The Ethics of Horse Rescue
By Kim Sanford
First I want to be clear that the opinions expressed here are mine. So here is my rant du jour…
I recognize that there is a myriad of differing opinions on what rescue is and how it should be handled. Things such as the level of care the animals receive, which animals can be “saved” as well as recognizing that not all can nor should be saved, screening potential adopters, whether or not the rescue is really meeting the requirements of a 501C, funding, etc. they are all up for debate. Like everyone else I have thoughts on many of these subjects.
This past weekend some disturbing news has appeared on Facebook about a rescue. Apparently three animals under their care, two horses (at least one was a thoroughbred) and a draft mule; were sent through the auction and bought by a meat dealer or they were sold directly to that dealer. In either scenario they endured a horrific end to their lives. Yes, this was confirmed to me, it is a fact. Sadly this type of thing happens to thousands of horses throughout the US regularly. I am not going to debate the slaughter issue here because as repugnant as slaughter is in many people’s eyes in my view there is a more jarring concern.
One of the things I am enraged at is the fact that these horses and the mule were supposedly “saved” from this fate. Not only that, at least one of them was extensively promoted as adoptable, “loving”, ready for their forever home. I saw the ads periodically on Craigslist featuring this mare, along with several other horses described in the same way. She was carrying a rider in the pictures accompanying the ad and according to comments on the Facebook postings regarding this travesty, she was also taken to a local store and was giving pony rides during the rescue’s periodic fund raising efforts outside the store. I had seen these pictures myself on the rescue’s Facebook page. Ironically one of the reasons given for dumping these animals was that they had become “unruly” and/or “dangerous”. Obviously these horses were not always what they were portrayed as because there is evidence in the pictures and in previous sales ads that point to it all being a fabrication. So we have to ask, if it IS true, then what made them that way? What kind of trauma turned a quiet mare into something so “dangerous” that she had to be removed from the rescue, and if that was the case, why did they not put them down instead of sending them through the sales barn in order to collect what amounts to blood money?
My knowledge of this rescue is not extensive and it is gleaned from observation and yes, mostly word-of-mouth. A lot of what I heard was not exactly glowing however it was not anything that raised a red flag necessarily. It was just my gut instinct that made me disinclined to send someone there to adopt if my opinion was asked. Again, never enough details and/or specific information just “talk” and so I had formed impressions. I am not going to go into particulars because most of the information I picked up along the way is third hand knowledge and I know that there are always three sides to a story…his side, her side, and the truth. Unfortunately in hindsight the majority of the positive commentary in the random conversations where the subject came up was from individuals whose hearts were in the right place but maybe they just didn’t know as much about horses in general and what it takes to do right by them as they perhaps they should have to be successful in rehoming horses.
It seems to me that too many “rescues” who I would call questionable rely on this lack of practical experience and they tend to attract this type of person to be a volunteer. These types of volunteers are the ones who linger the longest putting in lots of time by raising money, laboring, handling the animals, etc. not realizing they are perpetuating a fraud. Those volunteers who are more experienced quickly figure out the status quo and they either manage to help change procedures within the organization, which is a great outcome for all involved, or they move on to one that is committed to doing right by their charges. Leaving the bogus rescue, yes…harsh word bogus but that is what it is…to continue in its downward spiral. Frankly, I cannot blame them for moving on once it is apparent that they cannot make a difference for whatever reason. You can only bang your head against the wall for just so long.
As most of us know the reality is this. There is a glut of horses in this country. Coupled with the collapse of the economy and over breeding in many breed organizations, as well as the end of slaughter in the US the prices for horses are depressed and have been for some time now. Horses are being dumped at auctions or just plain given away. More often than not the “free” ones end up with just anyone who will take them, not a necessarily a good thing especially if that person knows little to nothing about horses. Rescues are overburdened trying to save the lives of the “culls” and used up breeding stock from farms as well as the products from the ignorant backyard breeders that are basically thrown away on almost a daily basis. This opens the door for both the dealer who will buy horses specifically to ship over the borders to Canada or Mexico to be slaughtered and the unscrupulous individuals who see an opportunity to prey on the horse lover who will do as much as they can to “save” every horse…an impossible task…by starting a rescue and them soliciting donations which do not support the animals.
