STAFFORDSVILLE, Ky. (AP) - The bidding for the black pony started at $500, then took a nosedive.
There were no takers at $300, $200, even $100. With a high bid of just $75, the auctioneer gave the seller the choice of taking the animal off the auction block. But the seller said no.
"I can't feed a horse," the man said. "I can't even feed myself."
Kentucky, the horse capital of the world, famous for its sleek thoroughbreds, is being overrun with thousands of horses no one wants - some of them perfectly healthy, but many of them starving, broken-down nags. Other parts of the country are overwhelmed, too.
The reason: growing opposition in the U.S. to the slaughter of horses for human consumption overseas.
Public backlash - and state bans or the threat of them - have led to the closure of several slaughterhouses that used to take in horses when they weren't suitable for racing or work. Auction houses are glutted with horses they can barely sell, and many rescue organizations have run out of room.
There have been reports of horses chained up in eastern Kentucky and left for days without food or water. Others have been turned loose in the countryside.
"There's too much junk on the market," said Dave Bailey of West Liberty, who attended a recent auction in Richmond. "They've just got so much junk, a good horse won't bring nothing no more."
Some owners who cannot get rid of their horses are letting them starve; others are turning them loose in the countryside.
Some people who live near the strip mines in the mountains of impoverished eastern Kentucky say that while horses have long been left to roam free there, the number now may be in the thousands, and they are seeing herds three times bigger than they did just five years ago.
"There's horses over there that's lame, that's blind," said Doug Kidd, who owns 30 horses in Lackey. "They're taking them over there for a graveyard because they have nowhere to move them."
It is legal in all states for owners to shoot their unwanted horses, and some Web sites offer instructions on doing it with little pain. But some horse owners do not have the stomach for that.
At the same time, it can cost as much as $150 for a veterinarian to put a horse down. And disposing of the carcass can be costly, too. Some counties in Kentucky, relying on a mix of private and public funding, will pick up and dispose of a dead horse for a nominal fee.
The cost is much higher other places, and many places ban the burying of horses altogether because of pollution fears.
Sending horses off to the glue factory is not an option anymore. Adhesives are mostly synthetic formulations nowadays, according to Lawrence Sloan, president of the Adhesive and Sealant Council. And because of public opposition, horse meat is no longer turned into dog food either, said Chris Heyde of the Society for Animal Protective Legislation.
Eventually, anti-slaughter groups insist, the market will sort itself out, and owners will breed their horses less often, meaning fewer unwanted horses. When California imposed its slaughter ban in 1989, they point out, the number of stolen horses dropped while there was no significant change in the number reported abused or neglected.
"Once you remove slaughter, you remove a release valve for irresponsibility," Heyde said. "These are animals. They're not a pair of shoes."
Nelson Francis, who raises gaited horses, a rare, brawny breed found in the Appalachian mountains, said the prices they command are getting so low, he might have to turn some loose. He houses about 57 of them, double his typical number.
"I can't absorb the price," Francis said. "You try to hang on until the price changes, but it looks like it's not going to change. ... What do I do? I've got good quality horses I can't market because of the has-been horse."
Jim Dause, who manages a sale in Richmond, said he fears some horses will soon be fetching less at auction than the $15 he charges to perform a state-mandated health test. He fears his sale could become a place to abandon horses.
"We're just going to be a place to get rid of it," he said.
"Kill buyers" used to pay pennies a pound for unwanted horses, then pack them into crowded trucks bound for slaughterhouses that would ship the horse meat to Europe and Asia.
However, public opposition to the eating of horse meat has caused the number of horses slaughtered each year by American companies to drop from over 300,000 in 1990 to around 90,000 in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Only one U.S. slaughterhouse - in Illinois - still butchers horses for human consumption.
"What do you do with them all?" said Lori Neagle, executive director of the new Kentucky Equine Humane Center in Lexington. "What do you do with 90,000 head of horses? That's something that has to be addressed. It'll be interesting to see if people financially can do the right thing or if they will leave their horses to starve."
Federal law prohibits the use of double-decker trucks for transporting horses to slaughter. Many members of Congress have also been pushing a national ban on the butchering of horses for human consumption.
While California is the only state that has expressly banned horse slaughter in a ballot initiative, similar measures are under consideration elsewhere, including Kentucky, Maryland, New York and Illinois. Connecticut has made it illegal to sell horse meat in public places, and many states have tightened up the labeling and transportation requirements governing horses bound for slaughter.
A federal court ruled recently that Texas must start to enforce its long-ignored 1949 ban on the transportation and possession of horse meat. That put a stop to horse slaughter for human consumption at the two slaughterhouses in Texas that engaged in the practice.
A few of the kill buyers were at an auction in Shepherdsville last month, to bid on a handful of fattened horses after most of the other buyers had left. The horses were mostly bound for Canada, while in the past they'd have been going to Texas.
While the market price for horses has plummeted, the cost of food, lodging and veterinary care has not.
Kathy Schwartz, director of Lisbon, Md.-based Days End Farm Horse Rescue, which adopts abused and neglected horses, said that rescue operations that choose not to euthanize horses are generally full.
"We had one horse we brought in that was a rack of bones - in pain both from starvation and parasite infestation and injury," Schwartz said. "His owner thought life was better than going to slaughter. Well, life is - if you're going to feed it and take care of it."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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