The following is a story that I researched and wrote for Sidelines’ February 2011 issue. It was a very challenging story to write, because of the subject matter: unwanted horses in the United States. I love horses, but my work doesn’t have me laughing all the way to the bank. Neigh, I live on a tight budget and if I splurge on anything, it’s on having one pony and one dog. That’s it. They eat before I do. That’s the way it is.
But what about all the unwanted horses? Rescue organizations and shelters are maxed out. People are tightening their belts in general. The issue of unwanted horses provokes extremely emotional reactions. Facebook provides an “open mike” so to speak, and a number of people are very upset about the passing of the bill to reinstate horse slaughter in the US. Some people are saying that it means we will be eating horsemeat: that’s not true! Here, in its entirety, is part one of “For The Love Of Horses” and I really hope that it helps people to understand why we must take responsibility for what happens to the unwanted horses.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORSES
By Lauren R. Giannini
In an ideal world, everything is perfect – no poverty, war, terrorism, famine or disease; no child abuse, domestic violence or rape. In an ideal world there are no neglected, abused or abandoned animals. Unfortunately, this world exists only in our dreams. Unwanted horses, about 100,000 annually in the United States, include every discipline and sport, from backyards and pleasure riders to OTTBs to show hunters and jumpers past their prime to abandoned and/or starvation cases. They pose a huge problem: quite simply, there are not enough adoptive homes to take them all in, and many are in such bad shape they can’t be saved. Too many horses are suffering more hardship and deprivation than horse lovers care to admit.
During the best of economies, it can be challenging to meet the maintenance expenses incurred by healthy equids, let alone those with ailments, soundness issues, and special needs. Animal welfare proponents are seriously concerned about the fate of unwanted horse. From a livestock perspective, they become a liability when age, injuries or illness prevent them from fulfilling their job descriptions.
The ideal scenario, of course is re-homing, but even that isn’t always in a horse’s best interests. Yes, the responsible choice is euthanasia if a pasture-potato situation can’t be secured. But to an already-struggling horse owner, even calling in a vet to do the deed is expensive. Costs average from $150 to $350, more with a barn call fee. Then you have to do something with the remains. This is complicated by the high dose of concentrated barbiturate in the lethal injection, which can be administered only by a vet. The remains become an environmental hazard if buried or composted near a source of water and can’t be fed safely to carnivores in zoos or in the wild.
The economy has resulted in dire consequences for middle class people who own the majority of the nearly 10 million equines in the US. More find themselves facing difficult decisions about whether to pay the rent or mortgage and feed the kids or the horses. It isn’t ideal; it’s the current reality. Horses are actually livestock, but now that they’re more widely regarded as companion animals, the issue of unwanted horses gets agitated by emotion and anthropomorphized personal beliefs.
Frustrated & Overwhelmed
The recession’s impact on many equine rescues and retirement farms has been devastating. Many haven’t the money or the staff to take care of the animals.
Hilleary Bogley founded the Middleburg Humane Foundation, a farm-based, small and large animal shelter that specializes in the rescue and rehabilitation of abused, neglected and at-risk animals. MHF, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, relies on fundraisers and private donations which are 100% tax deductible. All funds go directly into the animals and programs, which include companion animal adoption, equine rescue, feral cat population control, and low cost spay & neuter assistance. Bogley, a licensed vet tech and court-appointed Humane Investigator for two Virginia counties with 23 years in animal welfare, leads a small core staff and many volunteers.
“We’ve gone from an average of 20 horses a year in our program for adoption to now we have 57 horses,” says Bogley. “For the first 15 years of MHF we never had more than 20 horses, unless we had a large seizure, but we would usually be able to place them pretty quickly. Horse adoptions are way, way down: because of the economy, and the fact that there is no longer much value in horses, people can’t afford to take on more horses. A lot of equine rescue facilities are closing, because they can’t keep up and they’re frustrated and overwhelmed – it’s just never-ending.”
Horses can live to be 25-40 years old – a big difference compared to the life span of dogs and cats: they live to be 15, give or take a few years. Even in the prime of their life, domesticated animals can’t fend for themselves. They depend on people, especially as they get older and develop ailments and special needs.
