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All the Pretty Horses

How one horse escaped the slaughterhouse and others did not


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Darlene Huddleston, right, and her granddaughter Jacqueline Heide, left, are reunited with their horse Cajun, a horse they had rescued years before who disappeared after they thought they'd found him a home.  Cajun does not want to get into the trailer.

The red-brown horse sways in the parking lot near the Crown-Zellerbach Trail in Scappoose. He jerks to the side, arching his long neck. His eyes are wide and he performs elaborate tap dances on all four hooves.

Carol Heide shushes and coos, reassuring him with soft pats. The last time she saw him in-person, she thought he was on his way to a good home, a “forever home,” a place where he could be ridden regularly. Then he disappeared.

Eighteen months later, he resurfaced at an Oregon livestock auction. He had cycled through three different owners and was about to move on to a fourth: a kill (or meat) buyer who planned to drive him and dozens of other horses to the slaughterhouse.

While a ban on the use of federal funds to inspect horses destined for slaughter effectively shut down the U.S. slaughter houses in 2006, it did not change the demand for horse meat overseas. Every year an average of 100,000 domestic American horses are transported to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico.

“(Horse meat) is not a delicacy in Europe, it’s a mainstay,” said Bruce Anderson, who owns and operates the Eugene Livestock Auction. “And horse meat is cheaper than beef.”

But, like the bald eagle, the horse is one of North America’s most iconic and historically significant animals and not everyone is comfortable with the idea of turning this symbol of companionship, freedom and the Old West into meat.

Opponents of the slaughterhouses say the practice is inhumane, especially in Mexico where there are few regulations governing slaughter facilities and where, they claim, many horses are still alive when they are strung up to be skinned. According to one kill buyer, at least 4 percent of horses shipped to slaughter die while being transported. Health concerns have also surfaced around the meat since horses (especially race horses) are often administered drugs that are not safe for human consumption.

Pet vs. Livestock

Since their introduction into North America by the Spanish explorers, horses have served a variety of functions. Before cars, trains and planes, they were the way people traveled quickly from one place to another. In addition to transportation, they have also provided companionship — something even the most modern car has not yet accomplished.

Times have changed. While ranchers and farmers still rely on a trained horse’s strength, speed and skill, and though horses still entertain spectators at racetracks and rodeos across the country, many horses are simply companion animals.

Unlike a dog or cat, however, horses are not easy animals to house, or easy to euthanize. It costs hundreds of dollars to put a horse down humanely, said Anderson.

“Horses take a lot of money and lot of care and a lot time,” said Joy Laudahl, co-founder of the horse rescue group, Harmony New Beginnings. “We don’t depend on horses the way we used to. They’re a luxury.”

Horses, horses, horses’

With the closure of U.S. horse slaughtering facilities, there are also more horses than rescue groups know what to do with.

When the horse slaughterhouses were still operating, people could breed their horses and not worry as much about the excess. The animals who didn’t end up being successful racers or great riding or work horses could still serve a purpose as meat.

“All these people used to breed and breed their horses and they have just continued,” Laudahl said.

“It’s horses, horses, horses all day,” said Sabrina Connaughton, who works with the Washington-based rescue group Auction Horses which rescues slaughter-bound horses by outbidding kill buyers at Oregon and Washington auctions. “It’s getting harder and harder. There are too many horses and not enough homes. We’re all full.”

Pick and choose

Connaughton said horses routinely pop up on Craigslist, sold cheap by families who can no longer afford them. Rescue groups and kill buyers scour these ads. But Connaughton has to pick and choose.

She spends whole days in the car, driving to auctions, picking up horses, dropping off horses. At auctions in Oregon and Washington, she walks through, examining the horses.

“I pick the ones I think I can re-home,” she said. Though she has made a home on her own property for older, disabled and difficult horses, she has to be realistic about what the average person is willing to take on. She can only save so many. At auction, her “yes” or “no” can mean life or death for a horse.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “It’s absolutely horrible.”

‘Better horses

For Eugene Livestock Auction owner Bruce Anderson the situation is less complex: When the bidding ends, the person with the highest bid owns the animal.

“I can’t say, ‘You can’t buy this horse,” he said.

The horse meat industry is an established reality, he said, and he often sees four to five kill buyers at every auction.

Those interested in buying a companion or working horse are only buying a handful of horses per auction while the meat buyers, with their quotas to fill, are buying dozens at a time.

Despite her own opinions on slaughterhouses, Connaughton does not think the kill buyers are bad people.

“It’s business to them,” she said, adding, “And it’s business to me, in some ways. Deep down, they are compassionate and they do love horses, but it’s business and it’s money.”

Anderson agrees.

“I’m in the horse business because I like horses,” he said. “I love horses.”

While he says he would probably never sell any of his horses to the kill buyers, this is because he has the resources to euthanize his animals. And like many who have grown up with the dual definition of horses as both livestock and companions, he takes a pragmatic view of the slaughter market.

To him there are horses, and then there are “better horses.”

“There are some horses that are mean and absolutely useless,” he said. “Canners” as they’re sometimes called by meat buyers.

“Especially with the economy the way it is, not enough people who used to be able to afford to maintain a horse can anymore,” Anderson said. “So where are they going to go? They have to go somewhere.”

In 2011, following a Government Office of Accountability report detailing the unintended consequences of the 2006 ban - horse abuse and abandonment have increased since the ban - President Barack Obama quietly reversed the ban and, as of December, some U.S. slaughterhouses are looking to begin business again.

Lucky

Cajun was lucky.

It was Laudahl’s rescue group and Scappoose resident JJ Duehren who last month went to the Eugene Livestock Auction, saw Cajun and bid against the kill buyer to rescue the horse for $120.

Duehren had been part of a group looking at the 14-year-old horse when a woman and her young daughter approached them. The little girl was in tears. The woman explained they needed to sell Cajun because they were losing their house and couldn’t afford to keep him. Duehren promised to try to buy the horse.

At the end of the auction, she had Cajun. Hoping to place him in a good home, she posted three Craigslist ads and waited.

In Silverton, Heide and her mother Darlene Huddleston received a phone call: Cajun had been at an auction, but the caller had no idea who had bought him.

“That’s when we all started crying,” Huddleston said. Heide went online to check Craigslist, where she stumbled on Duehren’s ads. Even though she hadn’t seen the horse in 18 months, she recognized him immediately. He had lost weight and his once gleaming coat was scruffy, but it was Cajun.

Huddleston still held his ownership papers and Duehren reunited the horse and owners on Feb. 2. Heide said they aren’t going to let him out of their sight.

“We don’t want to go through that again,” she said. “If anyone wants to come out and ride him, they can. But he’s not going to go anywhere.”