Sunday, January 18, 2009

Seattle Times Article - Runaway Costs of Horse Rescue

Marc Ramirez of the Seattle Times interviewed Katie of Second Chance Ranch, as well as other key rescues in Washington. Here's a link to the article...

By Marc Ramirez
Seattle Times staff reporter

About a year and a half ago, Katie Merwick noticed the phone starting to ring a lot more at Second Chance Ranch, the horse-rescue outfit she runs in Elma, Grays Harbor County, 30 miles west of Olympia.

I don't want my horse anymore, callers would say. I can't afford it. Can you take it? What do I do?

"People are panicking because of the economy," Merwick says. "They're losing their jobs, and their homes. Boarding prices have skyrocketed, prices of hay and gas have gone up — I have 10 times the number of horses needing homes."

Now, instead of several calls a week, she says, she gets 40. Her 33 stalls are full and when she can't find other shelter space, she's offered to buy hay for owners who say they can no longer afford their horses. "People are panicking, and they need to ride this through."
For her and others in the industry, the effects of the recession are exacerbating a situation prompted by a mix of other factors, including overbreeding, the rising cost of horse care and, some say, the closing of U.S. horse slaughterhouses.

Tom Lenz, chairman of the Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC), a program of the Washington, D.C.-based American Horse Council, says those who see horses as luxury items are questioning whether they really need them.

Meanwhile, more committed owners are having to give up their horses because of growing expense and debt.

It's a sensitive issue, partly because of the difficulty of measuring its magnitude and the emotions provoked by slaughterhouses. Some deny a problem with unwanted horses exists at all.

"It's hard to define what an unwanted horse is," says equine-protection specialist Stacy Segal of the U.S. Humane Society. "A horse that's unwanted to one person could be absolutely wanted to another. Every horse out there could potentially find a home if the owner's willing to take the time."

With e-mails and phone calls on the rise, the UHC is trying to put some measure to the problem. So far, a survey distributed to horse-industry members across the country — owners, vets, farriers and so on — has drawn about 25,000 responses. The coalition expects to release results by early March.

"I don't sit there and pass judgment," says LynnD Stiles of Duvall's Phoenix Rising Sanctuary. "Hey — you have to make a tough choice. It doesn't make you a bad person if you have to choose between feeding your kids and feeding your horses."

One ton of quality hay has gone from $150 to $350 in the last year or so, Stiles said.
Still, with fewer options now available to owners, "horses end up suffering until animal control has to do something about it, and (owners are) being charged with animal cruelty," says Gretchen Salstrom, who runs Arlington's People Helping Horses. "It's a vicious circle we're in."
All but three of the 46 horses she took in last year were animal-control seizures, she says. The year before, two were seizures. "I have the ability to help, but I can't go bankrupt doing it," she says. And with most horses needing six to nine months of rehabilitation, "the challenge isn't space. It's funding."

In Duvall, on her 60-acre grounds, Stiles raises rescued Thoroughbreds, polo ponies and even Nakota stallions — the wild Plains horse of Chief Sitting Bull — among her 55-horse operation.
Every year, she'd travel to Canadian ranches to outbid purveyors buying horses for meat. Last fall, she'd planned to do the same, but decided to stay put when evidence of the economic crisis was hitting home.

"The writing was on the wall," she says. "A crappy economy, hay prices through the roof ... I had a strong feeling that everyone who could help would be needed in our own backyard."
Others felt it, too. Before the recession, most of Salstrom's rescues in Arlington were from newbie owners who didn't realize what they'd gotten themselves into. "The factors are different now," she says.

She says she's seen a 35 percent drop in charitable donations, which limits how many horses she can take in. Currently, she has 18 — six of them in the last few months. Stronger animal-protection laws mean more seizures of neglected horses — but no funds to accompany their relocation to shelters.

The UHC estimates basic care for a horse at $1,800 to $2,400 a year; some local owners say it's more like $2,400 to $3,600. Meanwhile, the cost of euthanizing and disposing of a horse can run $500 to $1,000 per animal, depending on the location.
Some frustrated rescue operators have instituted owner-surrender fees. "What happened to planning?" Salstrom says. "... You chose to breed a horse. It's your responsibility. You don't give up your kids just because you can't afford to keep them anymore."

The Humane Society urges people to find ways to hold on to horses they can't sell, give away or afford to euthanize, and it supports pending legislation prohibiting U.S. horses from being exported for slaughter.

More than 100,000 horses were slaughtered annually in the U.S. for human consumption, the organization says, before the last few processing plants were closed in 2007. Now, thousands of horses destined for slaughter are instead sent to plants in Mexico and Canada.
Amid pressure from animal-rights groups, horse slaughter virtually ended in the United States in 2007, as courts upheld state laws banning it in Texas and Illinois, home to the nation's last three horse slaughterhouses.

Lenz says that while more responsible breeding is called for, unwanted horses pose a reality that must be addressed. "A horse is always going to get old or be lame or not be pretty or athletic enough," he says. "As a country, we're going to have to come to grips with what to do with them."

Locally, some express frustration over a lack of organized leadership to address the situation. Rescue operators urge those who want to help to research individual operations, as their programs vary; some, for instance, also rescue dogs and cats or offer equestrian programs for youth, and so on.

Salstrom says one recent caller told her she had 50 people ready to donate but uncertain where to direct their money. "At some point we have to band together and make it happen," she says.
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or