Saturday, December 29, 2007

Gasping Canaries in the Mines - Hay shortage driving up incidence of neglect and voluntary forfeitures

"They eat before I do."

Livestock owners say the situation is now so desperate, many of them are having to get rid of some of their animals, simply because they can't afford to feed them.

The News & Observer reports:
Rescue agencies are taking in record numbers of horses across the state, many emaciated because of the drought-related hay shortage.
In the most recent case, a Randolph County woman was charged Thursday with 11 counts of animal abuse and eight counts of disposing of a dead animal improperly, after county officials investigated separate reports of a large number of dead horses scattered on the ground and of 11 live horses jammed into an undersize corral with no water and little hay.

The U.S. Equine Rescue League normally accepts about 100 neglected or abused horses a year in the three states where it operates, which include North Carolina. This year, the agency has taken in about 170 -- 90 in this state alone -- said Jennifer Malpass, director of the league's Triangle chapter.

Horse rescue groups nationally -- even those in states not stricken with a severe drought -- are being inundated with pleas to take neglected horses.

One group in Florida is fielding daily calls, up from bimonthly requests early this year. A rescue group in south central Kentucky had to turn away 13 horses this month. Kathy Grant, an equine cruelty investigator who runs a rescue group, says the rural roads in her eastern Tennessee community are lined with pastures dotted with emaciated horses.

"A lot of the farmers around here have hay, but they're holding on to it," said Grant. "When they're releasing it, they're charging exorbitant rates. A normal person can't afford it."

A round bale jumped from $12 to $100 since the summer, Grant said. In South Carolina, rescue volunteers noticed the price triple. In Texas, struck by a severe drought last year, hay prices haven't leveled off; horse owners are paying double what they did three years ago.

High prices are leaving owners with tough choices. Some are voluntarily forfeiting their animals. In other cases, horses are seized after county officials determine they have been abused or neglected.

County officials typically don't have holding facilities for large animals and so depend on agencies such as the rescue league to assume responsibility for horses. The league nurses them back to health, then places them in foster homes until someone adopts them, Malpass said.

The flood of rescues this year is a double blow to the volunteers.

Even before the drought, they were struggling to find space for foster horses. Now, they not only have to find shelter for more horses but also feed them when hay is expensive and scarce, Malpass said.

Hay donations drop

Her chapter normally receives about 300 bales of donated hay before winter, mostly from big horse operations clearing spring hay from their storage barns to make room for the fall cutting. But there was so little to spare that hay donations this year were only about a third the normal amount.

That means the volunteer rescuers are having to pull money out of their own pockets -- and a lot of it -- for hay, which has doubled in price in many areas.

The hay crisis also has increased the severity of the cases they are seeing, said Amy Woodard, a volunteer who leads the league's efforts in the northeastern corner of the state.

As the expense of feeding them has risen, the selling prices of horses have dropped. That has made purchase possible for people who might not be able to afford proper food and health care, or who didn't have the knowledge to keep horses healthy, Malpass said.

'Pieces everywhere'

The horse owner in the Randolph County case, Jauvanna Craven, 51, of Groom Road, Sophia, surrendered her horses. That saved time in court and allowed the county to get the surviving horses more quickly into the hands of rescuers.

Randolph County Health Director MiMi Cooper was so shocked at the animals' condition that she went to Craven to issue the charges herself. Craven could have faced more counts of improper disposal, said Cooper, who owns four horses herself.
"There were probably more than eight, but there were pieces [of dead horses] everywhere," she said. "Do you know what I had to do? I had to count heads."

Craven could not be reached for comment.

She had kept the horses on a 22-acre tract but sold it recently, Cooper said. The new owners discovered a number of horse carcasses and called the health department Dec. 21 to report them.

On the same day, the department got what it thought was an unrelated call about the 11 living horses, which were in a different location. They were confined in a pen that was big enough for only one or two horses, Cooper said. The horses were clearly starving, with every rib showing and their hip and shoulder bones jutting. One had an injury and had to be euthanized.

"She said that she was running a rescue operation," Cooper said. "That's not how you rescue horses."

The Equine Rescue League's Triad chapter took four of the horses, and another agency took three. The other three were apparently owned by someone else, who hadn't known about their health problems, and he took them away.

Shortage hits everyone

The hay shortage is so bad, though, that even conscientious owners are getting into trouble, Malpass said.

Marilyn Kille, who is taking care of three foster horses just outside Chapel Hill, said that people who own only one or two horses don't often have the massive dry storage space required for a whole winter supply of hay.

Normally, hay is abundant enough that suppliers keep plenty on hand, and horse owners can drop by every couple of weeks to buy more. Now, horse owners are competing for the scant supply against beef and dairy operations. Often, the only way to get it is to buy full truckloads from as far away as Ohio or New York.

Randolph County has fielded at least half a dozen calls this year from owners who didn't know where to turn, Cooper said, and area veterinarians have been getting similar calls.

Depending on the situation, Cooper said, the county steers them to hay sources like the on-line list kept by the state agriculture department, or links them with a rescue agency. Instead of suggesting that owners give up horses, the rescue agency prefers to teach them how to keep horses healthy, Malpass said.

Usually that approach works, she said. When it doesn't, the county or the rescuers ask the owner to give up the horse, or the county takes the owner to court to force the issue.

Normally rescues taper off in summer, when horses can graze. That's when the rescuers get a breather and start to build up their stores of hay.

This past summer, though, there was no break in rescues and the hay donations didn't come. So now, Malpass' group finds itself starting winter -- when livestock rely more on hay and less on grazing -- with an unusual number of horses to feed, not nearly enough hay and predictions that hay crops next year might be poor, too.

"It's really worrying because it can only get worse from here," she said.

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