During our rescue of Farley, my husband and I learned a lot about the seamy world of “kill pens,” which are temporary stops on the way to the slaughterh­ouse for horses purchased at auction by kill buyers.

Social media has facilitate­d rapid-fire communicat­ion regarding the plight of countless horses, ponies, donkeys and mules of all ages and sizes who have been relegated to kill pens and tagged “slaughter bound” with imminent deadlines for their “bail.” Some are saved but many more ship out on a one-way trip to slaughter plants in Mexico or Canada— by some estimates, 130,000 annually.

How do horses end up there? “They’re older, they’re injured, they’re ill or they have behavioral problems or a lack of training,” says Jennifer Williams, PhD, president of Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, a nonprofit that rescues, fosters and adopts horses in Texas. “They also end up in kill pens because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time—their owner couldn’t or didn’t want to keep them, took them to an auction, and a killer buyer purchased them. So there can be really nice horses at kill pens.”

Romney Snyder, CEO of HiCaliber Horse Rescue in California, agrees: “No horse is safe from entering the slaughter pipeline,” she says. “Off-the-track Thoroughbr­eds, well-papered Quarter Horses, experience­d ranch horses, camp horses, family pets, yearlings and our wild BLM-branded mustangs all run the risk of landing at a feedlot awaiting the horrors of slaughter. It’s tragic.”

Educating the public about these realities is the key to saving horses from slaughter, says Tracy Stevens, founder of the Bolero Gaited Horse Adoption Network

in North Carolina. She is leading an effort to keep horses out of the pipeline. “With U.S. slaughter plants closed down, horses face a horrific trip across the border jammed into trucks, usually with no food or water. Many otherwise well-meaning people are not aware of the fate that may await their family pet.”

Some horses are sold directly to kill buyers, but most end in up in kill pens despite the intentions of their last owners. “Many folks take their horses to auctions in the belief they will get good homes, but the kill buyers are usually there, ready to bid on any horse that is going for meat price,” says Stevens. “The slaughter rate at the plants can run between 75 cents and $1.50 per pound.” These animals are being sold primarily for human consumptio­n, and the meat is then shipped to Europe and Japan, says Stevens.

Kill pens draw a lot of attention on social media, but even the most ardent rescue people say it’s better to step in to help horses before they get there. “If you want to save a horse, go to the auction and buy him for a fraction of the price [that killer buyers will require for bail],” says Williams, noting that the price to bail a horse from kill pens is going “up and up—but the demand for horsemeat and the price of horsemeat don’t appear to be. Kill buyers are using the threat of slaughter to sell more horses. Their business is to buy and sell horses— whether it’s to individual­s, rescues or slaughterh­ouses.

“The more horses are bailed out, the higher those prices are going to climb,” continues Williams. “In the past week, I’ve seen kill-buyer horses advertised for $900 to $1,000. That is far more than they are going to get if they send those horses to slaughter.”

Snyder has also observed this trend. “There is a misconcept­ion among rescuers, when they bail a horse from a kill buyer’s broker program, that they are saving a horse from slaughter. Sadly, this is false,” she says. “While that particular horse may be safe, another horse immediatel­y takes its place on the truck; the number of horses shipping to slaughter does not change despite their fervent efforts. Kill buyers are generally contracted with the slaughter plant for a certain number of horses, and they will deliver that number of horses regardless. In the past, kill buyers would limit their purchases to the horses they could ship in a reasonable time, as they did not want to pay for the additional feed for the horses. With the arrival of rescuers to the scene, kill buyers now purchase a surplus of horses—above and beyond their quota for shipping—for the very lucrative secondary market of ‘rescue’.”

So when you “bail” a horse from the kill pen, it simply makes room on the truck for another doomed animal. In addition, there is the increased risk of contagion and injury when horses are crowded into small pens in kill lots. Most will require quarantine and rehab by the time they are bailed out.

Williams’ best advice: “Support rescues who intercept horses before they get to the auctions. When we take in owner surrenders, estrays or seized horses, we keep those horses out of the auction and slaughter pipeline. But if they’re not adopted, we cannot help more of them. When we tell owners and law enforcemen­t we are at our limit, some of those horses will go to auction and end up in a kill lot.”

If you ever need to sell your horse for any reason, advises Stevens, “be sure to price your horse above the per-pound slaughter rate, or really double-check the references of anyone who wants to buy your horse that you do not know.” Some ask for a buy-back clause, but the truth is that when you let a horse go, you really no longer have control over that horse’s future.

“Every horse’s life depends upon their current owners being careful,” Stevens adds. “Avoid ‘free to good home’ offers, and be selective about where your horse goes. Better yet, keep your horse if you can, or have him humanely euthanized if you must.”

Kill pens draw a lot of attention on social media, but even the most ardent rescue people say it’s better to step in to help horses before they get there.

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