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03-02-2011 - An unwanted battle

An unwanted battle

Horse welfare issue continues to draw public scrutiny

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Veterinarians have a responsibility to make sure good decisions are made on animal welfare, and they should be a focal point on these kinds of issues, according to Dr. Tom R. Lenz, senior director of Pfizer Animal Health's Equine Veterinary Services.

Dr. Tom R. Lenz speaks about unwanted horses
Dr. Tom R. Lenz speaks about the unwanted-horse issue. A 2009 survey by the Unwanted Horse Coalition found the main reasons horses become unwanted is because they are old, have incurable lameness problems, are unmanageable or dangerous, or fail to meet their owner's expectations.

Dr. Lenz gave the keynote presentation with his talk "Equine Welfare Wars: When Emotion and Science Collide" Dec. 5 at the American Association of Equine Practitioners' 56th Annual Convention in Baltimore. He is a past chair of the AAEP Equine Welfare Committee, the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee, and the Unwanted Horse Coalition.

Dr. Lenz chronicled the progression of the unwanted-horse discussion from its inception a decade ago when Europe experienced outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy. These incidents caused residents to increase their horse meat consumption in lieu of beef.

"That drew the attention of the U.S. media, and they asked if we eat horse meat here. They found we don't eat horses here, but we do process them and ship the meat worldwide. That stimulated people to call Congress demanding a law to outlaw processing horses for human consumption," Dr. Lenz said. "For the first time we realized—although most of us knew horses went somewhere after the sale barn—as a country that there's a subset of the horse population that becomes unwanted."

About 5 million horses worldwide are processed annually for meat, according to Dr. Lenz; this is a 28 percent overall increase since 1990. Nearly 2.5 million of those horses are slaughtered in China and between 700,000 and 800,000 in Mexico each year.

In 2009, 42,178 U.S. horses were exported to Canada to be processed for human consumption, and 46,098 went to Mexico. By the end of 2010, 103,040 were exported to the two countries for slaughter, based on shipping certificates issued by the Department of Agriculture.

Congress first introduced the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act in 2001. The legislation would prohibit the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption. The bill never passed, but every year since, federal legislators have brought forth similar legislation.

The 111th Congress, which ended Jan. 3, saw the introduction of the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act of 2009 (H.R. 503/S. 727) and the Horse Transportation Safety Act of 2009 (H.R. 305).

The AAEP supported H.R. 305 because it would outlaw double-decker trailers but opposed H.R. 503, as there were no provisions in the bill to develop the necessary infrastructure to address the welfare of horses that become unwanted and deal with carcass disposal issues, no enforcement plan or agency, and no funding provided, Dr. Lenz said.

"The AAEP did not take a pro-slaughter stance. The AAEP opposes the legislation because there is no infrastructure to care for the horses who become unwanted," Dr. Lenz said. "I hope eventually the industry will decrease this number, but there will always be unwanted horses."

Alternative options outlined in a recent UHC survey include promoting responsible ownership; funding rescue, retirement, and retraining facilities; and providing affordable options for horse euthanasia and carcass disposal.

Regardless of whether a solution can be found, the unwanted-horse issue has already had many effects on the horse industry.

"If we have science to prove we're right, we need to stand behind it and share it. If we find we're doing something wrong, we need to stop and change, even if we've done it forever. If we don't as industry continue to improve the well-being of horses and tell our story, someone else will, and we might not like what they have to say."


In addition, the number of abandoned and neglected horses has increased substantially, Dr. Lenz said. A recent study found that 70 percent of rescue, retirement, and retraining facilities are at or near capacity and that as many horses stay at a facility for life as are adopted.

The prices for mid- to low-end horses have dropped, too. At sale barns, Dr. Lenz said, 700- to 1,100-pound horses bring just a few hundred dollars. Yearlings and small horses, in particular, are faring much worse and hardly bring in any money.

Plus, the issue has increased the activity by animal activists and drawn the attention and input of the non-horse-owning public, which hasn't been a good thing necessarily, he said.

"Most people live in cities or towns, not the country. In fact, most are three to four generations off the farm. Because of that, they no longer understand basic large animal husbandry and how they're cared for. I think a lot of people haven't given much thought to where their meat comes from," Dr. Lenz said. "The American public loves horses even if they've never been in their presence, and because of that, they want to be involved in deciding how they are cared for."

In a perfect world, decisions are science-based, but in reality, science will either be used partially or completely ignored in the debate if society perceives something is wrong, he said. In turn, veterinarians have to learn to come to common ground with the public if they want to be successful with welfare issues.

"If we have science to prove we're right, we need to stand behind it and share it. If we find we're doing something wrong, we need to stop and change, even if we've done it forever," Dr. Lenz said. "If we don't as industry continue to improve the well-being of horses and tell our story, someone else will, and we might not like what they have to say."

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