March 21, 2007

The phone rings and Shelly Price, a director of the nonprofit rescue and educational organization Speak Up For Horses Inc. answers. It is yet another person wanting to know how they can help with the unwanted horse crisis in Kentucky. The call is in response to an AP story, written by Jeffrey McMurray, that has reached as far as Taiwan with sensational headlines like "Kentucky, land of the thoroughbred, swamped with unwanted horses" and "Drop in slaughter leads to too many horses".

Shelly patiently explains that she spent days with the reporter but that the story reflects none of the facts she provided. "He told me that he had already spoken with pro-slaughter sources and asked me about all the horses being turned out because people could not afford to feed them. I told him that I had never seen an abandoned horse in Kentucky and warned him to validate that story."

The article begins "The bidding for the black pony started at $500, then took a nosedive, there were no takers at $300, $200, even $100." McMurray then goes on to talk about horses being turned loose in Kentucky in the hundreds or thousands to starve to death, and blames the problem on a growing movement to stop horse slaughter.

Unfortunately, the premise ignores both the fact that ponies are rarely purchased for slaughter because of their small size, and the fact that a horse turned loose in the Bluegrass State would be the equivalent of a person being turned loose to starve in an all-you-can eat buffet! "I know of a horse that escaped its pasture near here," says Price. It took them 9 months to catch it, and it was in great flesh when they did." But these are only two of many of McMurray's statements that left experienced horse people scratching their heads.

"I was with Jeffrey at the Shepherdsville auction and discussed prices with him afterward", states Annie Haag, another horse advocate, who agreed to help McMurray gather information for his story from the anti-slaughter perspective.

But after the auction she says "Jeffrey just wanted to know about the one that sold for $75. I was confused and did not realize that he was talking about a pony. I told him I didn't see any horses selling under the $400 range. I told Jeffrey that prices were up almost $100 on most horses." Haag continued,

"I would have told him that $75 is not a bad price for a pony! He really didn't know much about horses."

Tamie Semler, of Angel Horse Rescue in Mannford, Oklahoma challenged McMurray's premise that slaughter buyers help remove the unwanted horses from the auction. She told of a reverse Darwinian world where the rule is survival of the most unfit. To prove this, Semler keeps meticulous records of who buys which horses at the big Mid America auction in Bristow, Oklahoma.

"At the auction last week," says Semler "all 30 of the loose horses that were over 1000 pounds went to slaughter. They brought an average of $510 each, while the thin horses all went to individual buyers and dealers and averaged only $193."

A "loose horse" is one run through the auction ring without a rider while horses ridden into the ring under saddle are called "saddle horses". Although many loose horses are saddle broke they sell for less than saddle horses and are thus the favorites of the kill buyers.

"So how exactly does it help with the problem of unwanted horses when they take the best?" Semler asks, "I just could not afford to outbid the killers. It is a shame too because with a little training here and there we could have placed those healthy horses so quickly."

McMurray's article goes on to quote a number of horse breeders complaining about horse prices, but many of the quotes make no sense to most experienced horse people. For example McMurray quotes a breeder named Nelson Francis saying "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."

While almost all horse people agree that there is far too much backyard breeding of horses, it makes no sense to complain that "has-been" horses would push good riding horses out of the market, and that somehow a lack of slaughter is to blame.

The complaint that "good saddle horses" are being pushed out of the market by "has-been" horses does not agree with other assessments.

Jim Bradshaw, in a recent column in the Live Stock Weekly out of Lubbock Texas discussed the effect of the closing in January of the two Texas horse slaughter plants. He quotes Tony Mann, owner of Lubbock Stockyards (an opponent of banning slaughter), on the price of loose horses saying, "I didn't have any idea it would be this good. We might have been $50 to $100 cheaper per head, but I didn't see anything down too much. It was pretty good on the riding horses."

The article, in the enthusiastically pro-slaughter trade journal, went on to quote other sources as saying the price of saddle horses was basically unchanged.

When contacted for confirmation about the story of horses running loose in the land, Lt. Phil Crumpton, the Commander of Kentucky State Police Media Relations Branch, laughed saying, "You must be joking?" When he realized the question was serious, he said that he had no such reports to either their headquarters or to any of the Regional Posts.

McMurray goes on "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." The explanation for these reports took only a quick Google search. It is ironically from a mid-February AP story!

It is the tragic story of two teenage boys charged with shooting and killing several of the horses belonging to Trish Hayes who owns the animals and operates Breaks Stables in Breaks, Virginia. The horses were used for trail riding in warm months at the Breaks Interstate Park. They wintered in the area of an abandoned coal mine in Eastern Kentucky. The area is so safe and sparsely populated that there is no need to fence them. Hays was quoted as saying "You've got miles and miles of flat land where these horses graze and just stay. When they're up there, they look like a band of wild horses, but when you drive up, they'll come right up to your window."

The story can still be found online at the equine veterinary magazine The Horse. The situation was fully investigated by the Kentucky State Veterinarian's office at the time and the horses were found to be well cared for and that there were no breeding (un-gelded) males.

The McMurray story continues, "There have been reports of horses chained up in eastern Kentucky and left for days without food or water. " But this tale appears to have been borrowed from another of McMurray's sources, Kathy Schwartz of Days End Farm Horse Rescue. It is the story of a horse named Beetle Bailey who was found chained to a tree. But the Days End Farm is in Maryland, not Kentucky. Beetle Bailey's story has no connection whatsoever to horse slaughter or the current situation. Beetle Bailey was adopted out of the rescue in the Winter of 2004!

The discrepancies in McMurray's AP story do not end there, but its sensational shrillness (astonishing coming from the institutionally careful Associated Press) has had the effect of creating a fire storm of unwarranted concern across the mainstream media, the internet, and even the talk show circuit. In yet another irony, one of the facts that McMurray did get right makes this very serious. The US Congress, Kentucky, New York, and Illinois are all considering legislation to ban horse slaughter, and Texas is considering legislation that would nullify its 1949 law against slaughtering horses for human consumption which was only recently upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. All this pending legislation raises the issue to a level of significance that demands responsible journalism.

In light of this, a few questions must be asked. Who assigned McMurray, a young sports writer with no knowledge of the horse industry, to this story? Why did McMurray work so desperately to weave disconnected, unsubstantiated and unrelated scraps of information into a largely incoherent argument in favor of horse slaughter? And why did the Associated Press, a respected news outlet, allow such a sensationalized and distorted story to get out? I call upon the Associated Press to do the right thing and set the record straight by retracting this ridiculous story and I ask that all the publications that printed it inform their readers of its inaccuracy. We as Americans need to know that we can trust our most cherished guardian of truth, the free press, and its traditionally most responsible messenger, the cherished Associated Press.