TIM UNRUH

Salina Journal via Associated Press

SALINA, Kan. (AP) -- In the best of situations, a horse can live 25 or 30 years.

But what can you do with an old, sick, injured and suffering horse, one that no one wants, or a dead one for that matter?

The answer can be expensive, said Mike Samples, manager of the Farmers and Ranchers Livestock Commission, 1500 W. Old 40 Highway. One option used to be to sell the horse for slaughter rather than pay hundreds of dollars to euthanize and bury it.

That alternative was eliminated in 2006 when Congress erased federal money for U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection of horse-processing plants, a response in part to animal rights activist groups lobbying against the practice.

In October, President Barack Obama signed a spending bill that again makes horse slaughter possible in the United States. The Washington Times reported Nov. 30 that the move came a few months after a government investigation said the slaughter ban "was backfiring."

Five years ago, there were two plants slaughtering horses in Texas and one in Illinois, and the last of those closed in 2007, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

"I believe we made a bad mistake in the U.S.," Samples said.

The change "is a move in the right direction," he said, but it will take some time before a horse slaughter system is restored in the United States.

In the meantime, the lack of slaughter houses and a bad economy have contributed to a glut of horses that no one knows what to do with.

"All over the country a lot of horses have been turned loose. People just haul them off, turn them out and hope somebody else takes care of them," Samples said.

However, Lindsay Rajt, of Los Angeles, the associate director of campaigns for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said it wasn't the closing of the slaughter houses that caused horse overpopulation. Rather, she said, the rodeo and horse racing industries and private breeders are to blame.

In this country alone, 30,000 new foals are born every year, and two thirds of them are used for riding or other purposes, and the other 10,000 "go straight to slaughter," Rajt said, because they're not judged to be good enough.

"The blood of these horses is on the hands of rodeo, racing and private breeders. They're at the root of this crisis."

One alternative is for horses to be hauled to Mexico or Canada where slaughter has always been legal. Another is euthanizing the horse. Salina veterinarian Bob Huseman charges $150. Add the cost of renting a backhoe or other equipment to dig a grave and bury the body, and the cost could approach $500, Samples said.

"There are hefty regulations that go along with that. Your options are pretty limited if you can't send them to processing," said Matt Teagarden, director of industry relations for the Kansas Livestock Association.

Some who deal in the horse slaughter business will buy animals for next to nothing and truck them to Canada or Mexico. Demand for horse meat is high and the price follows beef, Samples said, but without a slaughter plant in the United States, the price is "probably a fourth" of what it should be.

"The fact that there was no more slaughter did not address these unwanted horses, so the cases of abandonment probably quadrupled since they closed the plants," Huseman said.

The result has been a glut in horse numbers, which has drastically cut prices. Weanling horses that sold for $800 to $1,000 in 2005 are selling for a few hundred dollars, Teagarden said.

Some KLA members have told of hauling young horses -- not yet broken to ride -- to an auction and that they "owed the sale barn when it was done," he said. "The lack of an outlet for unwanted horses has just devastated the horse market."

And horses are not cheap to keep. Add up the hay, grain and veterinary bills, and the cost can reach $3,800 a year, Teagarden said, or well over $10 a day for a horse.

Having horse slaughter back is a positive move, Teagarden said, but issues haven't changed. In Texas and Illinois where the last three plants were located, he said, there are still state laws in place that prohibit processing horses for human consumption.

Building a plant to slaughter horses is not likely, but retrofitting a plant is possible.

One such plant is owned by Tyson in Emporia, Teagarden said, but part of it is still being used for beef fabrication, and it's way too large for horse slaughter.

"I don't think it's likely in Kansas, but I've seen some discussions from Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska and the Dakotas," he said. "It's nothing that's going to happen tomorrow.

"Nothing they have done has stopped horses from dying. It has not stopped horses from being processed. We're shipping horses to Canada and Mexico for processing," Teagarden said. "Euthanasia is an option. Putting the horse down is probably the easiest part, but then you have to dispose of the horse. If you wanted you could go buy a burial plot for your dearly departed Trigger or Mr. Ed."

PETA's Rajt said her organization is not officially opposed to reopening the slaughter houses.

"It's the lesser of two evils," she said. "If they're going to be killed, we would prefer they don't have to endure a long trip to slaughter."

Don't misunderstand, Rajt said. PETA wants the slaughter of all animals to end.

"With so many other healthy foods available, there is no reason to be eating dead animals or to be using animals for food production at all, especially when we understand now the health benefits of a vegan diet," she said.

But the belief that horses are shipped out of this country "crammed" in trailers built for cattle has caused PETA to settle for another position.

"Ideally, what we want is the export of horses to end and for the slaughter of horses in the U.S. to end," Rajt said. "Because we don't have a ban, and they're just being slaughtered anyway and enduring a grueling journey, we're pragmatic."

PETA supports the effort to establish the $20 million Thoroughbred Lifecycle Fund. It would require that $360 be paid into the fund for every foal, brood mare and stallion registration and ownership transfer. Payment into the fund is meant to shift some of the burden of caring for unwanted horses to the breeders, Rajt said, and it could help to deter over-population.

"From our standpoint, providing a decent retirement for these horses is an obligation," Rajt said. "It shouldn't be an option for these people."

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Information from: The Salina Journal, http://www.salina.com

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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