EMINENCE — Owners who can no longer afford to care for their horses are abandoning them in southern Missouri, hoping they will join Missouri's only wild horse herd, which descends from animals set free in the Great Depression also by their impoverished owners.
Bill Smith, of the Missouri Wild Horse League, which keeps an eye on the local herd, told The Kansas City Star that the wild horses don't mix well with the more domesticated animals. Stallions will run off, even rise up and fight the old pets and saddle horses, Smith said.
Wild horses also have to forage for food, and know how to dig through snow to find grass and acorns. Coyotes also will prey on colts and old horses in the thousands of public acres where the horses roam along the Current and Jacks Forks rivers.
In recent months, Jim Smith, Bill's second cousin, helped pull out at least 25 dumped horses from the Shawnee fields east of Eminence.
"Two of them had brands from a ranch in Utah," Jim Smith said this week. "I called out there. They said they were adopted by somebody in Missouri. Don't know how they ended up here."
The Wild Horse League, which foiled the National Parks Service's efforts to remove the animals in the mid-1990s, tries to find the orphaned horses and adopt them out. But lately there have been too many.
Some say the tough economy may not be the only culprit. They point to a federal appropriations bill in 2006 that closed every horse slaughterhouse in the country. They say people no longer have an outlet for old and sick horses.
Mindy Patterson, board vice president of the Missouri Equine Council, recognizes that hard times can lead people to make unwise decisions. But she also blames the 2006 decision by Congress — after intense lobbying by theHumane Society of America— to halt funding of meat inspectors for horse slaughter operations.
In effect, the result was a backdoor ban on horse slaughter because meat can't be sold without a USDA stamp of approval.
In November, Congress restored money for the inspections, but some people doubt a slaughter operation will start up because the funding could go away in next year's appropriations debate. And the Humane Society has pledged an all-out push to make that happen.
Simply put, it doesn't think horses should be raised for meat in America.
Society officials say the "horse slaughter proponents" twist the truth when they say most horses going to slaughter were old and sick. They cite a USDA study that says of more than a thousand horses that arrived at two slaughter plants in Texas, 92 percent were "in good shape."
As for owners of old and sick horses, the society says that if people are going to own a horse, they need to be responsible for its care to the very end.
People in Eminence know a lot of horses are just showing up that don't belong. The Wild Horse League has never had a problem adopting out wild ones when the herd exceeds its maximum of 50. People want them.
Dumped ones — not so much. They have little value. The league works with 4-H clubs and Boy Scouts troops to take a few, but some have to be left in the wild. They are run off at first, but if they're strong enough they keep coming back to the herd.
"You want one — go get it," league president Allen Akers said recently. "People can't take the wild ones, but the dumped horses are free for the taking."