An emaciated horse on the Blackfeet Reservation, part of a herd belonging to the Blackfeet Horse Coalition. Due to a number of factors, horses could face increased neglect and starvation.
Flathead Valley veterinary technicians Christina Panerio and Michelle Sudan didn’t intend to start a horse rescue. But there they were, walking among the pens at a Kalispell horse auction in 2001, when they came across the mare and gelding they’d eventually name Givens and Lazarus.
“Literally picture a horse skeleton with skin hanging on it—there was absolutely no meat on their bones,” says Panerio. “Their rib bones stuck out, their backbones stuck out…they were completely caved in at the rump, there was no fat on these horses at all.”
When the horses were led out, Panerio says no one else bid on them. The women got both horses for $25, and on the way to Panerio’s ranch called a veterinarian to come out
and euthanise the animals.
But, she says, when the horses arrived at the property they stepped out of the trailer, raised their heads and whinnied. At that moment, Panerio and Sudan decided to keep the horses, and founded their Kalispell-based nonprofit rescue group, Angels Among Us.
Since then, Panerio says she’s never seen horses as neglected as Givens and Lazarus. But lately, she’s had many more people contacting her with horses that need rescuing.
Most years, Panerio says, she gets about two calls a week. This year, she says people have called nearly every day.
David Pauli, director of the Northern Rockies regional office for the Humane Society of the United States, has seen a similar increase. This year he’s dealt with 800 starving or neglected horses in his region. Normally, he sees about 250 in a region that includes Alaska, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.
Pauli says there’s a chance it’s just an anomaly—two of his cases, one in Idaho and one on the Blackfeet Reservation—involved more than 100 horses each. But several factors make Pauli, Panerio and others who work with horses think cases of unwanted, starving and neglected animals will spike.
Economic factors in recent years have pushed up the price of caring for horses, while horse sales prices have stayed flat. Rising fuel costs have made every aspect of raising horses, from feeding to transportation, more expensive. Other problems, such as drought and the rising use of ethanol—which has pushed farmers to plant corn rather than hay—have also boosted feed prices.
According to Bill Parker, horse sale manager for the Billings Livestock Commission—considered the largest horse seller in the United States—the price of hay has increased from about $85 per ton in 2005 to $135 per ton today.
But for Parker and others, the most worrisome factor is trotting through Congress. The Horse Protection Act, if passed, would ban the transportation of horses across U.S. borders for the purpose of slaughter and human consumption. The slaughterhouse option, abhorrent as it is, gives ranchers an opportunity to get needed cash by selling ailing animals. Without that option, more horses will die of mistreatment, critics fear.
Last year, state laws in Illinois and Texas closed the nation’s last three horse slaughter plants. Since then, plants in Mexico and Canada have picked up the slack. In 2007, about 115,000 U.S. horses were shipped to slaughterhouses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The bill is set to go to the floor of the Senate, although no date for a vote has been set. It has 39 bipartisan sponsors and co-sponsors, including presidential candidates Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In the House, the bill has 197 sponsors or co-sponsors, and is currently before the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Notably absent from the list of the bills’ supporters are all three of Montana’s legislators. Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus and Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg all oppose the act. And they’re not the only ones.
Parker thinks the bill would be a disaster. “It would cause a big wreck,” he says. “We will have a surplus of unwanted, unneeded horses. The worst part about it is people have a way now to recoup some dollars on their horse, but if they have an unusable horse that has no value, then they won’t feed him and take care of him.”
In other words, Parker thinks people like Panerio will see a lot more horses like Givens and Lazarus.
Echoing that sentiment is Judy Vernier, a member of the Ravalli County Animal Control Board and the resident horse expert for Missoula City/County Animal Control.
“It’s not the right thing to do,” Vernier says. “If the animals are handled humanely, and killed instantly, it’s no different than just burying one.”
Pauli and the Humane Society are in favor of the act and are “hopeful” it will pass this year, Pauli says. Their position is that horses are companion animals like dogs or cats, rather than livestock, like pigs and cows.
Although the Humane Society does not believe the bill would necessarily create more unwanted horses, Pauli says the group plans to increase support for horse rescue groups like Panerio’s. It has also helped found the Homes for Horses Coalition, a coalition of 20 horse rescue groups.
But the Society’s main efforts, he says, will go to population control. Too many horse owners, Pauli says, let their horses breed at will, relying on slaughterhouses as a way to manage population.
As an alternative, Pauli says the Humane Society has helped nonprofit ranches implement horse contraception programs. It is also encouraging gelding, fencing stallions off from mares, and simply not owning stallions as ways of stemming populations. On one thing, meanwhile, all agree. “People need to be responsible, and have responsible, planned breedings for their animals,” Pauli says.