COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho – High hay prices and the dour economy are being blamed for a growing number of horse owners who are giving up and abandoning or neglecting their animals in Idaho and other Western states.
In 2007 and 2008, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department received three times more reports of abuse regarding horses, donkeys or mules than it did in 2005 and 2006, said Capt. Ben Wolfinger.
And though statistics aren’t available nationally, an unprecedented 63 abandoned domestic horses have been found this year in northern Nevada, said Ed Foster, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Agriculture.
In the last three months, Angie Hilding has given away nine horses she couldn’t afford to keep. Ordinarily, the Hayden, Idaho, ranch owner would keep older horses at her facility, which offers trail rides, lessons and boarding. But like many owners, Hilding has seen hay prices skyrocket by more than 60 percent.
“When you’re in the business we’re in, you keep those old horses,” Hilding told the Spokesman-Review. “But when the going gets tough, we find a home for these older ones.”
Not everybody is so diligent.
The state Brand Department, a division of the Idaho State Police, has seen more than 40 head of horses abandoned in the last year in the southern part of the state, many of them turned out on public lands, said Jim Kennedy, who oversees the northern district, from Riggins to the Canadian border.
Livestock investigators have also seen something new: Horses left in corrals with other people’s horses or dropped off at public sales by owners who then vanish.
Just last week, a southern Idaho couple was charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty after authorities seized more than 30 underfed horses, cats and dogs from a farm in Payette County last month.
“It’s boiled down to feeding the family or feeding the horses,” said Bill Barton, state veterinarian with the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. “I’m hearing it from my counterparts in all the Western states, and I’m hearing it from Kentucky. I don’t think we’ve seen the extent of the problem yet.”
In Wyoming, state Brand Commissioner Lee Romsa said he would normally handle six to eight cases involving abandoned domestic horses per year. This year, he has dealt with at least 41 such cases. In Oregon, state officials found 11 abandoned domestic horses, all sickly and starving, in September on a rural road in the Willamette Valley.
Montana also has seen a “significant increase” in the problem, said a Montana Department of Livestock spokesman.
Panhandle Equine Rescue, which works with the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department in northern Idaho to adopt out horses confiscated due to abuse or neglect, is fostering two horses found in a pasture south of Coeur d’Alene.
No one has claimed them, said Pam Scollard, a spokeswoman. In July, the rescue organization adopted out a mare found wandering on Fourth of July Pass. Domestic horses won’t survive without proper feeding and care through the winter.
“It’s not so heart-throbbing in the summertime when at least they’ll have something,” Scollard said. “It’s sickening in the winter. They don’t have a fighting chance without help from us.”
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