By JOHN HOLLAND
Bring in your children and potted plants and barricade your door…they’re coming! No, it is not Al Qaeda or even the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The abandoned horses are coming and the destruction will be biblical!
At least that is the message of sensationalized articles appearing all over the country. They warn that horses are being abandoned because of the closing of U.S. horse slaughter plants, and because of the severe hay shortage in much of the Southeast.
An AP article by Richard Cockle of the Oregonian carries the headline Abandoned horses pose dilemma for ranchers, while another AP story quotes the executive director of the North Carolina Horse Council as saying an estimated 120,000 horses have been abandoned already. A month earlier, Dave Russell in the Yankton Press and Dakotan put the estimate of unwanted horses at “212,000 and counting!” And an official from the American Horse Council was quoted in a Dallas paper as saying owners would soon be abandoning 312,000 unwanted starving horses because of the recent closing of three U.S. horse slaughter facilities.
Betsy Scott of the Northern Ohio News Herald even offered up an image of horses ruining our next outing by cantering across our picnic blankets! As proof, Scott quoted a horsewoman as saying that the President of the Ohio Horse Council had reported horses being abandoned in the state’s parks.
But before you head for the basement with an armload of groceries, you should know that this is, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “deja vous all over again.” In 1998, California banned horse slaughter and almost immediately a series of stories popped up about horses being abandoned in the desert, just as the slaughter proponents had warned would happen. Unfortunately nobody could find the horses.
In February, the two Texas horse slaughter plants closed after a long court battle with the state over a 1949 law prohibiting the sale of horse meat. Within weeks AP college basketball stringer Jeffrey McMurray did a shocking investigative report that was published around the world with titles such as Kentucky, land of the thoroughbred, swamped with unwanted horses!
The McMurray article was based on horses seen free grazing at a reclaimed strip mine in Eastern Kentucky. The only problem was that the horses were all privately owned and had not been abandoned. The Kentucky State Police and animal control officials immediately debunked the McMurray story but it raised such a furor that Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher responded with a letter saying it was “filled with inaccurate statements and information.”
Undeterred by these denials, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), a leading horse slaughter proponent, sent the McMurray article to its member veterinarians as proof that they had been right all along about the dire effects of a ban on horse slaughter.
So were these stories more of the same? After extensive research, our findings indicate that confirmed cases of abandoned horses rank somewhere between the number of sightings of the Lock Ness monster and those of Big Foot, but without the solid photographic evidence.
Starting with the story about the horses becoming such a “dilemma” for Oregon’s ranchers one has only to read beyond the sensationalized headline to see it was based on a staggering nine (9) horses that had shown up at a ranch in Oregon. More tellingly they had shown up over a 24 month period, putting their appearance at the ranch before the U.S. slaughter plants were even closed.
But the Oregonian story has worse problems. Horse abandonment is a crime, and Cockle quoted Malheur County Undersheriff Brian Wolfe as saying he tried to determine the owners of such animals but that they were rarely branded. This implied that Wolfe had investigated the incident. When contacted, Wolfe said he knew nothing of the situation. Official reports showed only three cases involving horses since 2005; a case of an injured horse found on an abandoned property with other animals, a case of a horse carcass dropped at a gravel pit and a report of an abandoned horse which was determined to be unfounded.
So our investigation turned to those picnic wrecking horses being turned loose in the Ohio parks. The President of the Ohio Horse Council responded to our enquires saying that he never made the statement on the record but that he had “heard” that horses had been turned loose in the Perry Forest. Perry Forest officials said that no horses had been abandoned there.
Next we checked with every agency in North Carolina that governs forest or park lands and found no record of abandoned horses. So we contacted the North Carolina Horse Council about their claim. They were helpful but could only recall that the number (actually 90,000) had come from the American Horse Council, possibly as an email that “probably no longer existed.”
By this point we had estimates ranging from 90,000 to 320,000 abandoned horses and most seemed to be attributed to the American Horse Council. I contacted Sara Chase, the AHC Director of Communications to ask how the estimate/s were made and which estimate was correct. Ms. Chase stated for the record that neither the AHC nor their Unwanted Horse Coalition had ever put out a number, and that none of those quotes should have ever been made!
Meanwhile, Harper’s Magazine quoted Pat Evans of Utah State University Veterinary Sciences Department as saying that more horses are being abandoned now that the slaughter houses were closed. But when asked for her sources Dr. Evans declined to disclose them. So we contacted every appropriate state agency in Utah. We found no documented cases of abandoned horses there either.
Unfortunately, the impression that all these baseless stories and their tabloid style headlines convey persists long after they are disproved. If you can produce enough smoke people will believe there has to be a fire, and as Joseph Goebbels observed, people will believe a big lie sooner than a small one.
Ironically, even if these stories were true they would tell us nothing about the impact of closing the horse slaughter outlet because it has not been closed. American horses are merely going over the borders to slaughter in Mexico and Canada in nearly the same numbers (down just 17%) as before the closings.
The question is what is likely to happen when Congress passes HR.503 / S.311 and really ends the slaughter of our horses? To predict that future we have only to look at the past, and it is this historical record that has the pro-slaughter forces pumping out smoke screens because it directly contradicts their fear mongering.
For example, in 1989 the USDA reported 379,571 American horses were slaughtered or exported for slaughter. By 2002 that number had plunged to just 77,713 as a result of reduced demand for their meat. There was no government sponsored rescue effort and no documented increase in either neglect or abandonment.
Likewise, when the Cavel horse slaughter plant in Illinois burned on Easter Sunday in 2002, it took about 40% of U.S. horse slaughter capacity off line for over two years. Yet, the year after the fire the number of cases of abuse and neglect reported by the Illinois Department of Agriculture (which had doubled in the three years before the fire) actually went down.
None of this is to say we are not facing a hard winter, but horse owners have seen worse. “Last year in Texas we had a horrible hay shortage when stocks were depleted by the commercial suppliers,” said Steven Long, author, and Vice President of the Greater Houston Horse Council. “Not only did we suffer a hay shortage, we had a frightening water shortage when the stock tanks dried up. Yet I don’t know of a single case of an abandoned horse.”
John Holland is a freelance writer and the author of three books. He frequently writes on the subject of horse slaughter from his small farm in the mountains of Virginia, where he lives with his wife, Sheilah, and their 10 horses.