Horses literally on the chopping block

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A multimillion-dollar federal program created to save the lives of wild horses is instead channeling them by the thousands to slaughterhouses where they are chopped into cuts of meat.
Among those profiting from the slaughter are employees of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that administers the program.
These are the conclusions of an Associated Press investigation of the U.S. Wild Horse and Burro Program, which has rounded up 165,000 animals and spent $250 million since it was created by Congress 25 years ago.
The program was intended to protect and manage wild horses on public lands, where they compete for resources with grazing cattle. The idea: Gather up excess horses and offer them to the public for adoption.
However, nothing in the law prevents anyone from selling the horses to slaughterhouses once they gain ownership. Although it is common for old or lame horses to go to slaughter, nearly all former BLM horses sent to slaughter are young and healthy, according to slaughterhouses.
The program’s rules let anyone adopt up to four horses per year, paying $125 for each healthy animal. If the adopters properly care for the horses for one year, they get title to them in the form of BLM certificates bearing a number freeze-branded into each horse’s hide.
Using freeze-brand numbers and computer records, the AP traced more than 57 former BLM horses sold to slaughterhouses since September. Eighty percent of them were less than 10 years old and 25 percent were less than 5 years old. Horses are often ridden well into their 20s.
At the Cavel West slaughterhouse in Redmond, Ore., for example, the proprietor, Pascal Derde, displayed a sheaf of BLM certificates for horses he recently butchered and sent to Belgium for human consumption.
“Killed on Friday, processed Monday, Thursday we load the truck and then it’s flown to Europe,” Derde said.
Asked about the AP’s findings, Tom Pogacnik, director of the BLM’s $16 million-a-year Wild Horse and Burro Program, conceded that about 90 percent of the horses rounded up go to slaughter.
Has a program intended to save wild horses, as a symbol of the American frontier, evolved into a supply system for horse meat?
“I guess that’s one way of looking at it,” Pogacnik said. “Recognizing that we can’t leave them out there, well, at some point the critters do have to come off the range.”
Clifford Hansen, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming who introduced the bill to create the program, now wishes he could remove his name from the legislation.
“The law was intended to recognize the significance of wild horses and burros,” said Hansen, now 84, “but talk about a waste of public funds.”
The government spends up to $1,100 to round up, vaccinate, freeze brand, and adopt out a horse. Adopters pay $125 for each healthy horse, and can get lame or old horses for as little as $25, or even for free. After holding the horses for a year, the adopters are free to sell them for slaughter, typically receiving $700 per animal.
The sellers find no shortage of horse meat buyers. The demand for American horse meat has long been strong in Asia and Europe.
The federal government is conducting several reviews of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, with two audits and two reports to Congress expected to be completed in 1997.
“I welcome the scrutiny,” said Pogacnik. “It can only help.”