Old horses: what’s the humane solution?

Some months ago, there seemed to be an increase in news stories about mistreated horses:  horses starving on drought-blighted open range or neglected in too-small private fields.   Horses are such noble animals, I had always thought.  How can anybody mistreat a horse?

A rancher told me this was happening because of federal regulatory changes that forced the closure of all U.S. horse slaughterhouses.   There was no simple way to dispose of a no-longer-useful horse.

Inhumane treatment of horses is back in New Mexico news.  An animal advocacy group took video of sick and dying horses at an auction facility in Los Lunas. Then it was announced that horse slaughter would once again be legal, because Congress had restored the funding for agriculture inspectors; a few days later, a Roswell slaughterhouse owner applied to slaughter horses; and the protests started.

According to some accounts, conditions for horses in transport and in the slaughterhouse were pretty horrible.  The unintended consequences of banning U.S. slaughter were worse.    Horses were shipped to Mexico or Canada, in crowded trucks with no food or water.  The video of the corral in Los Lunas was heartbreaking enough.  Imagine those same sick horses forced to travel in such conditions.

Without slaughter, the legal choices were to take care of the animal until its natural death, have it humanely euthanized and then dispose of the carcass in a legal manner, or take it to a state-licensed horse rescue farm.   Horse rescue farms are a great solution, except that the website of the New Mexico Livestock Board lists just nine of them, and they reportedly house no more than 20 to 60 horses each.

Unwanted horses in the United States are said to number 100,000 or more.  There are no accurate numbers for New Mexico.  Some people confine horses in tiny enclosures;  uncounted thousands roam on drought-stricken public lands and Indian reservations, where they compete with each other, wildlife and livestock for scarce food and water.   Who can say whether a slow death from thirst and starvation is preferable to slaughter?

The owner of a rescue farm talked to me on condition that I say nothing about her identity or location.  She gets up some mornings and finds a newly abandoned horse tied to her fence.  She has no room for more.  Others who talked to me didn’t want to be quoted because, reasonably or not, they fear animal-rights extremists.

Surprisingly, news reports said PETA  (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), reputed animal rights radicals, supported the reintroduction of slaughter in the U.S., because it’s better than the treatment of horses trafficked across the border.  But the Humane Society of the United States said, prior to the Roswell announcement, that anyone trying to open a horse slaughterhouse “will face pressure.”  It argues that horses slaughtered are not only the old and lame, but perfectly healthy horses.  There will be new initiatives to ban slaughter again. I’m not sure whether meat from a sick horse can be sold for human consumption.

I would hope that if slaughter resumes, states can put regulations in place to assure that both transport and slaughter are done humanely.  Of course, we humans don’t always treat other humans humanely, and there is no space in this column to talk about other animals in agribusiness.

As with so many issues of public policy, we attempt to do the right thing but don’t go far enough.  The issue in total is humane treatment of animals, including those nearing the end of life.  Whether slaughter resumes or is stopped again,  I would hope our policy makers could go the whole way and develop a complete plan that is fully consistent with the ideals it professes to embrace.

Contact Merilee Dannemann at www.triplespacedagain.com.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2012



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