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Rescuers battle 'killer buyers' to save unwanted horses

That out-of-sight, out-of-mind thinking infuriates rescuers and creates a tension with auctioneers. Some auctioneers accuse horse rescuers of being glorified traders with a better-than-thou attitude. Two formal complaints have even been filed with the Department of Agriculture, alleging that rescuers sell the horses for profit, but hold onto the horses' ownership papers, even after the money changes hands.

Noreen Heart, director of Maricopa County Horse and Pony Rescue, says she charges an adoption fee but certainly doesn't make a profit from it. She keeps the ownership card for a set amount of time, usually a year, to ensure that the new owners won't simply resell the horse at auction for profit. Everything is agreed upon in a signed contract. Heart does admit that there are some private citizens calling themselves rescuers who are not registered as 501{c}3 nonprofit organizations.

Both Meagher and Heart operate registered nonprofits and take in animals the regular traders wouldn't touch.

Meagher once saved a stray horse that was so severely abused he shook and would not open his eyes for days. "He's got scars on his body like someone took a knife and just drew into him," she says.

Heart has taken in emaciated horses that were discarded by their owners because they just couldn't be ridden anymore.

Owners wanting to donate healthy horses to be shot and fed to the lions and tigers at Out of Africa Wildlife Park are often turned away, said worker Peter McEvoy.

Horse rescuers and auctioneers do agree that a big part of the problem is created by urbanites who move to Arizona and buy horses. "They don't know what the hell they're doing," says Heart. The surprise at the amount of time and money necessary to care for a horse, combined with a lack of knowledge, often results in a neglected animal that no one wants.

Also, the government can't work with rescue groups. To deter allegations of favoritism, and to ensure that it can recover its costs, state law prohibits the Department of Agriculture from limiting sales or giving away horses, even to a nonprofit rescue operation. State statute dictates that any government-seized horses be sold at auction.

But the Department of Agriculture recognizes there's a problem with the outdated law.

About 10 years ago, the department tried to establish an alternative for the horses seized from abusive owners, but the project was unsuccessful and illegal, says spokeswoman Jill Davis. The Arizona State Horsemen's Association offered for adoption a handful of state-seized horses for as little as $15 to its members, who then sold the animals for profit. The program was a bust.

Concerned people within the system also have tried to find alternatives to the public auction of horses sold by the state.

Bill Barcus, a range technician for the Payson Forest Service, waded through red tape and fought to keep his four-legged co-workers, LaVonda and Half Moon, from going to auction. "We covered, literally, thousands of miles together," he says, and he was convinced that if they went to auction, the only buyers they would attract would be from the slaughterhouse. After a three-year standoff, Barcus finally got the go-ahead from his new district ranger to donate the animals to Meagher's Wildhorse Rescue Ranch.

Other horses, though, have a bleak future. Counterproductive practices by government agencies, coupled with too many clueless horse owners, make it almost impossible to save these throwaways of the livestock world, Meagher says.

However, the Arizona Department of Agriculture plans to automate some services, which would free up more inspectors to focus on animal cruelty, says Davis. And the USDA regulations, called the Humane Treatment of Equine to Slaughter, should be adopted sometime in the future.

Meagher is skeptical, but hopes those measures begin putting more horses out to pasture rather than on plates.

To report a horse that is being abused or neglected, call the Arizona Department of Agriculture at 602-542-0872 and choose option 3.

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