The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 1, 2009

Economic troubles may be spelling bad news for horses

Mannix Porterfield

Economic ills are bringing hard times out in the country and that means some horses in West Virginia are either being neglected or simply turned loose to fend for themselves.

Each month, the Department of Agriculture averages half a dozen calls about horses facing neglect, or abandonment, as owners simply cannot find the money to buy them food, and the matter worsens in the winter months.

Unable to graze in the snow and frozen turf, horses must rely on owners to put hay up in the barns, and for some, the average monthly cost of $100 to do so is putting a severe cramp in their budgets. Push comes to shove, and the owners part company with their trusty steeds.

Aware of a worsening problem, Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass is calling a meeting with his agency and others in the state in hopes of finding a solution.

Only a week ago, his agency disposed of a severely injured horse that was found along the roadside and taken home by a concerned animal lover.

“I fear we have not seen the last of these types of incidents,” Douglass said. “The economy looks as though it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and pets — particularly large animals such as horses — can be very expensive to take care of.”

Buddy Davidson, the department’s communications director, says small, domestic animals remain an on-going problem.

“There has always been a dog and cat overpopulation,” he said. “There are pounds and there are procedures at the local level where those are dealt with. Large animals have been kind of left in limbo. Horses are a kind of a special sort of case.”

Owners with several horses are finding it increasingly difficult to buy feed, and trying to unload horses at livestock market has been problematic, he said. For one thing, the price they fetch has been rock bottom.

An owner might let one go for $10, but then, who can afford to buy the feed in the long winter, he said.

No longer can horses be sold for food, since this practice has been outlawed, so that is not an option, Davidson noted.

“You can’t afford to keep them, you can’t sell them, and really you can’t afford to get rid of them,” he said. “Talk about disposal issues. It’s a real problem.”

Which heightens the concern by Douglass and his department that as more owners get squeezed to the limit, they simply will set horses loose.

“We worry about that,” Davidson said.

West Virginia employs a state veterinarian, but his scope is limited.

“It just can’t be the job of that department to take care of all the stray and abandoned animals, even the large animals,” Davidson said. “It’s too large a job, and the job the state veterinarian does is protect all animals from infection.”

Douglass suggested the problem has been exacerbated by the recent move to outlaw the slaughter of unwanted horses.

“Certain animal rights advocates, in their zeal to protect horses, have created a situation that actually encourages poor treatment of these animals,” the commissioner said.

Field reports indicate about six cases of neglect or abandonment of horses are filed each month. And the department simply cannot throw a lasso around the wandering horse, pull it in, and find it a home.

“We’re certainly seeing the economic downturn as a factor that is going to make this worse,” Davidson said of horses set loose to forage for food. “I don’t know if it will be a common thing, but it’s an issue we want to address, certainly from a welfare standpoint.”

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