Unwanted horses: Slaughter the answer?

Posted 5/5/09

But beyond the inflammatory hyperbole, the issue of slaughter is part of a serious debate about a growing problem in Wyoming and the rest of the United States — the number of abandoned and unwanted horses.

In 2007, the Wyoming Livestock …

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Unwanted horses: Slaughter the answer?


{gallery}04_30_09/horse{/gallery} Jenny Cramer, director of the Reaching Hands Ranch, runs her fingers through the forelock of Ivy, a rescued equine. The non-profit Powell ranch helps horse owners in tough times and uses rescued horses to mentor at-risk youth. They've recently experienced a surge in the number of horses in need of new homes. To help or adopt one of the 40 or so horses, call Cramer at 307-272-9437. Tribune photo by Toby Bonner To say that horse slaughter is controversial is an understatement.When the Wyoming Legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution endorsing horse slaughter last session, an online petition quickly sprang up to protest.“SLAUGHTER ALL THE PEOPLE WHO WANT THIS!” roared signee Paul Murphy of Florida.

But beyond the inflammatory hyperbole, the issue of slaughter is part of a serious debate about a growing problem in Wyoming and the rest of the United States — the number of abandoned and unwanted horses.

In 2007, the Wyoming Livestock Board took in 43 unwanted horses. The board's law-enforcement administrator, Jimmy Dean Siler, thought that was a lot.

Then, in 2008, they took in 96. This year has been on pace to be even higher.

Reaching Hands Ranch, a Powell horse-rescue organization, has around 40 horses they're looking to help place, said ranch director Jenny Cramer. Forty horses, she said, is an unusually-high number, and she points the finger at the economic situation.

“The horse market has been plummeting for quite some time now,” Cramer said. “It's definitely been snowballing.”

“It's not cheap when you talk livestock,” said Siler.

In March, a Deaver couple turned 38 horses over to the Park County Sheriff's Office. Prosecutors say that, when financial times grew tough, the couple stopped feeding their animals enough food. They've been charged with 39 counts of cruelty.

Siler said the recession cost one rancher in the southern part of the state thousands of dollars. The owner told Siler, “Something had to take a hit,” and it ended up being the horses.

Some believe that a stronger horse market would help the problem, and that slaughterhouses are one way to do that.

“When the slaughterhouses closed (in 2006), we noticed there were a lot more horses being turned out,” said Siler.

Cramer spends her time rescuing horses, and the ranch keeps as many as it can.

But, with few options available for unwanted horses, she also sees a need.

“No one likes the thought of it, or wants their horse (to be slaughtered), but unfortunately, it is a solution,” she said.

“It would be nice if there were more solutions out there.”

Nicole Michaels, a frequent volunteer at Reaching Hands and an owner of two rescued horses, said she's seen positive responses to the tight market, such as breeding only on demand.

That way, an owner is lined up “as soon as the foal hits the ground,” she said.

While Michaels sees a purpose for slaughterhouses, she fears that they allow owners to be irresponsible.

Others are more adamantly opposed.

“I'm very much against horse slaughter,” said Pat Fazio, statewide coordinator of the Wyoming Wild Horse Coalition.

Horses, Fazio said, do not react to the slaughter process in the same way as cows and other animals consumed for meat.

Further, techniques used in the plants — specifically those in Mexico — can be gruesome, she said.

The solution to abandonment, Fazio said, is reducing the number of animals through contraception.

Animal rights groups say the vast majority of horses sent to slaughter are not the unwanted animals.

Kay Clark and her husband, Jake, use a number of horses and mules in their business, Wyoming Wilderness Outfitters. Kay Clark said those who have lobbied Congress to ban slaughter are uninformed.

“People that are wanting to do this ... don't understand the whole process of the horse system,” she said. “They don't like to see anything killed or anything die... Their mind only thinks how they love these animals and they want them taken care of.”

“Rather than a law that says ‘no slaughter,' we need a way to make it better,” she said.

Currently, subcommittees in the U.S. House and Senate are weighing a bill that would prohibit transferring horses out of the country for slaughter — the only way that U.S. horses are legally slaughtered today.

The Senate version has 14 co-sponsors, the House version, 114.

Wyoming's Congressional Delegation, however, unanimously opposes both versions.

“Any ban on the handling of horses puts a serious burden on horse owners,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “I do not support any push by the federal government to tell Wyoming farmers and ranchers how best to handle their livestock.”

Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said, “The reality is that the closing of the three horse slaughter facilities has not resulted in humane treatment of horses... The horse-processing industry in Mexico is not held to the same standards as the regulated U.S. industry.”

Sen. Mike Enzi's (R-Wyo.) press secretary Elly Pickett said Enzi believes horse slaughter comes down to the fundamental issue of private property rights.

“Should this bill pass, there have been no realistic ways proposed to pay the high, long-term costs for providing enough land, feed, or veterinary care for unwanted horses,” he said.