Let's dispense first with some dark humor: Pinellas County landfill workers sometimes call Richard Rybicki "Mr. Ed."
Rybicki is a hauler. Scrap metal, machinery, manure. He hauls it all.
Being a large-animal disposal specialist — a livestock undertaker, if you will — is just a sideline.
Your dead goat, somebody's pet potbellied pig or alpaca, he has done them.
Horses are his main livestock load. For Pinellas horse people, Rybicki is the guy to call when an animal dies naturally or is euthanized.
Most of the time, he takes horses to the county landfill. Rybicki hauled 61 dead horses to the landfill in 2008, a typical year. September was his busiest month, with nine deliveries.
He has been at it for nearly a decade, seeding an equine resting ground horse by horse amid the vast mingling of waste at the 703-acre landfill.
In the past year, Rybicki has taken three horses from Evie Wolfe, who owns Silver Stirrup Stables in Pinellas Park. Wolfe has worked with horses in Pinellas for almost 20 years.
There are few options for disposing of a dead horse in urban Pinellas, Wolfe said. Getting a backhoe and digging a hole for an animal that can weigh 1,500 pounds is more practical in rural Florida.
When an animal dies or an owner euthanizes one that's injured or sick, Wolfe said, the experience can be overwhelming. Rybicki offers the horse community prompt, compassionate service at a price that hasn't gone up for years, she said.
"He's just very empathetic with you when he's coming," Wolfe said. "We just could not do without him."
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Rybicki is bearded, 6-10, 300 pounds. Born in Detroit, he moved to St. Petersburg as a toddler. He lives in the city with his wife, Mary, and has spent 54 of his 56 years in Florida.
On a recent weekday, wearing a cap, jeans and a faded olive T-shirt that said Florida Keys, he drove his white Ford F-350 XL-Super Duty through the gates of the landfill, which more than 100,000 vehicles pass by daily on Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg.
He weighed in and drove past the waste-to-energy plant, where gulls swooped and bickered over mounds of exposed trash awaiting incineration.
He continued up a curving road to a hilltop plateau. The hill is made mostly of ash from the plant's incinerator. When moist, the ash resembles black dirt.
Rybicki had called ahead. Landfill workers already had bulldozed a large hole. It costs him $100 to have the hole dug. It's included in his horse disposal charge, which starts at $250 for nearby pickups.
After backing the rolling bed of his truck over the hole, Rybicki stepped out of the cab.
The operation was swift. A hydraulic hoist raised one end of the steel and aluminum rolling bed. A 9,000-pound winch lowered the bed slightly into the hole.
The horse, a small male, slid gently in, its mottled white coat standing out against the black ash. The landfill worker's bulldozer covered the animal. It was done in minutes.
Rybicki didn't know much about the horse, except its age, 29. That morning, he'd picked up the animal from a grieving family in North Pinellas. It had died quickly the night before from natural causes, Rybicki surmised.
"You can tell by the marks on the ground that he went straight down and didn't suffer or anything," he said as the bulldozer worked. "With colic you can see the marks where they thrashed around on the ground."
Leaving the landfill, Rybicki and his truck were 840 pounds lighter.
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Horse people know that some in the public might think of Rybicki's work as gruesome. That's expected from a large urban population with little connection to the land and its cycles of birth and death, they say.
"When we look at horses and go to horse shows the last thing we think about is that horse dying and horse carcasses," said Saundra TenBroeck, an associate professor at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
The horses Rybicki disposes of come from area farms, schools, stables and back yards. He has taken some struck by lightning.
Most are euthanized after severe injury or illness. Veterinarians usually handle the task with barbiturates.
Rybicki said disposing of dead horses is not a part of his business he would be sorry to lose. But there's a need and he takes pride in treating the horses with respect.
"You do what you can for the animal," Rybicki said. "Even if his soul is gone, he's still one of God's critters."
While the public may not feel pressed to consider where area horses go when they die, Wolfe said the kids who come to her stable for riding lessons often wonder.
"I tell them there's a man named Richard who comes and takes them to the horse cemetery," she said.
Will Van Sant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4166.