Consider slaughterhouses for unwanted wild horses

No home on the range

  • Wendy Beye


A recent letter in The Missoulian in Montana suggested a solution to two serious problems the area faces: the growing numbers of wolves and the abandonment of large animals to starvation. The writer suggested building a fence around the town; then releasing excess wolves from the Sapphire and Bitterroot ranges along with the llamas left behind after their caretakers went broke trying to feed over 1,000 hoofed animals through the winter. Well, yes, a tongue-in-cheek solution.

But it is true that the number of abandoned and neglected animals is multiplying with epidemic speed since unemployment skyrocketed in the United States. We're not just talking about kittens and puppies. With high hay costs, drought conditions and climbing grain prices, more and more backyard ranchers are finding that they can no longer afford to feed their hungry hobby animals. Kind-hearted animal lovers won't turn the critters down during a frigid winter, but many rescuers soon find they've reached the ends of their financial ropes.

Front page photos of furry little donkeys with hooves as long as snowmobile skis have been heartbreaking. The rescuers have not only emptied their bank accounts for food, but veterinary and farrier services for the multitude of animals in their care have become nonexistent.

Animal rescuers generally start small: a neighbor here, a friend there; word-of-mouth spreads, optimism about future financing grows, more corrals are built, and more animals show up on the doorstep. They ask for donations, even set up nonprofit organizations, but the money can't keep up with the demand.

The latest breakdown occurred in the small town of Niarada, Mont. A woman who had a high-paying job and a soft spot for animals set up a 400-acre rescue ranch with the help of her hardworking husband. Before they knew it, they had over 1,000 four-footed guests on the place. But then the woman lost her job and had to take one that paid much less. She and her husband struggled to keep the project going, but other animal rescuers had to finally step in to find homes for all those hungry and neglected animals. In this economy, that is proving to be a monumental task.

Years ago, there was another option for owners of horses who could no longer afford their pets. It was distasteful - slaughterhouses that process horses - and today, there are none in this country. The Montana legislature in Helena is now reconsidering this issue, though the state's chambers of commerce don't seem eager to host a horse-slaughtering operation that would become a magnet for animal-rights protestors.

But let's face it: The alternative to a humane end to the lives of animals is often starvation and neglect. That's why the American Quarter Horse Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and nearly 200 other horse industry groups support slaughterhouses as a solution to the growing numbers of unwanted horses, mules and donkeys.

Animal rights defenders argue that veterinary-assisted euthanasia is a better solution, but the expense of this option is more than many horse owners can afford. Rescue organizations are obviously already stretched to their limits. Not long ago, a conference called Summit of the Horse was held in Las Vegas, Nev., attended by many of the people who, in 2007, helped shut the doors of the last horse slaughterhouses in the United States. Some of those same people have now reconsidered their good intentions and are pushing for well-regulated slaughterhouses.

Public education about the responsibilities and expense of owning large animals is essential, but that is a long-term solution. Each year there may be up to 100,000 horses with no place to go and no one to care for them. Curtailment of marginal breeding programs would help, but many owners of mares can't resist the idea of a cute little foal in the pasture, so there is soon one more "hayburner" to feed and care for.

In Montana, the temptation is to simply open a gate and let the animals fend for themselves on publicly owned land. In other states with scarce open range, some desperate owners haul their horses to equine events, unload them and tie them to a participant's trailer -- then disappear down the road.

We love our symbols of the Wild West, and I know from experience how difficult it is to face ending the life of an animal that has become a part of the family. The alternative, however, can be even more heartbreaking. It can never be good to watch an animal starve.

Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a pilot and freelance writer living in Roundup, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Feb 08, 2011 07:37 PM
Agreed on slaughterhouses. Just because some people don't like horsemeat, they shouldn't restrict it from dog food, or even food for other people.
Susan Singer
Susan Singer
Feb 11, 2011 11:29 AM
From all reports, industrial horse slaughter is terror filled and painful, not at all "a humane end" for animals who have served, partnered and trusted humans. Raise horses as one raises beef cattle and we can talk about a food industry. Until then, there are humane ways to end an equine life as there are humane ways to end the lives of millions of unwanted dogs and cats.
Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye Subscriber
Feb 11, 2011 07:38 PM
Susan, I know the thought of sending horses to a slaughterhouse is not a pleasant one, but this may still be an alternative preferable to starvation. Legislators in Montana are working on new rules for slaughterhouses that would be allowed to process horses. Another two cases of horse neglect near Billings, Montana, involve approximately 860 horses all together. Feeding that many animals costs about $10,000/week and no rescue operations can afford an ongoing expense of that magnitude. The horse owners are out of money, and didn't pay attention to the studs getting in with the mares, so more foals are on the way this spring. There is also a shortage now of the drugs used for animal euthanasia, so the problems are multiplying rapidly.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Feb 11, 2011 07:59 PM
Wendy, good points. If they're no less humane than beef slaughterhouses ...
Steve Waclo
Steve Waclo
Feb 15, 2011 03:59 PM
Unchecked growth of even some native wildlife is becoming a serious problem everywhere in the West and here, in the area surrounding Lake Tahoe, a hunting season for black bears has been approved. Not too many relished this option, but having a bear join you for coffee in the kitchen some morning is not a plesant prospect. And there are just not enough Twinkies in the trash anymore for these semi-domesticated animals... As has been said of Iraq and many other situations, "you broke it, you fix it" applies,..and the alternatives are seldom attractive.

Rigorously inspected and monitored slaughterhouses (gotta be a better name) unfortunately, appear to be the best choice on a menu of unhappy options.
Dave  Kangas
Dave Kangas Subscriber
Feb 15, 2011 05:29 PM
This is a situation where "the truth hurts". Sometimes good intentions have unexpected results. The closing of the slaughter houses for horses was one of those instances. If you look at the stories around the west of abandoned animals, you can see this is a real problem. If you look at the additional 36,000 wild horses in BLM corrals without a future, it is acutally an acute problem that needs resolution. Horsemeat while not palatable in the US, is elsewhere as I understand it. It is not a solution for all horses especially ones that have been raised by responsible owners. However, disposing of a euthanized horse is a lot different than disposing of a euthanized cat or dog. Carefully regulated slaughterhouses need to be part of the equation, even if they are unpopular.
Carl Roberts
Carl Roberts Subscriber
Feb 16, 2011 11:43 AM
Great dialogue. Too bad we didn't have this discussion prior to shutting down the processing plants.Horses are livestock. Pets get to set in our laps, you wouldn't want your horse to do that. Having made my living for over 30 yrs. with horses, rest assured that I not only love them, I care deeply for their welfare. As a young man in Catron county N.M. we ate several less than sound steeds to the horror of some of our neighbors. Why would anyone waste such a large donor of protein? Native Americans would never have dreamed of not completing the cycle of life. If we really choose to honor these animals we claim to love we should utilize them completely. Yes, changes in transport need to be made as well as humane handling prior to processing. Turning them out on the forest or BLM is only adding to the problem, and one way to ensure further suffering. I am pleased that we can now share ideas on this problem without freaking out. Maybe a test should be given prior to obtaining a horse, to determine ones ability to care for a 1,000 lb. pet for as long as a quarter century. Think I will go brush some of the mud off my own string. carl roberts-Hotchkiss