Driving through reclaimed strip mine land yields scenes of horses that have been allowed to run loose in eastern Kentucky's coal country. The animals are at the center of a fierce dispute over what effect the closing of many of the nation's horse slaughterhouses in recent years has had on the number and fate of unwanted horses.
Earlier this month, an Associated Press story reported that to some local observers, the closing of slaughterhouses under public and political pressure appears to be leading some horse owners in eastern Kentucky to turn their animals loose. The Humane Society of the U.S., which has fought the slaughter of horses for human consumption, vehemently disputed that.
Over the past couple of decades, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of horses have roamed free on tens of thousands of acres that were once strip mines in Kentucky. Exactly who owns the horses is unclear. Some are thought to be abandoned; others may have been allowed to run loose by their owners and graze on other people's property.
Lewis H. Warrix, who was judge-executive up until January in Breathitt County, is among those who suspect that the closing of horse slaughterhouses is contributing to the situation. He estimated the number of free-range horses in the county at 350 and said the count has been rising over the past three years or so.
"That's a dumping area," Warrix said of the strip mine land. "When I was county judge, we had a few we had to put down. They were just bringing them up and turning them loose - blind and crippled and whatever."
Warrix added: "If somebody has a horse go bad, it costs to dispose of them. The best thing to do is drop it off on somebody. We found them beside the road."
Some animal rights groups contend that few horses are truly abandoned, and they deny such instances are due to restrictions on slaughter.
"There is no correlation between allowing horses to be slaughtered and the incidence of neglect or abuse," said Nancy Perry, vice president of government affairs for the Humane Society of the U.S. "I don't think that anything going on in Kentucky has anything to do with a growing sense that we should ban horse slaughter in this country."
In recent years, state restrictions or the threat of them have led to the closing of U.S. slaughterhouses that butchered horses for human consumption in Europe and Asia. Now there is only one such slaughterhouse in the nation, in Illinois.
The Humane Society is pressing for a coast-to-coast ban on horse slaughter. The organization said horse owners can instead sell their animals, put them up for adoption, donate them to a rescue group or have them euthanized by a veterinarian.
In Kentucky, a major horse-breeding state, known the world over for its fine thoroughbreds, state officials say they do not keep count of how many horses are roaming the former coal mines. And exactly how many of them are truly abandoned is unclear.Rusty Ford, equine programs manager for the Kentucky state veterinarian's office, said the office would do something about the free-ranging horses if there were disease concerns, but he doesn't know of any.Some auction managers in Kentucky say there is a surplus of horses and a shortage of buyers _ causing prices to drop _ and some suspect the closing of the slaughterhouses is a factor.But proponents of a national slaughter ban, such as Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., blame over-breeding for any surplus. The slaughterhouse argument "generally is more of a scare tactic than anything else," the congressman said.Lori Neagle, director of the newly formed Kentucky Equine Humane Center, said her rescue organization will turn down no horse if it has a proper health test."I think you do have a moral obligation," Neagle said. "If you bring them into this world and you make money from them or they serve a purpose, you have an obligation to do right by them. Whether it's putting them into a program or finding a good home or humanely euthanizing them, you owe it to that animal."