Amongst the shysters are the ones who truly want to help but have no clear plan, just acquire horses then warehouse them (hoarding) until they wind up in a situation that is out of hand. Too many times, and on a regular basis we are hearing about starving horses and other types of animals that started out being “rescued” by someone who later could not handle the financial burden. Someone who just kept hanging on to the animals in the misguided idea that they were the only ones who could save them instead of making good decisions early on to prevent the suffering.
Over the past few years the plight of the OTTB (Off The Track Thoroughbred) has been brought to the forefront by dedicated individuals who have made it their mission to promote them. I have huge respect for them because they are pulling the horses from bad situations and they are not just throwing them into a pasture. They are working hard every day to make them adoptable so that theoretically they will have a better chance at safer lives because they will have a JOB. These rescues will also network with trainers/owners/breeders of the OTTB’s to see if there is interest in taking that horse in themselves or helping with the financial support for the horse while it is being rehabbed or retrained on its way to being offered for adoption…and if none of that is possible, the option of humane euthanasia. Of course, I am not sure but I hope the same can be said for other breed organizations that are churning out numerous foals every year; that they have similar types of people/programs developing outreaches to their breed’s connections but so far I have heard more about efforts on behalf of the OTTB. Too often we hear of the callous breeders/owners/trainers knowingly dumping the horses at auctions where their only future is a horrific ride to a gruesome death. We do not hear those who do step up to the plate to care for a horse they put on the ground, owned at one time, and/or trained. One of my favorite things is hearing about the connections who care enough to help finance a former horses future whether it is going on to a new vocation or being sent over the “rainbow bridge” peacefully.
I know one of the connections of the mare recently sold to a meat dealer by the organization saying they “saved” her. Again, I don’t know all the details but I was told specifically that this mare left the farm with full disclosure made as to her physical condition, her health records, etc. I do not know whether she went from farm to rescue or if they, the rescue, got her from another source. From what I know of the particular individual involved with the mare initially, I believe everything was done within their power to help this horse have a good chance at a new, safe life/home. Business decisions are made every day that involve the sale of horses for many reasons. All anyone can do is try to give that horse the best chance to be successful in their new life. There are no guarantees. From what I know of this person I am sure they are upset with the news about the mare and what happened to her. The fact of the matter is this…once a horse leaves your hands you lose control over what ultimately happens to them, meaning if you no longer own them you can only hope the new owner will do their utmost to keep that horse safe and healthy.
This most recent incidence of a rescue imploding is not new and it won’t be the last one we hear of. I am disappointed by this “rescue” and yeah, it sticks in my craw to refer to them as a rescue because it is a shameful lie. Not only have they deceived the good people who sent them money to support those animals and who volunteered their time, they have given rescues all over a proverbial “black eye” since things like this tend to tarnish the reputation of rescues one way or another in the community’s perception. Undeservedly so in many cases thus making it more difficult than it already is to compete for support, both financial and volunteer hours from the public.
To me, on top of the above issues I have with the situation what absolutely makes my blood boil is the fact that they were sent to slaughter. There is no excuse for that…NONE. If you call yourself a rescue, take in an animal, claim to have “saved it from the kill buyer”, used it to solicit funds for your organization then darn it, you have a responsibility to make sure it never gets sucked into the slaughter pipeline again. It is not my place to tell anyone what they can do with their animals; I generally won’t get entangled in anything unless it is an inhumane situation, and even then I will make sure that it is backed up with facts before getting involved. Too many times well-intentioned “saviors” jump in and create drama where it should not be. This is not one of those times. What happened a few miles from my home is disgusting and unconscionable.
I realize and accept that life happens and sometimes you have to rethink what you are doing in life, we have all been there in one way or another. In a situation like this, if a rescue, for whatever reason is in dire straits then they need to reach out for help but most of all make the tough decisions, the RIGHT decisions. If a horse/mule is really “dangerous” then EUTHANIZE it. That is your JOB as a rescue. How could they even think it was OK to subject these three to the fate that awaited them after they were loaded on a trailer and sent across one of the borders? It also makes you wonder how many others have made the trip before they did, slipped under the radar in an attempt to raise cash.
So what is the take away here? I guess it is this…if you get involved with any rescue do your due diligence! Don’t just write a check and call it good, you need to be as sure as you can that it is going to the animals and not into the pockets of the people running it for personal financial gain. The organization must be completely transparent and open to questions. If you choose to volunteer, be knowledgeable about the animals you are working with, keep your ears and eyes open and don’t be afraid to ask questions without expecting good answers. Most importantly let’s support the legitimate rescue organizations out there that are doing a great job.