A Philly man who said he would stake his life on his three horses lost custody of the animals after he was convicted of animal cruelty on Tuesday.
"I'm gonna die before I let them go," vowed Derrick Hamm, 49, of the three horses seized by the PSPCA from a lot he rented in Southwest Philly on April 1, before his hearing on Tuesday.
Hamm described himself as a recovering alcoholic who bought his first horse four years ago after going sober and said that caring for his horses has become therapeutic.
He said he let neighborhood kids take rides and wanted to share the horses with the public.
"Those horses mean the world to me," he said.
But just hours later, Hamm had to accept that Monster Man, a chestnut gelding, Truth, a pony and Justice, a cremello stallion horse, were gone.
Philly horses are an unexpected sight on city streets. Not for tourists or police, they can be seen trotting around Fairmount Park or North Philly streets, ridden by locals, and call to mind Philly's historic roots. Urban cowboys at the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club have attracted positive attention, and This American Life focused on Philly horses in a 2008 episode.
But Philly horse culture is also shrouded in some secrecy, as urban horse-riders are aware that they are legally required to maintain the horses at a high standard of health and hygiene.
For Hamm, having his horses found meant they got confiscated.
At his summary trial on Tuesday, PSPCA officer Leonard Knox testified that he investigated the lot on the 5500 block of Grays Avenue where Hamm kept his animals in March after receiving a tip through the PSPCA's hotline.
"I could see the horses were out in the yard -- in a manure and urine mix up to their hooves," Knox testified.
Knox also said the lot was full of debris and the animals did not have access to a sufficient water supply. He said bark from nearby trees was partly chewed off, likely due to malnutrition for the horses.
Hamm countered that the animals were in mud, not manure, that they had a large supply of water, and that they looked healthy to him.
But Knox testified that he warned Hamm that the animals would be confiscated if their living conditions were not improved.
"I told him, 'You got to do something about this, they can't stay here like this,'" Knox said.
Two weeks later, finding no change to the horses' circumstances, Knox said, the PSPCA executed a warrant and took the horses.
Hamm claimed that on April 1, he had just found a new, cleaner location to keep the horses -- but was shocked to find the horses gone when he returned.
A veterinarian testified that the three horses were malnourished, dehyrdrated, and some of them exhibited hoof problems, including overgrown "slippered" hooves, which causes horses intense pain.
Hamm was convicted of three counts of animal cruelty, ordered to forfeit his horses to the PSPCA and to pay them about $4,500 in restitution for the costs of keeping the animals since April 1. He was also prohibited from owning animals for 270 days.
The PSPCA, which is a no-kill shelter and offers adoption services, will continue to keep the horses.
Hamm said he will seek legal advice on how to appeal the decision and try to get his horses back.