Bring in your children and potted plants and barricade yourÂ Â door…they’re coming! No, it is not Al Qaeda or even the IranianÂ Â Revolutionary Guard. The abandoned horses are coming and theÂ destruction will be biblical!
Â At least that is the message of sensationalized articles appearing allÂ over the country. They warn that horses are being abandoned because ofÂ the closing of U.S. horse slaughter plants, and because of the severeÂ hay shortage in much of the Southeast.
An AP article by Richard Cockle of the Oregonian carries the headlineÂ Â /Abandoned horses pose dilemma for ranchers/, while another AP storyÂ quotes the executive director of the North Carolina Horse Council asÂ saying an estimated 120,000 horses have been abandoned already.
AÂ month earlier, Dave Russell in the /Yankton Press and Dakotan/ put theÂ estimate of unwanted horses at "212,000 and counting!" And an officialÂ from the American Horse Council was quoted in a Dallas paper as sayingÂ owners would soon be abandoning 312,000 unwanted starving horsesÂ because of the recent closing of three U.S. horse slaughter facilities.
Betsy Scott of the /Northern Ohio News Herald/ even offered up anÂ image of horses ruining our next outing by cantering across our picnicÂ blankets! As proof, Scott quoted a horsewoman as saying that theÂ President of the Ohio Horse Council had reported horses beingÂ abandoned in the state’s parks.
But before you head for the basement with an armload of groceries, youÂ Â should know that this is, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "dejaÂ vous all over again." In 1998, California banned horse slaughter andÂ almost immediately a series of stories popped up about horses beingÂ abandoned in the desert, just as the slaughter proponents had warnedÂ would happen. Unfortunately nobody could /find/ the horses.
In February, the two Texas horse slaughter plants closed after a longÂ Â court battle with the state over a 1949 law prohibiting the sale ofÂ horse meat. Within weeks AP college basketball stringer JeffreyÂ McMurray did a shocking investigative report that was published aroundÂ the world with titles such as /Kentucky, land of the thoroughbred,Â swamped with unwanted horses!/
The McMurray article was based on horses seen free grazing at aÂ reclaimed strip mine in Eastern Kentucky. The only problem was thatÂ the horses were all privately owned and had not been abandoned. TheÂ Kentucky State Police and animal control officials immediatelyÂ debunked the McMurray story but it raised such a furor that KentuckyÂ Governor Ernie Fletcher responded with a letter saying it was "filledÂ with inaccurate statements and information."
Undeterred by these denials, the American Veterinary MedicalÂ Association (AVMA), a leading horse slaughter proponent, sent theÂ McMurray article to its member veterinarians as proof that they hadÂ 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, ourÂ findings indicate that confirmed cases of abandoned horses rankÂ somewhere between the number of sightings of the Lock Ness monster andÂ those of Big Foot, but without the solid photographic evidence.
Starting with the story about the horses becoming such a "dilemma" forÂ Oregon’s ranchers one has only to read beyond the sensationalizedÂ Â headline to see it was based on a staggering nine (9) horses that hadÂ shown up at a ranch in Oregon. More tellingly they had shown up over aÂ 24 month period, putting their appearance at the ranch before the U.S.Â slaughter plants were even closed.
But the Oregonian story has worse problems. Horse abandonment is aÂ crime, and Cockle quoted Malheur County Undersheriff Brian Wolfe asÂ saying he tried to determine the owners of such animals but that theyÂ were rarely branded. This implied that Wolfe had investigated theÂ Â incident. When contacted, Wolfe said he knew nothing of the situation.
Official reports showed only three cases involving horses since 2005;Â a case of an injured horse found on an abandoned property with otherÂ animals, a case of a horse carcass dropped at a gravel pit and aÂ report of an abandoned horse which was determined to be unfounded.
So our investigation turned to those picnic wrecking horses beingÂ turned loose in the Ohio parks. The President of the Ohio HorseÂ Council responded to our enquires saying that he never made theÂ statement on the record but that he had "heard" that horses had beenÂ turned loose in the Perry Forest. Perry Forest officials said that noÂ horses had been abandoned there.
Next we checked with every agency in North Carolina that governsÂ forest or park lands and found no record of abandoned horses. So we contacted the North Carolina Horse Council about their claim. TheyÂ were helpful but could only recall that the number (actually 90,000)Â had come from the American Horse Council, possibly as an email thatÂ "probably no longer existed."
By this point we had estimates ranging from 90,000 to 320,000Â abandoned horses and most seemed to be attributed to the AmericanÂ Horse Council. I contacted Sara Chase, the AHC Director ofÂ Communications to ask how the estimate/s were made and which estimateÂ was correct. Ms. Chase stated for the record that neither the AHC norÂ their Unwanted Horse Coalition had ever put out a number, and thatÂ none of those quotes should have ever been made!
Meanwhile, Harper’s Magazine quoted Pat Evans of Utah State UniversityÂ Â Veterinary Sciences Department as saying that more horses are beingÂ abandoned now that the slaughter houses were closed. But when askedÂ for her sources Dr. Evans declined to disclose them. So we contactedÂ every appropriate state agency in Utah. We found no documented casesÂ of abandoned horses there either.
Unfortunately, the impression that all these baseless stories andÂ their tabloid style headlines convey persists long after they areÂ disproved. If you can produce enough smoke people will believe thereÂ has to be a fire, and as Joseph Goebbels observed, people will believeÂ a big lie sooner than a small one.
Ironically, even if these stories were true they would tell us nothingÂ about the impact of closing the horse slaughter outlet because it hasÂ not been closed. American horses are merely going over the borders toÂ 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 /Â S.311 and really ends the slaughter of our horses? To predict thatÂ Â future we have only to look at the past, and it is this historicalÂ record that has the pro-slaughter forces pumping out smoke screensÂ because it directly contradicts their fear mongering.
For example, in 1989 the USDA reported 379,571 American horses wereÂ slaughtered or exported for slaughter. By 2002 that number had plungedÂ to just 77,713 as a result of reduced demand for their meat. There wasÂ no government sponsored rescue effort and no documented increase inÂ either neglect or abandonment.
Likewise, when the Cavel horse slaughter plant in Illinois burned onÂ Easter Sunday in 2002, it took about 40% of U.S. horse slaughterÂ capacity off line for over two years. Yet, the year after the fire theÂ number of cases of abuse and neglect reported by the IllinoisÂ Department of Agriculture (which had doubled in the three years beforeÂ the fire) actually went down.
None of this is to say we are not facing a hard winter, but horseÂ owners have seen worse. "Last year in Texas we had a horrible hayÂ shortage when stocks were depleted by the commercial suppliers," saidÂ Steven Long, author, and Vice President of the Greater Houston HorseÂ Council. "Not only did we suffer a hay shortage, we had a frighteningÂ water shortage when the stock tanks dried up. Yet I don’t know of aÂ 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.