Homeless on the Range

Originally printed in the USA Today on August 14, 2008


Horses are being abandoned by the thousands across the USA. Some are strays, others a result of overbreeding or a sour economy. How should we humanely lessen their numbers?


By Mary Zeiss Stange


It's a climactic scene in the 1962 Kirk Douglas film, Lonely Are the Brave. The cowboy, Jack Burns fugitive both from the law and the civilization overtaking the open range confronts a choice: He can scale a steep rock face and escape to Mexico. But to do so, he must leave his palomino mare, Whiskey, to either be recovered by the posse pursuing him, or to run wild in the New Mexico desert.


It takes him but a moment to decide: Whatever the outcome, he and his horse are in this together. It is a noble sentiment and an ultimately tragic decision. In the end, the horse is literally dead and her rider at least metaphorically so.


No one who owns and loves horses, as I do, can fail to note the counterpoint the film provides to what is happening to horses in America today. There is a national epidemic of "surplus" or "unwanted" horses. Domestic horses are being abandoned as never before. Some are being released as "strays" on public lands. Others are being left to starve in pastures denuded of grass. The reasons are various and excruciatingly complex.


Overpopulation problem


There are, to begin with, too many horses in the USA: 9.2 million as recently as 2005, up from 5.3 million in 1999. Indiscriminate breeding leads not just to too many horses, but also to too many with physical or behavioral faults that render them unsuitable for domestic uses.


Then there's the economy. Horses are not cheap to keep. Factor in training, vet care, tack and feed, and the expense averages $1,800 to $2,400 per animal, per year and rising, as grain and fuel costs increase. According to the American Horse Council, a third of horse owners have household incomes less than $50,000 a year. When it comes to feeding your horses or putting gas in the car, the choice is simple, if painful.


But the single overriding cause of "surplus" horses is the movement to ban the sale of horses or their meat for human consumption. Activism forced the last three horse slaughter plants in the U.S. to close last year. They had hitherto processed about 100,000 horses annually, mostly for meat sales to France and Japan, where horse meat is considered a delicacy.


On its face, the closings would seem to be a victory for horse lovers. Former New York representative John Sweeney, who sponsored a bill in 2006 to curtail horse slaughter, told Fox News that slaughter is a "brutal, shady practice" because horses such as Mr. Ed, Secretariat and Silver are American icons.


Julie Caramante of Habitat for Horses, a rescue operation in Houston, told USA TODAY in March that horses are pets, and that "we wouldn't even dream of selling our pets" for food.


Supporters of the horse slaughter ban include the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, as well as such major animal rights groups as the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. But most major veterinary medical groups oppose it, as does the American Quarter Horse Association.


Why would advocates of horse health and welfare oppose a ban on the slaughter? Mostly because humane slaughter is preferable to neglect or abuse. But there is an additional irony: Horses bound for auction, even if that means eventual slaughter, are better cared for than those that have little economic value. Auction prices have plummeted since the slaughter ban went into effect. And so, too often, has the level of care afforded many unwanted horses.


Bought for slaughter


An increasing number of these horses are now bought to be shipped to slaughtering facilities in Canada or, more likely, Mexico. In the latter case, their treatment is liable to be nothing short of barbaric, compared with the methods employed by the now-shuttered U.S. slaughterhouses, which had conformed to the standards of the Humane Slaughter Act. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports that horse slaughter exports to Mexico have in a single year increased by 312%, to more than 44,000 horses in 2007.


In response, animal rights activists are pushing the extension of the ban to include the transport of horses to other countries for slaughter. Federal legislation to this effect the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act of 2008 was introduced in the House just ahead of Congress' summer recess. The AVMA calls the situation a horse welfare crisis. It attributes the cause primarily to the coalition of slaughter-ban activists spearheaded by the Humane Society, and its failure to suggest viable alternatives.


The way to the current crisis was, of course, paved with good intentions. But the options available, for dealing with 100,000 unwanted steeds, are unfortunately limited, and largely unfeasible:


    * Euthanasia is a possibility. But it is costly, $100 to $600 per horse. The cost of burial or cremation could add several hundred dollars.


    * Rescue facilities are an option; many already exist. But their capacity is about 6,000 horses, and we are looking at a surplus of roughly 100,000 horses every year. At $1,800 to $2,400 to keep each animal, that comes to $180 million to $240 million annually. Because many of these horses will live several years until their natural deaths, the cost could balloon exponentially. Who will bear it?


    * A limited number of suitable horses can be donated to schools and therapeutic facilities, and for veterinary research.


In the longer range, the breeding of horses must be sharply curtailed. In the meantime, the resumption of humane slaughter in this country should be seriously considered.


The Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act, should it eventually become law, does not mandate funding for the support of surplus horses. And opponents have failed to raise the funding for rescue facilities, adoption programs and so forth.


Meanwhile, ever-increasing numbers of unwanted horses are languishing in grassless pastures, dazedly roaming desiccated public lands, and living with disease and chronic pain. Whatever you might think about the relative merits of horse meat, this is a hell of a way to treat an "American icon." The cowboy Jack Burns wouldn't have stood for it.


Mary Zeiss Stange, a professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors. She rides a Peruvian named Amante.


Overpopulated, emaciated, overwhelmed


Most states do not record exact numbers on abandoned horses. In 2007, the Unwanted Horse Coalition estimated that 170,000 abandoned horses lived in the U.S. Abandonment takes various forms, as recent news reports illustrate:


    *     It is estimated that 200 of 1,200 wild horses overpopulating the Virginia Range near Reno, are actually "strays." Many won't survive in the wild, and the mustangs could be at risk of disease from domestic horses.


    *      In January, 48 emaciated thoroughbred horses some believed to be descendents of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew were rescued from a farm in Loudoun County, Va.


   *      In March, 70 Tennessee Walking horses were removed from a farm in Jessamine County, Ky. Officials said that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the worst condition, most of the horses rated a 1.5.


    *      In May, 120 starving horses were rescued from a ranch in Central Florida when, according to reports, their owner "had become overwhelmed by the demand of caring" for them.