Editor's Note: Read part one, The Slaughter Debate: A Two-Sided Issue.
What's the answer to the question of unwanted horses? The scope of the effort behind current and proposed anti-slaughter statutes shows that slaughter is becoming increasingly controversial. Yet alternative solutions for horses currently being sent there are neither straightforward nor easy.
"There'll always be animals that aren't wanted because they're dangerous, or have a medical problem that makes them unusable or financially unfeasible, or belong to owners whose economic outlook has changed," says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, MS, Diplomate, ACVB, of Texas A&M University and former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The dilemma arises, she adds, when no one else can or will take on the responsibility for such horses.
In 2006, approximately 100,000 horses were slaughtered in U.S. plants. Finding other alternatives for that many animals will be a challenge. In part two of our special report, we explore a wide range of possible solutions, weighing the pros and cons as represented by those on both sides of the slaughter debate.
Yes, the scope of the problem is huge, and the areas of disagreement are many. Ultimately, solving the unwanted-horse puzzle will require action, commitment, and funding--and not just rhetoric. In the interest of promoting that action, we present this overview of solutions.
Everyone agrees that responsible horse ownership is key to solving the unwanted-horse problem. But opinions differ drastically on what "responsible ownership" means. According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), it means lifetime ownership.
In other words, no one should purchase a horse unless they're able and willing to care for it over its entire lifetime--which can last 25 years or more.
"Horses are sensitive animals and, just as we wouldn't purchase a dog, then realize we can't care for it and send it to a butcher, we shouldn't do that to horses, either," contends Matt Prescott, manager of vegan campaigns for the Norfolk, Virginia-=based PETA.
Bruce Friedrich, head of PETA's campaign department, also draws parallels to the ownership of companion animals. "Horses should be treated as members of the family. They're not like cars or other inanimate objects that one simply replaces based on age or for other trivial reasons. If you can't afford to care for your animal, you shouldn't have an animal, and you certainly shouldn't get another one."
In fact, horses are legally classified as livestock, not companion animals like dogs and cats. So, while horses can and do become members of the family, says Tom Persechino, senior director of marketing services for the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), they are different from companion animals. And changing their legal status, he believes, would result in the loss of much that's beneficial.
"That would include emergency disaster relief for horses, tax advantages for horse owners, equine limited-liability laws, and tracking and containment of equine diseases," he says.
Even if horses' classification were changed to that of companion animal, it might still be difficult to deal with them as such. Currently, unwanted cats or dogs are euthanized by the owner's veterinarian, turned loose to fend for themselves, or surrendered to shelters (where millions are euthanized annually).
By contrast, the at-home euthanasia of a horse is more expensive and involves the cost and challenge of carcass disposal. Obviously, turning a horse loose is not an acceptable alternative. And there's nothing the equivalent of an animal shelter for unwanted horses, where they'd be euthanized (and the carcasses disposed of) at public expense.
Even if such shelters were available, expecting most owners to keep a horse throughout its lifetime is probably unrealistic. Horses are typically acquired not just for companionship, but also for riding or other endeavors. When a horse's suitability as a working or recreational partner changes (or when his owner's needs change), he may be sold to someone for whom he's more appropriate.
AQHA, the world's largest breed association, processes roughly 200,000 transfers of ownership each year worldwide, confirming what history shows us: Owners who keep a horse for life are few.
Still, the notion of lifetime ownership is consistent with the overall philosophy of PETA and similar organizations. PETA also opposes horse racing, rodeos and other equestrian venues, as well as some aspects of horse showing. PETA's Friedrich specifically pinpoints as unacceptable "the sales of horses at auction because their usefulness is at an end or they aren't successful, and the breeding of horses when so many end up sold by the pound at auction."