“First of all, be aware of your responsibilities in horse ownership before you take on a horse,” advises Bogley. “Don’t take on a horse if you can’t make a lifelong commitment. I ask people: do you know where your first pony is? Most people have no idea. Ponies just get passed and passed and passed. In their golden years, when they need that care, they usually end up in a bad way…”
Bogley knows where her first pony is. Stormy was older when she started out with him, but he stayed in the family and eventually went back to her mother. He was euthanized when he was about 45.
“We can start by educating people. If you increase the quality and decrease the quantity of the horses you’re breeding, everyone will benefit,” states Bogley. “That’s not going to happen overnight. They did a study many years ago and learned that it would take four years to see a higher quality, lower quantity. In the Thoroughbred, Arabian and Quarter Horse industries, people pay a lot of money to register a horse. It means nothing in terms of quality. You can register anything and it’s just more filing of paperwork.”
Savvy breeders slowed down on reproduction. They’re still feeding their mares, but they aren’t footing expenses for young stock that might not sell. Like real estate, it’s a buyers’ market out there.
Educating The Public About All The Options
“Another solution is to educate the public about the necessity of humane slaughter of horses in the US which we can regulate and which is necessary because of the severe overpopulation problem,” says Bogley.
The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) are not pro-slaughter, per se, but on their website they state: The AVMA opposes the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (AHSPA) because it is, quite simply, a bad bill that ignores the real issue—what do we do with all of these unwanted horses? Eliminating an option for their disposition does nothing to solve the problem, it only adds to it.
“Between Bo Derek and her good looks and low-cut blouses, her television ads, and the kids writing letters to senators and congressmen, everybody was misinformed,” emphasizes Bogley. “The animal rights people were going to take away that option [humane slaughter regulated and monitored within the US], but they had no plan B for what people could do with these horses. The general public also doesn’t understand there is a huge over-population problem in horses, just like in cats and dogs, because there is no regulation of the breeding industry. Up until 4 years ago there was a market for horses – not only in riding horses or horses for sport, but also in horsemeat. Now, we’ve taken that market away, the value of horses has dropped [with the recession], and there is a dreadful overpopulation problem.”
The animal rights people used videos and photos of the rare occurrences of mishandling in slaughterhouses to their advantage in a massive shock campaign to gain support to outlaw horse slaughter. The last three slaughter facilities to close [in 2007 President Bush signed the bill that outlawed horse slaughter in the US] – Illinois and two in Texas – used a penetrating captive bolt, one of three methods of euthanasia recommended by the AVMA. The other two are lethal barbiturate injection and gunshot.
“Over 98% were done humanely with the captive bolt – when you’re slaughtering 300 horses or however many in a day, of course, you have occasionally a horse that doesn’t quite fit into the squeeze chute and throws up its head and the cowboy doesn’t catch him exactly where he’s supposed to,” explains Bogley. “Those are the videos that you see. HSUS, SPCA, all these big animal rights groups – they don’t show you the hundreds of other horses that went through on their videos for six hours, they pull out that one when something went wrong. Something always goes wrong in everything in life, nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed.”
What is guaranteed now is that there are still 100,000 unwanted horses, far too many to be taken in by already over-stretched rescue outfits. The animal rights people crowed about their victory in reducing animal suffering by the US ban on horse slaughter; however, many experts in animal welfare disagree emphatically. The AVMA’s substantial FAQ about unwanted horses and slaughter (see end of story for link) expresses their concern that following the closure of the American facilities, regulated by the US Dept of Agriculture, horses are suffering far worse fates by being trucked to slaughter in Mexico, where the USDA has no jurisdiction.
“The stabbing and severing of spines is what’s happening in Mexico,” says Bogley. “If it’s not done exactly correct, it is very inhumane. There is no humane slaughter act in Mexico. We cannot regulate anything once the horses leave the US. They’re mass-slaughtering ten times the number of horses they usually did, because of the horses coming in from the US. They did not have that number of horses before [the shutdown of US facilities]. They’ve got horses just flowing into Mexico.”
Changing The Laws
“My thing was humane transport,” explains Bogley. “About 20 years ago, a friend who’s now an attorney in Kentucky and I took a year and we documented and videotaped all of the horrors of the transportation of horses for slaughter and we were able to introduce some new language into the federal transportation laws for horses.”
Their work changed federal laws. No more double-decker transporters, and the visually impaired or blind horses had to be led by hand onto the truck and loaded separately. Good changes were being sought by animal welfare groups in the years leading up to the legislation being passed in 2007 to outlaw horse processing plants within the US, but the plight of these unwanted horses has taken severe turns for the worse.
