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October 25, 2011

Part 4: The State Of U.S. Horse Slaughter: The Challenge Of Unwanted Horses

While slaughter advocates say the horses sent to auctions and eventual slaughter epitomize unwanted horses, horse welfare proponents say many horses could be rehabilitated for recreational use. Photo by Amy K. Dragoo.

What would have happened to the approximately 130,000 horses that were slaughtered in 2010 if slaughter hadn’t been an option? Would banning slaughter create a huge influx of unwanted horses? Would the horses potentially suffer even worse fates, starving to death or being let loose? The questions are even harder to answer since 2007, the first year without domestic slaughter, was also the year of a major economic downturn.

The Government Accountability Office report highlighted the plight of rescue organizations, stating that, “Officials said horse rescue operations in their states are at, or near, maximum capacity, with some taking on more horses than they can properly care for since the cessation of domestic slaughter.”

“There is a lot of anecdotal information about neglect and abandonment,” said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States. “A lot of factors could contribute to that. One is an increased awareness of the public to report neglect. We get more calls, so we don’t attribute it just to the economy—we attribute it to that higher awareness. Colorado passed a law requiring people to report neglect if they saw it. Even if we accept there is an increase in neglect, the number of horses going to slaughter has not changed. It’s hard to see how we could attribute those increases. Slaughter is still an option, and it hasn’t gone away. If people are neglecting their horses, it’s not because they can’t send their horses to slaughter.”

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor of animal behavior at the Tufts Cummings School Of Veterinary Medicine (Mass.) and proponent for a full slaughter ban, believes the unwanted horse crisis is a myth more than a real issue.

“People who want slaughter say, ‘You would be overrun with horses! They would be running loose down the freeway,’ ” Dodman said. “There’s not a shred of evidence that [the closure of U.S. slaughterhouses] is linked to abuse and neglect. When the economy is good, there’s less mistreatment of horses. When it’s bad, there’s more. Their argument doesn’t hold true. In 1990, there were over 300,000 horses sent to slaughter. In 2002, the number dropped to 42,000. You know why the number went down? It’s because the demand went down.”

Dr. Tom Lenz, past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and former chair of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, disagrees, saying the 100,000 extra horses left suffering if the slaughter pipeline closed would create a bigger problem than trying to solve the current transportation issues. Many horses that head to slaughter are first picked up at auctions by “kill buyers” after they’re too old or too lame to serve a riding purpose. Some have major injuries or illnesses. The AAEP estimated it would require an additional 2,700 rescue organizations, if each could take an average of 30 horses, to accommodate just the first year of a closed pipeline to Canada and Mexico.

“Those horses [sent to slaughter] epitomize the unwanted horse problem,” Lenz said. “If we can’t find a way to solve the unwanted horse problem so no horse goes to a plant, I think as long as the horses are humanely euthanized at the slaughterhouses, I think it’s OK. But I think the day could come when they wouldn’t be needed.”

Lt. Col. Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America, a member of the American Horse Council Horse Welfare Committee and a proponent of re-opening domestic slaughter plants, doesn’t foresee a way to care for the 138,000 horses that wouldn’t be sent to slaughter in the first year of a ban.

“There just aren’t enough solutions,” said Foster. “I think foxhunters do a great job. We probably take in more Thoroughbreds than any other group, and we use them. That’s a very good thing, but there’s not enough we can adopt and not enough of the humane groups to take them. They’re overfilled already. I hear of other foxhunters who wake up in the morning and have one or two more horses in their fields that someone left in the middle of the night. That’s already happening.”

For Dodman and others, slaughtering any more horses until a long-term solution can be reached is unacceptable. He doesn’t believe people will choose even low-cost euthanasia over the prospect of making a small sum on a horse they no longer want.

“The ride is atrocious. The killing process is atrocious. Some of them could be absorbed back into the community,” said Dodman. “The other ones, they should work hard to find ways of rehabilitating them in shelters like they do for dogs and cats. Even if euthanasia costs $50 or $100, people say, ‘Well, one way I lose $100, the other way I make $400.’ People can’t be allowed to make those decisions. The world is divided into two types of people: people who have empathy and people who don’t. If you don’t have it, you just don’t understand. They can’t imagine what it would feel like to be in that situation.” 

Racetracks have started regulating the sale of horses in an attempt to stop them from going to slaughter and encourage responsible decisions by trainers and owners. If a trainer at certain tracks is found to have sent his horses to slaughter or auction, the trainer can lose his stalls.

Allie Conrad of CANTER Mid-Atlantic believes some trainers are still finding ways around the rules, though. “They’re squirreled off to private feed lots, then once a full load is created they go straight to Canada,” Conrad said. “The tracks have been good about it—when we find horses that are in that situation, the track is going after the people who are responsible, but it’s still happening constantly. The tracks are saying you can’t do this, but they’re building better mousetraps.”

Finding An Agreeable Solution

Whatever happens with slaughter legislation, the best long-term solution is responsible horse ownership.

While Lenz has already noted a decrease in breeding, likely due to a faltering economy, the AAEP and many veterinary clinics are also offering inexpensive castration options and low-cost euthanasia.

“The economy is a two-edged sword,” Lenz said. “It hurt the horse industry, but it decreased breeding. At a meeting last week with some of the major breed organizations, they said some are down 35 to 40 percent over the last four years. The economy slowed the number of foals, and usually when people cut back on breeding, they cut back on breeding the poor quality horses and breed the good ones. Their top end horses are fine, and participation in the shows hasn’t declined at all.”

At the same time breeding is decreasing, organizations like CANTER have helped re-home thousands of racehorses who might otherwise have been sent to slaughter. Conrad has learned owner education is the best prevention against useable horses facing grim fates.

“The problem was there were all these horses on the backside needing a place to go and a very finite amount of buyers, and the rest went to sales,” she said. “That was normal and not looked down upon; it was just what happened. CANTER came about, trying to bridge that gap between people on the backside and people on the front end. That’s what our track listing program started doing.”

But even Conrad noted there are horses that won’t ever fit into a program again. For those horses, CANTER now recommends humane euthanasia.

“We used to tiptoe around the issue. Now we only take horses in we can re-home, and we can only re-home horses that are rideable,” Conrad said. “If people call us, and a horse has had horrible injuries, we say, ‘Have you considered putting the horse down?’ People used to be really opposed to it. I think there’s a little change happening. People are saying, ‘I can control his future.’ ”

Part 1: The State Of U.S. Horse Slaughter: Closing The Doors, Opening The Borders

Part 2: The State Of U.S. Horse Slaughter: The Long Bridge To Nowhere

Part 3: The State Of U.S. Horse Slaughter: Is It Humane?

This is the last article in a four-part series, which ran every Wednesday through Oct. 26. The original version of this article was published in the July 18 & 25, 2011, Horse Care Issue. If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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