By Rita Brhel
That horse owners around the nation are starting to feel desperate in finding ways to unload their aging and unwanted stock, is an understatement.
Earlier this month, at least one horse owner hauled his live horse to the Fremont County landfill near St. Anthony, Idaho, before shooting it and unloading the carcass into the dead animal pit. The Fremont County Commission discussed the incident briefly during a recent meeting, and Chairman Paul Romrell said the Commission may need to discuss whether to ban the practice should it become more common.
The Idaho incident is among the increasingly creative ways horse owners have been trying to get rid of their horses. Since the U.S. horse slaughter ban was passed in 2006, the number of horses that have been left neglected or abandoned has risen sharply, their owners unable to care for them as feed costs rose and the economy stumbled. The total number of horses neglected or abandoned since the last of the U.S. horse slaughter facilities closed in 2007 is unknown, but an impressive number of cases have been reported in states from Maryland to Kentucky to Texas to Oregon. In Wyoming, the state Brand Commission handled more than 40 cases in 2008, up from the usual six to eight cases per year. In Nevada, 63 horses were left on public lands, up from a usual 11. Earlier this year, 170 horses were rescued from a Texas ranch, and in April, authorities found 74 dead and 174 emaciated horses on a ranch in Nebraska.
Officials in many states are seeing horses left at sale barns and veterinary clinics, tied to telephone poles, and released onto federal land and even in other horse owner’s herds.
In March, concerned with the rising number of local horse owners unable to afford the cost to feed their livestock, the Fremont County Commission agreed to join an effort to convince the state government to adopt a resolution against federal legislation that would tighten restrictions on the horse slaughter ban, even beyond U.S. borders.
Missouri has passed a similar resolution, while Montana has passed a bill supporting construction of a new horse slaughterhouse and North Dakota is investing funds into a study on whether a slaughterhouse would be legal in the state.
Congress is considering HR 503, the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act of 2009, an amendment to the 2006 law that would effectively end all slaughter of U.S. horses by prohibiting possession, transport, purchase, and sale of any horse, horse flesh, or carcass with the intent of it being used for human consumption. Violators would be fined or imprisoned. The bill was introduced in January by Rep. John Conyers (Mich.-D) and has since been referred to the House Judiciary committee and the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. If passed, the bill would close the loopholes in the U.S. horse slaughter ban that allows the transport of horses to markets outside the U.S.
According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), nearly 100,000 horses were hauled to Canada and Mexico for slaughter last year. During the first quarter of 2009, HSUS reported that more than 17,000 U.S. horses went to these two countries for slaughter. This means, if HR 503 is signed into law, that the U.S. would retain the thousands of horses that would otherwise be disposed of each year through markets in neighboring countries. Even though these horses currently going to slaughter are a fraction of the total number of horses in the U.S. – 9.2 million, according to the American Horse Council – adding these horses to the total population each year won’t help the current problem of abandoned and neglected horses, especially since horses live 20 to 30 years on average.
Ginger Langemeier, assistant director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, said the root of the problem is a changing perception of animal rights. What began with an attitude toward dogs and cats is now shifting to livestock typically used for agricultural purposes. HSUS is among the most influential activists for animal rights, and this organization had a major part in getting federal legislation passed in 2006 to ban horse slaughter.
“Every day that passes means that there will be more torment and more suffering for America’s horses,” said HSUS President Wayne Pacelle of current legislation.
The American public is easily persuaded by groups like HSUS, and agricultural groups need to understand that the goal of animal rights activists is to put animal agriculture out of business, Langemeier said.
“People want to treat their pets like people, and people want to feel good,” Langemeier said. This attitude of “animals are friends, not food” and “animals are members of the family” is how horse slaughter was banned in the U.S. in 2006 and why there appears to be enough support for a second bill to be passed banning horse transport to slaughter outside the U.S.
“People don’t care about the businesses going under or that the number of horses being neglected and abandoned has risen considerably,” Langemeier said. “They want to think the horses are running wild and free.”