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 (hcn.org). She is a pilot and freelance writer living in Roundup, Montana.