Unwanted horses evoke emotional responses from the American publicWritten by Natasha Wheeler
“We have to recognize that other people’s experiences and expectations may not match our own, but they are valid,” states Veterinarian Tom R. Lenz from Louisburg, Kan.
Lenz has been working with the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) to find solutions for what is termed the “unwanted horse” issue.
“The unwanted horse is the first major welfare issue in the horse industry with players entered into the discussion who are outside of the horse industry,” Lenz comments.
Federal and state governments, animal activists and the general public have all weighed in on how unwanted horses should be handled in the United States.
“This whole thing started out in 2000 when there was an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Europe,” he explains.
Because beef was considered unsafe, the consumption of horsemeat increased dramatically in countries that include it in their diets.
“It drew the attention of American media, which went over to look at the issue and came back wondering if we eat horses here in the United States,” he continues.
Members of the media found that U.S. slaughterhouses processed horses for consumption and sent the meat to Europe, South America, China and Japan.
“When they published that information in magazines and newspapers around the country, there was a huge outcry by the American public, which fostered the introduction of federal legislation to ban the slaughter of horses in the United States,” says Lenz.
Unwanted horses are those that are no longer wanted by their current owner due to injury, sickness, behavioral problems or other undesirable traits. These horses are often sold to new owners and slaughterhouses or euthanized.
“The BLM horse or the wild horse is an interesting group. Many of those horses are wanted because they are pretty darn good horses, but a lot of them are not, and we don’t know what to do with them today,” Lenz notes.
Currently, there are approximately 16,000 horses in the BLM system.
“It costs about $8,000, from the time one of those horses is caught to go through the entire process and be adopted,” explains Lenz.
If the horses are not adopted before five years of age or after being up for adoption three times, they are sent to long-term sanctuaries in Oklahoma and Kansas.
“The government pays ranchers $500 a year to keep those horses until they die of old age,” he adds.
As wild horses, the average age of those animals is 15 years, but with good nutrition and protection, they often live up to 25 or 30 years at the sanctuaries.
“They spend $45,000 per horse on those that are in long-term sanctuaries and right now we have almost 34,000 horses in the sanctuaries,” says Lenz.
The federal government acknowledges that it is not a cost-effective solution and is actively seeking new proposals for managing wild horse populations.
“The horse issue is one that, the more we know about it, the more difficult the solution becomes. It is very complicated,” he comments.
It is complicated because many people consider horses to be companion animals, while the agriculture industry considers them to be livestock.
“As long as they are considered livestock, the federal and state governments provide research dollars and money to help us track down disease outbreaks and regulate movement of horses. The day they become companion animals, that all goes away,” Lenz says.
The issue is further complicated by differing opinions on horse slaughter and consumption.
“It’s also complicated by the fact that, whenever we have a controversial issue involving animals, activist groups fire up because it is a great opportunity to raise money and carry forth their agenda,” he adds.
The American population has increased while farm income has gone down. Most people do not know how to care for large animals, and the public loves horses, complicating the issue even more.
“Because they love horses, they want a voice in how horses are cared for, even if they don’t know what that means,” notes Lenz.
Animal welfare, he explains, is defined differently depending on perspective.
“In animal-related businesses, welfare is really important because we like our animals. We want to be productive and take good care of them, but we have to deal with costs, production efficiencies and making a profit,” he explains.
Unfortunately, representatives from the ag industry are often viewed as cold and clinical because they present information with science and facts.
“We are not very emotional, and that is a problem. We need to learn to be a little bit more warm and fuzzy,” he says.
Lenz encourages dialogue, saying that everyone needs to listen to each other and work together toward common-ground solutions.
“Activists come from all walks of life, and most don’t know a lot about how animals should be cared for, but they are driven by a genuine interest in doing what’s best for the animal, even though they don’t often know what that means,” he explains.