioner Dennis Wilson, who oversees special operations. He'd learned last week about Roman: Brown had written about Roman's ordeal on Facebook, and the rapidly shared post had come to the department's attention.
"I was immediately concerned," says Wilson of the mounted unit, which includes 15 horses, 10 "hostlers" – or animal handlers – and officers who train and man the horses for crowd-control at large public gatherings and routine patrol of the city's parks or neighborhoods. "We care about all of our animals."
Wilson immediately pulled all horses off-duty and had them examined by Nicole Wilson, chief of humane investigation at the Pennsylvania SPCA. She found no evidence of criminal animal cruelty.
The horses were also examined by vets from the unit's current and former veterinary practices. They agreed that the horses looked healthy but that at least two, including Wellington, needed to gain at least 100 pounds. They also concluded that Wellington was being fed 40 pounds daily of an inferior feed. He'll now be fed 20 pounds daily of a superior blend.
"It's been an issue of quantity versus quality," says Wilson, who says he was also told that this year's poor quality of hay, statewide, might account for some of the weight loss.
For now, the two horses have been pulled from duty until their condition improves. Meantime, all of the animals will have their teeth treated, which will aid with chewing and digestion, and their feed intake will be closely monitored and recorded during every shift.
Wilson disputed Brown's characterization of Roman as too thin. He showed me a photo taken of Roman on the day Brown donated him last September and a photo taken on the day she retrieved him last week. The horse looks almost the same in both photos.
Which is puzzling. In photos taken by my colleague Yong Kim and in my own video, both shot the day after Roman returned home, he looks far thinner than in the recent photo Wilson showed me. I asked a source within the unit for comment about Roman's care while he was with the unit, but the person would not speak on the record for fear of retaliation.
There's reason to be wary. In 2014, Joel Allen, a mounted-unit hostler, filed a written complaint with the mounted unit's director at the time, Lt. Daniel McCann. Allen alleged that some of the horses were not being exercised enough by one of the unit's trainers, who'd taken to going AWOL during his shift.
As a result, Allen wrote, "the horses are more dangerous to work around and are developing bad habits, i.e., kicking, biting, cribbing, etc."
Allen alleged that McCann, after receiving the letter, engaged in a year of retaliation, ending with Allen's being fired in 2015. Allen brought a whistleblower lawsuit against McCann and the city, which he won in April of 2017.
Last month, after the city's failed appeal of the verdict, Common Pleas Judge Michael Erdos awarded Allen $126,000 in back wages and damages, plus attorney's fees. (To read the judge's opinion, click here.)
"How many hundreds of thousands of dollars has the city wasted, fighting me, when they could've just taken my complaint seriously?" asks Allen, 57, the son of a mounted-unit officer and who himself had hoped to retire from the unit. "All I wanted was for everyone to be safe" — the cops, the horses, and the public.
While the police department deserves credit for responding swiftly to feeding concerns in the mounted unit, it's alarming that it took Brown's accidental run-in with Roman to start a chain of investigation that was clearly needed. Does the unit have the necessary equestrian expertise to determine what's best for the horses? And why has no one been paying closer attention to their condition on a regular basis? Some of these horses are rescues who came to the unit with health problems that can take a while to resolve. Yet it appears they've being treated the same as those in better shape.
If any of our human police officers had been in their condition, we'd place them on disability until a doctor cleared them to return.
At this point, what the horses deserve is regular, routine monitoring from a third-party expert, with no ties to the mounted unit, to evaluate the unit's work, feeding, and care operation from top to bottom.
The pros at Penn Veterinary School's New Bolton Center, which specializes in the treatment of large animals, stand ready to help.
"The police are more than welcome to reach out to us directly for consultation," said New Bolton's Rose Nolen-Walston, DVM, when I asked her input on this. "We would be happy to serve as a resource to them."
I hope they do, because these noble beasts deserve better than to live and toil in a culture whose human employees are reluctant to speak up on behalf of animals who can't speak for themselves.
Roman, Wellington, and their fellow work horses have tough, demanding jobs. They patiently endure rambunctious crowds, booming fireworks, rotten weather, choking traffic, and curious little kids. Hell, one of them even took a punch last winter from a drunken Eagles fan.
"They work so hard for us," says Kate Brown, who hoped Roman's dedication would've been better respected. "They should be the best-kept animals in the city."