California's unwanted horse 'crisis'

California's unwanted horse 'crisis'

UC-Davis fact-finding session seeks solutions with a wide application
Apr 01, 2009

DAVIS, CALIF. — A faculty organization at the University of California-Davis took another step toward finding better ways of dealing with California's rising unwanted-horse population and eventually creating a template that communities in many states could follow.

The International Animal Welfare Training Institute (IAWTI) gathered animal-control experts, veterinarians, animal-welfare representatives and other interested groups for a Feb. 18 fact-finding session on the scope of the problem, what is being done now and what more can be done near-term and in the future.

The IAWTI, organized at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and led by Dr. John Madigan, a professor and clinician at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, presented a schematic at December's American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) convention showing how shelters could be set up to deal with unwanted horses on a triage basis much like animal shelters handle unwanted cats and dogs.

Some California organizations have well-run programs already in place from which much can be learned, officials say.

The fact-finding session, titled "The Unwanted Horse," included lectures, outreach and work sessions for sharing data. Nearly all attendees reported that horses lacking adequate food, housing and health care are flooding California's horse-rescue facilities, sanctuaries and control stations.

"It's a crisis," Madigan told the group, adding that court rulings that closed the nation's last three horse-slaughter plants that exported horse meat for human consumption and proposed legislation banning the transport and export of horses for slaughter have exacerbated the unwanted-horse problem in California and elsewhere. "One thing that is clear to me," Madigan told attendees, "is that any legislation banning end of life for horses in a slaughter facility ... should have provided an alternative mechanism to deal with the continued life of those animals in a humane manner."

California and other states can't afford, economically or morally, to ignore the problem, Madigan said. More research is needed to find alternative solutions and implement guidelines, but funding for that is lacking, he said.

The meeting highlighted a need for outreach programs and public education on various options for caring for, rehabilitating and in some cases finding new purposes for unwanted horses.

As an example, Beth DeCaprio, a leader of the Grace Foundation, explained how her organization has operated an "ideal facility" in Northern California since 2003, providing critical care and rehabilitation for abused and neglected horses, then using them in learning and therapeutic programs for children and youth, benefiting some 5,000 children to date and permanently housing more than 50 horses. The group has a full-time veterinarian on staff.

Representatives of other horse-rescue groups discussed their operations, the need for scientific criteria for horse-welfare programs and carcass-disposal regulations.

Euthanizing a horse has an emotional and dramatic component that is different from euthanizing cats and dogs at shelters, said Dr. Jeff Smith, a past president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, who discussed the euthanasia option and community attitudes toward it.

Madigan explained that because a horse is unwanted hasn't previously been a valid reason for a veterinarian to end its life, even though that is a daily procedure for small animals. "A thousand-pound horse that is euthanized presents a significant issue with regard to handling the remains ... given regulations that usually prevent burial on a person's property." Legislation is needed to provide better guidelines for horse-carcass disposal and environmentally responsible means of euthanasia, he said.

More responsible equine breeding is another way to decrease unwanted horses, Gregory Ferraro, director of UC-Davis' Center for Equine Health, told the group.

"If solutions are not found to stem the flow of excessive equine births and more effectively absorb current horse populations into recreational and sporting use, the horse will face the same fate as the thousands of abandoned cats and dogs that overcrowd America's animal shelters. The need for a solution is vital," Ferraro said.

IAWTI members include more than 20 UC-Davis faculty members dedicated to animal welfare across all species. The group has international connections to deal with global emergencies and disaster response.