My commentary this week on USFR (to be posted Monday) will doubtless provoke spirited reaction from those opposed to horse slaughter, as I think reconsidering the issue will become almost impossible to avoid. Not being a "horse person" in any sense of the word, I have learned to appreciate the immense size and economic power of the equine industry, however, and my conversations with horse owners here in my community found all in agreement that a problem is escalating.
There is a quiet battle raging in the horse industry over the 1-2 punch of skyrocketing feed costs and the close of horse slaughter plants. Some results at mathematically obvious.
Local sale barn operators say a 2007 ruling that closed a DeKalb, Ill., horse-processing plant -- the last in the United States -- along with high feed prices and high fuel costs has severely depressed a market already saturated with horses that were bred during better economic times. They say current legislation pending in Congress that would ban sending horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico would leave the region's horse owners without viable options to get rid of unwanted animals.
Greg Johnson, owner of I-90 Expo Center horse sale in Sherburn, Minn., said some owners see the writing on the wall and are trying to get rid of their horses.
"The bulk of the horses are suffering," he said. "A lot of people that have had horses for years just want to get rid of them now."
Cleone Uecker, who runs South Dakota Horse Sales in Corsica, said the horse market peaked five years ago. It seemed everyone was buying stallions and broodmares, she said, even if that meant taking out loans or switching from raising cattle to horses.
Before the ban on slaughtering, she said, a 1,000-pound horse that couldn't sell as a trained saddle horse would bring about $600. [More]
Some problems are more vague - such as rumors of abandoned horses in public parks and range land. And claims of horse being abandoned at higher rates than before are strongly disputed especially in Kentucky.
Despite the dramatic stories, it's hard to pinpoint just how deep the problem goes.In arguments like this, where any compromise would require disavowal of a deeply held belief even in the face of convincing evidence seldom is resolved. Mostly the world adapts to it quietly and we outlive the fallacy.
Dr. Robert Stout, Kentucky's state veterinarian, says no statewide figures are available on how many horses have been abandoned or neglected or how many, if any, have died.
However, Stout says he's convinced there is a problem.
"My perspective is that it's probably due to the drought we had and the shortage of hay and other foodstuffs, coupled with higher prices," he said. "It's probably more of an issue than it has been in previous years."
Lori Neagle says the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, by far the largest rescue organization in the area, has taken in more than 140 horses since opening about a year ago. Many, though not all, of the cases were related to high hay prices. Other rescue groups report receiving much smaller numbers. But since there is no comprehensive list of centers statewide, it's unclear how many horses have been rescued.
Ginny Grulke, the horse council director, says that while she's received "lots of reports of abandoned horses from people who are credible," her group has been unable to compile "quantifiable numbers."
Some groups, like the Humane Society of the United States, contend that reports of abandoned horses in Kentucky and elsewhere are wildly overblown. "We've been unable to find a factual basis for most of the stories we've seen," society spokeswoman Stacy Segal said. [More]
The economics of horse ownership, the direction of the overall economy, and the lack of buyers of last resort tend to make me suspect this problem is not only real, but growing. But the answer may not be to reopen horse slaughter facilities, although I support looking into this. For the reason I mentioned horse activists have allowed themselves little room to maneuver on that issue. But as more and more animals wind up in incapable ownership another solution equally repugnant to some may be offered.
License and regulate horse ownership. Require credit checks and horse care training programs - just like buying a car. Make disposal costs part of the upfront purchase price as we are now doing for appliances, perhaps via mandatory insurance policies. The advent of animal identification should also be a priority for activists to ensure animals are correctly linked to responsible owners. In short, treat horse like cars.
I'm not crazy about introducing this type of hassle into the horse industry, but the absence of alternatives will likely lead us to more stories like this one.
The number of abused and abandoned horses is growing in Sonoma County, and local officials say the poor economy is partly to blame.Horse advocates rightly point out there is scant data to support linkage of the slaughter ban to horse abandonment, but the anecdotal evidence is mounting as horse rescue facilities are being overwhelmed and the market plummets for old horses. And the rise in horses exported for slaughter offers economic proof of the depth of the problem.
Bob Garcia, Sonoma County’s veteran animal control officer, said he’s seen this trend before: When tough economic times hit, horses are neglected.
“It just costs a lot of money now to feed a horse . . . We saw more horses abandoned last year than in the year prior to that. It seems like there’s a trend in that direction, which is concerning everyone.”
There were 18,000 horses in Sonoma County in 2005 according to the most recent survey of the population conducted by Sonoma State University. That was up from 14,000 horses in 1998.
Grant Miller, a veterinarian contracted to provide medical services to horses seized by the county, said in 2006 there were only three abuse cases requiring horses to be taken from properties. That number jumped to 30 in 2007. And 2008 opened with two more cases, which head to court this week. [More]
If the data should manifest, it will take a great deal of spin to affect the suffering, I'm afraid.