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for people who care about the West

Beloved companion or Parisian dinner?

  There are right ways -- and there are wrong ways -- to dispose of an unwanted horse, according to Brent Glover, who for 33 years has operated Orphan Acres, a 50-acre equine sanctuary in northwestern Idaho.

Here are some of the wrong ways, based on recently reported incidents: Don’t tie the horse to a stockyard fence or a downtown stop sign and then drive off. Don't turn the horse loose on public land or in a Costco parking lot. Don’t bury or incinerate a dead horse near a water drainage. When a horse is euthanized, its carcass may be classed as "medical waste," ineligible for landfill burial or even cremation in many states.

As for the right ways, one method is to let the horse die a natural death, dig a grave and backfill it with manure or compost -- under optimal conditions, the half-ton corpse will decompose in 60 to 90 days.

Another option -- shipping an unwanted animal to a domestic slaughterhouse – is no longer available.

Spurred by an anti-slaughter campaign led by the Humane Society of the United States, the last U.S. slaughter plants -- two in Texas and one in Illinois – were closed by state laws two years ago. The abattoirs processed horsemeat for zoos and for human consumption in China, Italy and elsewhere, accounting for the death (and disposal) of about 100,000 unwanted horses annually.

Now that the domestic slaughterhouses have been shuttered, many horse lovers argue that the situation for horses has actually worsened. Of the approximately 9.2 million horses in the U.S., some 2.3 million of them are in the West, mainly used in recreation and agriculture. Squeezed by rising prices, and lacking a way to dispose of their animals, owners are more frequently abandoning, neglecting and surrendering their horses.

Room and board for a horse is around $200 per month now -- and the cost of fuel, hay and grain, and basic care is climbing. At the same time, because of a surplus of unwanted horses, auction prices have plunged, down to $100 or less from an earlier average of $300 to $500. If you figure in the cost of euthanasia and disposal at $750, it’s a swing of about $1,200 for the owner looking to get rid of an unwanted equine.

Glover says the number of unwanted horses is “snowballing. If I said yes to all the queries, we would have 500 horses here.” He says his hay bill has nearly tripled this year, due to rising agriculture and transportation costs.

Jim Warren, owner of 101 Livestock in Aromas, Calif., near Monterey, says he’s picked up some 70 abandoned horses in the past two years. “A lot are in really poor condition,” he says. “People can’t afford to keep them, can’t afford to kill them, so they simply stop feeding them.”

Horses accounted for about 1,500 of Colorado’s 10,000 investigations into animal cruelty and neglect this year, up nearly 30 percent from the year before. Most of the incidents involved malnourishment, says Scot Dutcher, chief of the state’s Bureau of Animal Protection.

Like many, Dutcher is conflicted on the slaughter issue. “No one prefers slaughter,” he says. “But frankly, it’s a necessary evil.”

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, “humane” slaughter in the United States begins with a captive bolt gun, which renders the horse unconscious before its throat is slit. Many people are appalled by the thought that terrified horses see other horses being killed. But the morality of slaughter is “not a black-and-white debate,” says Chris Whitney, president of the Colorado Unwanted Horse Alliance. “Many of us look at horses as livestock. Others see the horse as a large dog. It’s tough to meld the approaches and points of view.”

Proposed legislation would ban horse slaughter in this country, along with the export of horses to other countries to be slaughtered. But the complexity of the issue has kept the bill from making it through Congress, despite support from a long list of lawmakers including Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.

Members of the Livestock Marketing Association testified before Congress in May, says president Jim Santomaso, telling lawmakers that “horse owners want and need a legitimate, practical and humane way to dispose of their horses that have come to the end of their useful life, but still have value as a slaughter animal.” The proposed legislation “is a slippery slope,” says John McBride, a spokesman for the 61-year-old trade association, “saying that a legitimate food product can be banned.”

Slaughter opponents deny that horsemeat can ever be considered “legitimate.”

“Horses have never been raised as a food animal in this country,” says Stacy Segal, equine protection specialist for the Humane Society of the United States. “We give them medications that would never be allowed for a slaughter animal. None of the mechanisms to protect meat for human consumption are in place.” The group’s primary argument against slaughter, however, is that horses “are companions who serve us in a variety of ways.”

The closure of the U.S. slaughterhouses has coincided with a sharp jump in the number of horses being shipped to neighboring countries. There’s no way to confirm that exported horses are being slaughtered, says John Rice of the USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service. But the export rate has tripled in the past three years, with nearly 46,000 horses transported to Canada and 45,000 to Mexico in 2007, many under inhumane conditions. And foreign slaughter techniques are questionable – a film on the Humane Society Web site shows slaughterhouse workers in Mexico stabbing a horse repeatedly in the spinal cord.

The slaughterhouse closures have also had significant financial impacts, according to the Animal Welfare Council in Colorado Springs, Colo., including loss of revenue ($26 million annually for the export of horsemeat) and the cost of maintaining unwanted horses (based on 2005 statistics, the Council estimated $220 million per year nationwide).

Anyway you look at it, a horse is a “1,200-pound fixture for 25-30 years,” says Chris Whitney. “It’s a sizable investment, both economically and emotionally. I think people in the West in particular – for whom horses are tools, livestock, part of agriculture – don’t see slaughter as a problem.” He says the core issue “starts with how many babies hit the ground. That’s the long-term fix – for people to be responsible in their breeding programs.”

But horses are suffering now, and rescue operations are coming up short. “These people who are pushing this no-slaughter should be sending at least $5 a month to help care for these animals,” says Glover. “They all want to keep the horses alive, but who’s going to pay?”

The author is Online Editor for High Country News.