Abandoned horses a dilemma for ranchers
LA GRANDE, Ore. ” Ranchers in the old West saw their horse herds depleted by rustlers. Today people are abandoning unwanted domestic horses on ranches and public lands.
High hay prices and the closure this fall of the nation’s last domestic horsemeat processing facility in Illinois may be partly to blame.
At least nine horses have been turned loose on Wannie MacKenzie’s ranch north of Jordan Valley in the past 18 to 24 months and the Malheur County cattleman is bracing for more old and hungry horses as cash-strapped owners in Idaho’s Treasure Valley run out of winter hay.
“It’s a huge problem,” MacKenzie said. “What am I gonna do with them? I don’t want 300 head of horses on my ranch.”
“We are hearing stories from all over of people abandoning horses” at livestock sale yards, said Gary Conway, spokesman for the Texas-based American Quarter Horse Association.
Cavel International in DeKalb, Ill., the nation’s last horse slaughter facility, closed in September and two in Texas did so earlier last year.
The plants had exported horse meat to Europe and elsewhere for human consumption. Their closures were hailed by animal rights advocates but their absence leaves horse owners with fewer options for dealing with animals they no longer want, Conway said.
Closure of the plants has resulted in a 400 percent increase in shipments of U.S. horses to Mexican slaughterhouses this year, said Sally Baker, spokeswoman for the 9,000-member Association of Equine Practitioners in Lexington, Ky.
Malheur County Undersheriff Brian Wolfe tries to identify owners and charge them with animal abandonment or animal abuse but 90 percent of the horses are not branded.
Killing and processing horses for meat, which happened 80,000 to 100,000 times a year across the nation, according to government figures, or euthanasia are options but not without complications.
After euthanasia, most horses are buried or burned.
A horse carcass can’t be abandoned after a vet puts the animal down because the drugs are dangerous to scavengers, said La Grande veterinarian Christopher J. McIlmoil.
Oregon brand inspector Rodger Huffman of La Grande said even a horse that dies of natural causes cannot be left within a quarter-mile of running water or within half a mile of a dwelling for more than 15 hours without being buried or incinerated.
In remote areas, horse owners sometimes just shoot the animals, something MacKenzie said he can’t bring himself to do.
But even trucking horses to Mexico and Canada may end. Congress is considering legislation to prohibit killing and processing horses for human consumption or transporting them across international boundaries for that purpose.
Derek Fink, press secretary for Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., one of the legislation’s sponsors, said horses are being hauled to slaughter in overcrowded trailers, abused by workers, and inhumanely killed.
Fink said the bills’ sponsors believe horses deserve to finish out their lives in rescue facilities or sanctuaries, not domestic slaughter plants.
“A horse is a pet in America, it is like a dog or cat,” he said.
Conway, the American Quarter Horse Association spokesman, says there are too few rescue facilities and insufficient money to care for horses destined for slaughter.
And the transportation and slaughter was more humane than what is happening to them now, he said.
The debate “has definitely been framed within an urban vs. rural mind-set,” Baker said. She said urbanites often regard horses as “companion animals.” Rural households are more likely to think of horses as working animals and be less concerned about sending them to slaughter.
Government-run horse processing plants in Mexico appear to do a humane job, Baker said, but she worries about transporting them there. Horses trucked through Mexico and Canada are not under federal jurisdiction monitoring humane treatment, she said.
But some workers in Mexico kill horses with knives, she said.
“There is no perfect answer to this problem,” Conway said. “The horse processing thing certainly is not a solution for a lot of people. But it is for a lot of others.”
The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com