Rescuers try to prevent slaughtering of horses

Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Seven years ago, Sue Wellman thought she had secured a retirement home for a harness racing horse named Bob Again.

Wellman, from De Soto in southwest Wisconsin, runs the American Standardbred Adoption Program.

Rescued horses gather around a hay mound at Amazing Grace Equine Rescue in Elkhart Lake.

Bob Again was shipped off to Missouri.

But in October, Wellman was sickened to learn that Bob Again had been spotted online at a horse disposal business in Bastrop, La., in grave danger of being shipped to a slaughter plant in Mexico. She had no idea the 18-year-old horse, whose racing career ended in 2003, had been dumped by his owner — a breach of the program’s adoption contract.

Immediately, Wellman said, she went about raising $2,350 in “bail money” to get Bob Again out of the kill pen and back to safety at her farm in De Soto.  

“We are still dealing with the adopter to find out how in the world this happened,” Wellman said.

The last horse slaughter plants in the United States closed about a decade ago. But about 100,000 U.S. horses a year are shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada, according to government statistics. 

Horse meat, which can’t legally be sold as food in the U.S., is available in South America, Europe and Asia where it’s sometimes mixed with ground beef as a filler and even fetches a premium price for leanness and flavor.

“What brings the most money is a young horse with lots of flesh because the price is per pound when they go to slaughter,” Wellman said. “They’re young, vital, sound horses. That’s the sad part of it.”

Critics say the animals are crammed in trailers, without adequate food and water, for a journey of up to several thousand miles. Rescue operators scour the internet looking for horses, and then try to intervene, or outbid the kill-pen buyers at livestock auctions.

“A little bit of your heart dies every time you go to one of these places,” said Erin Groth, founder of Amazing Grace Equine Sanctuary in Elkhart Lake.

From 2006 through 2010, U.S. horse exports for slaughter increased 148% to Canada and more than 600% to Mexico, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report noted after the U.S. horse slaughter plants closed. 

Frisco, the oldest horse at Amazing Grace Equine Rescue, is boarded with the blind horses.

The rescuers say they’d like to see a ban on shipping horses to slaughter in Canada and Mexico, and some say the shutdown of U.S. plants made things worse because of the rough travel conditions the horses now have to endure.

“The battle goes back and forth,” said Scott Bayerl, director of the Midwest Horse Welfare Foundation, a rescue operation in Pittsville. “But what a crappy way to end an animal’s life.”

'This isn't for the faint of heart'

What types of people are putting these animals up for slaughter?

Some are individual owners overwhelmed and tired of owning a horse; some are hoarders forced by law enforcement to clean up unhealthy and inhumane livestock operations. 

Groth said it’s taken her a while to accept the fact that she can’t save every horse in desperate straits.

“You get numb to it after a while. This isn’t for the faint of heart,” she said.

Several businesses alleged to be kill-pen buyers did not return Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls asking about their practices of acquiring horses, sometimes for $100 each, and reselling them for a profit or sending them out of the country to slaughter. 

One of those businesses, in Minnesota, calls itself a rescue operation. But it's really not, according to Wellman. 

A sign greets visitors at Amazing Grace Equine Rescue in Elkhart Lake.

She said the Minnesota business buys horses at various sales across the U.S. Then, it posts pictures weekly of some of the animals that are slaughter-bound. Those that don't get "bailed out" are put on a truck headed for Mexico. 

The Wisconsin State Horse Council, which says its mission is to foster a unified equine industry, says it is neutral on the issue of horse slaughter plants and declined to answer Journal Sentinel questions.

The American Horse Council says it “has not taken a position on horse slaughter as the equine industry remains divided” over the issue.

The rescue operations, however, say a couple of things are certain: Out-of-control horse breeding has resulted in a surplus of animals, and the problem has been compounded by irresponsible or overwhelmed owners. 

Wellman said she's helping a woman in Crawford County who has about 50 Arabian horses but little means of taking care of them properly. The woman, disabled and in her 80s, is living in a camper trailer with no running water.

The sheriff's department has been called when the horses have broken out of their pasture, but deputies said there's not much they can do about the situation as long as the horses have adequate feed and water. 

Wellman said there are horse skulls all over the property where some of the animals have died, but enough new offspring are being born that the herd continues. 

She's started a networking effort to find homes for some of the horses. 

"But most of them have never had a halter on, so it's going to be really tricky," she said.

Horse rescues have waiting lists of people wanting to surrender their animals to them. They rely on donations and adoption fees to keep going, and some won’t take in another horse unless they’ve adopted one out first.

Amazing Grace can handle about 25 horses at a time, including some that may never be placed in another home because they’re blind or have other needs.

“We’re not going to take on more than we can handle. In the winter, we have very few volunteers,” Groth said.

Expensive animals

It costs about $1,500 a year to feed and care for a horse, and that doesn’t include unexpected medical bills. Some years, when the price of feed soars or the economy takes a bad turn, the rescues are flooded with calls from desperate horse owners. 

“We all get those calls daily,” Bayerl said.

Chelsea Harley, director of training and rehabilitation  at Amazing Grace Equine Rescue in Elkhart Lake, talks to Daisy. Daisy was born in April to a feral horse that was destined to be slaughtered while pregnant. Amazing Grace Equine Rescue is against the practice of unwanted horses being sold and sent to Canada, where they're slaughtered for meat that is shipped overseas.

Dee Dee Golberg, president of Spirit Horse Equine Rescue Center near Janesville, said unwanted horses should be euthanized if homes can't be found for them. 

"The very least you can do is offer a humane ending, and currently there's no method of doing that in a slaughterhouse," she said.

Horses are sometimes shipped to feedlots in Oklahoma and Texas where they are fattened up before being sent to slaughter outside of the U.S. 

Lisa Barth with N.E.W. Equine Resource Inc., a rescue near Shiocton, said she has taken in horses from kill-pen feedlots.

"I personally did not bail them out," she said, but other people did and paid to have the horses shipped to her farm. 

A 3-year-old mare and her colt were two of those horses. The colt was born on a feedlot in Oklahoma. 

If she hadn't taken them in, Barth said, they were probably headed to Mexico. 

Her rescue farm has accepted Belgians, Arabians and many other breeds of horses. Some arrived healthy and fit; others were thin and lame. Some had been well trained; others had never been handled. 

"On average, I adopt out five horses a year. I have had as many as 23 in my backyard, but that's too much for one person" to take care of, she said. 

Legally, horses are classified as livestock, but in the U.S. they enjoy a higher stature than cattle, pigs and chickens. For many people, horses are more like dogs than hogs. 

People quickly become enamored with the idea of owning a horse before they realize the costs, the work that's involved, and the fact that it can live 25 or more years.

Sometimes both the horse and its owner are miserable. 

Barth said she gets the calls from people who are upset, frustrated and have no idea what to do with their horse.

"They just want it gone," she said.