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A big-eyed horse, his spine as curved as an old hammock, paces nervously inside an auction house stall as two spectators begin an intense bidding battle. On the dusty bleachers sits a crowd struck by the unlikely fight for this sad and forgotten beast.

When the price, which started at $30, ratchets up to $160, Kim Meagher has finally outbid her opponent -- a "killer buyer" working for a slaughterhouse. She knows she's saved the horse from a long and miserable road toward death.

The swayback horse had been seized by the Arizona Department of Agriculture because he was badly neglected by his owners. The old boy will now be put out to pasture at Meagher's Wildhorse Rescue Ranch in Gilbert.

Rescuers like Meagher and the killer buyers are often pitched against each other at the Pacific Livestock Auction in Chandler, sometimes bidding for the same horses that have been taken from abusive owners to begin with.

Unfortunately, all does not end well for the horses that get "saved" by the county or state.

The animals, along with any other old or crippled horses for sale, are scooped up by killer buyers and treated inhumanely from the time they reach the auction grounds until they are finally killed at a faraway slaughterhouse. And in a horsey state like Arizona, where the Department of Agriculture processes ownership cards for an average of 2,300 horses each month, a surplus of cheap equine only fuels the growing horse-meat industry.

Until last year, the number of horses slaughtered in the United States had been declining since the early 1990s. The trend has changed, however, because of increased demand for horse meat in Europe in the wake of mad cow disease. According to United States Department of Agriculture figures, horse slaughter was up 25 percent from July 2000 to July 2001. More than 51,000 horses were butchered last year.

Meagher knows she can't stop the horse-meat industry, but she is part of a resurgence of animal welfare activists speaking out against equine abuse and slaughter.

"They're not handled humanely at the auction, in transport or at slaughter," says Ellen Buck, director of equine protection at the Humane Society of the United States. The national humane society exposed the suffering of horses at auction and on their way to slaughter in a 1994 undercover investigation. The investigation uncovered that horses on the way to slaughter were not fed or given water for more than a day at a time, injuries went untreated and some died during the trip. Investigators alleged that, once at the slaughterhouses, some horses had been stunned improperly, hoisted into the air and had their throats cut before they were dead.

The resulting public outcry forced some slaughterhouses to shut down and prompted California voters to pass a proposition prohibiting the sale of horses for human consumption, although the enforcement of that law has been widely unsuccessful, says Buck.

In 1996, Congress called on the USDA to create regulations governing the humane treatment of equines bought for slaughter. The rules are under final review, says agricultural department spokesman Jim Rogers. Another bill aimed at the humane transport of injured livestock, the Downed Animal Protection Act, is stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee.

There are no laws in Arizona regarding the transport of horses, so the animals that are bought at auction are usually carted off in double-decker cattle trailers that don't give the animals enough room to raise their heads. No laws require drivers to feed or water the animals en route to the slaughterhouse, and the nearest one is in Texas. Even the Pacific Livestock Auction grounds have only a few water troughs among the dozens of pens, and little shade is provided.

Owners of the Chandler auction declined an interview.

While auctions are legitimate venues for buying healthy animals, they also serve as a bargain bin for throwaway horses. The Department of Agriculture seized and sent to auction 17 horses statewide last year, while the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office impounded 13. But those numbers reflect only a tiny percentage of the neglected horses that end up in auctions. Wild horses rounded up on Indian reservations and unwanted horses sold by private owners make up the bulk of the killer buyers' purchases.

"I've seen some come in that should weigh 1,100 or 1,200 pounds, but they weigh 700 pounds," says Tim Anton, owner of the Arizona Livestock Auction. Anton sees rescuers as do-gooders with their heads in the clouds -- "there's not a green pasture in heaven for the horses," he says with exasperation. Anton explains that auctions are the most economical way to get rid of useless horses.

Unlike old cats and dogs, horses are expensive to care for properly, upward of $3,000 per year. Many owners take old or crippled livestock to auction rather than put them out to pasture until they reach a natural death. Even having them euthanized and hauled away costs between $200 and $600.

At auction, killer buyers usually pay around 40 cents per pound, so ranchers can at least get a little return on their investment, Anton says.

"They take it to the sale and don't want to think about where it goes," he says.

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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Maria Luisa Tucker