United Horsemen is a 501(c)(3) educational and charitable organization with a plan for humane and realistic solutions to the excess horse problem. Two parts of the mission embraced by these dedicated urban and rural horse-lovers is the rescue and rehabilitation of horses with potential for re-training and re-homing. The third element involves recycling: the blunt term is slaughter, but the goal is euthanasia or humane death by captive bolt or bullet at a local, US-regulated facility.
Part of the success of this rescue, rehabilitation and recycle project depends on Dr. Temple Grandin, who was asked to design the horse-handling chute for the proposed Wyoming facility. She is an animal behaviorist and professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, author, and one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People of 2010.
Dr. Grandin, who is autistic with a special connection and empathy for animals, described the fate of horses shipped to Mexico where they are stabbed to sever their spines as her “worst nightmare and an example of well-intentioned but very bad unintended consequences. It’s only going to get worse because there’s no way to close that border. They just wave you through. I pulled some figures off the internet and something like 1200 horses a week are crossing the border from the US. The plant is under the European Union, which is getting very concerned about the drug residue problem.”
In other words, if the EU shuts down or reduces production in that plant, then horses from the US will go into local livestock plants and ‘neighborhood’ butcher shops and that will be even worse for the horses, due to no regulation of Mexican abattoirs.
“It will be an unregulated mess,” emphasized Dr. Grandin, “and nobody can go down there and inspect anything, because it’s too dangerous.”
A Better Solution
The growing horrors in Mexico add more weight to why a change in US laws to allow a humane horse-processing facility in Wyoming would save many thousands of horses from suffering on the road to Mexico and the ultimate indignity of a merciless demise. The horses would benefit from the federal transport laws, the facility would be regulated and managed properly. Most of all, the animals would handled with care. Moreover, the public eye would be watching to make sure that the horses were handled properly and that the humane code would be upheld to the best of everyone’s ability.
“I have the design,” says Dr. Grandin. “Once you have that in place, you want the horses to have quiet and careful handling outside, no distractions, and you have to have management that wants to handle animals right. If you don’t have management dedicated to doing things right, you’re going to have bad stuff going on.”
United Horsemen are committed to alleviating as much suffering as possible if horses must be slaughtered, which is why they contacted Dr. Grandin. Her many years of substantial experience as an animal behaviorist has led her to pioneer humane handling and appropriate facilities for livestock to be slaughtered here in the US and around the world. Animal rights organizations don’t agree, and the general public seem to be turning a very blind eye toward the transport of horses to Mexico – out of sight, out of mind.
“If people tell me slaughter is terrible, I tell them give me all your ideas for alternatives,” says Dr. Grandin. “I’ve had people tell me what the horse rescue places are doing, some people want to make big sanctuaries. I say, ‘Fine – do it.’ Those rescue places take money. If you have a big sanctuary, they get filled up and if you exceed the capacity of the land you’ve got a real mess. I don’t want to hear should this or should that. Let’s talk about something that someone’s actually going to do.”
There’s an old saying: if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. The great efforts by individuals and small organizations to rescue and rehabilitate neglected and abandoned animals simply aren’t enough. The loss of US horse-processing plants resulted in a cruel blow to the horses themselves.
“I want to talk about doing. Not policy. Not ideology. What can we actually do?” asks Dr. Grandin. “When they contact me with their lovely hate emails, I say give me plans for alternatives that are real services. What service are you going to provide? They never reply.”
We all love our horses. Nobody wants to see any animal suffer or starve or be relegated to cross the rainbow bridge at a slaughterhouse – anywhere. Yet, the realities faced by the growing numbers of unwanted horses demand that we consider all the options. For some horses, there is no escaping the abattoir. Given that fact, we might consider that our ultimate kindness, even if it’s not the most preferable option, would be to monitor the work of a humanely run processing plant here in the US than to allow horses either to starve to death or to suffer that one-way ride to Mexico.
The fact is that many horses still face death somewhere, and that means we must do what we can to make sure it is as gentle and easy as possible. We all have a conscience. If emotion over-rules common sense, however, we must be prepared to pay the consequences: living with the knowledge that we allowed doomed horses to cross the border where humane regulations simply do not exist.