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Rescue Me: Cash-strapped owners are ditching horses and not always humanely 

Recession and rising hay prices have made it harder for rescues to get animals adopted. Tiffany Offsteader carries a pocketful of carrots and wears a

click to enlarge Recession and rising hay prices have made it harder for rescues to get animals adopted.
  • Recession and rising hay prices have made it harder for rescues to get animals adopted.
Recession and rising hay prices have made it harder for rescues to get animals adopted. Tiffany Offsteader carries a pocketful of carrots and wears a smile to her reunion with Montana, an 8-year-old quarter horse that she bought for her daughter five years ago. But it's a bittersweet meeting as Offsteader reaches across the fence to stroke the nose of her companion who has been living at a Bend horse rescue and adoption facility since August.

Montana is one of the many pets orphaned by the ongoing recession and owners faced with increasing costs for food and care. Horses have been particularly hard hit by the recent downturn, which has come at a time of near-record prices for hay. And the problem is expected to only grow worse with the onset of winter as cash-strapped owners wrestle with costs of feeding animals that are no longer able to forage in pasture. Montana is one of the lucky ones, he landed at Equine Outreach, a non-profit ranch where he will be fed and cared for until a new home can be found. But some owners are going to extremes to rid themselves of their animals, leaving them at training facilities along with unpaid bills, abandoning them on public lands, or, worse.

"It's what I call the perfect storm between the economy and the production costs of hay going sky high," said Joan Steelhammer, a local realtor who founded Equine Outreach and serves as the executive director.

Add in a soaring number of home foreclosures and it's easy to see why horses and other large animals are taking a hit in the current recession.

In Offsteader's case, her husband lost his job as a cabinet installer and the family had to make some tough choices.

"We knew that if we kept Montana we would end up losing the house...We had to keep the house, so we had to weigh which one was going to benefit us more: our horse or our home?" Offsteader said.

It seems that a growing number of owners are opting to take the same route as Offsteader and hand their animals over to rescue and adoption groups before they reach the stage of desperation. And while there are no reliable statistics on the number of orphaned and abandoned horses, animal rescue and adoption organizations say they have seen a significant uptick in the number of horses at their doors, and the influx of animals is straining their ability to keep pace, especially at a time when many of them are facing their own financial hardships as donations dwindle amid the housing downturn and national recession.

Equine Outreach, which took in Montana and Offsteader's other animal - a white pony named Trudy - has been soliciting additional donors to help meet the organization's $16,000 monthly expenses.

Down the street at Blissfull Acres, a horse and large animal rescue group, Executive Director Ed Bartz said it's tough for animal rescue groups to compete with other charities - even in good times. In hard times when donors are holding tightly to their purse strings, it's even more difficult.

"It's tough for a couple of different reasons," Bartz said. "Obviously the economy is bad so people have less disposable income. And generally speaking, people would rather give to the Boys and Girls Club than to the Humane Society. It's not like we have 17 kids with holes in their shoes to throw in front of people."

But that hasn't done anything to staunch the demand for services.

Steelhammer set up Equine Outreach as a no-kill shelter with a capacity for roughly 35 orphaned and abandoned horses. Today, she has close to 100 horses.

Many horse rescue groups, including Equine Outreach are now turning away animals. That means trying to find homes for animals or assistance for owners before the horses land at their doorstep, said Bartz. That's not always possible, especially for older horses with health problems. And for those animals there are few attractive options. Bartz said he and his partner were going out on Friday afternoon after our phone conversation to help an owner put down an unadoptable animal. It's a last resort, but one that even rescue groups are having to contemplate as resources run thin.

The question of what to do with old and unwanted animals has been complicated by the fact that it is illegal to slaughter horses in the United States. A vet will charge about $200 to euthanize a horse and the closest rendering plant that will pay a nominal fee for a horse carcass is in Tacoma.

"We don't want to put a horse down, but if we don't help these guys today, they're just going to throw the horse in the forest, so this is a better alternative," Bartz said.

Economic hard times mean that just as more people are looking to rid themselves of their animals, fewer are looking to buy or adopt horses right now.

"We get probably ten times the surrender enquires as we do adoption enquiries," said Kali Vanagas, a volunteer who helps match the organization's horses to new owners, referring to people who simply want to hand over their horse, or in many cases, horses - usually for economic reasons.

The lack of demand for animals is evidence by the plummeting price of horses on the open market.

"We've got $6,000 horses that somebody donated to us. We have them for $1,500 and we can't sell them," said Bartz.

The lack of buyers means that sellers are turning to horse rescue operations like Equine Outreach when they're unable to find a buyer. As a result, rescue organizations are seeing a change in the kind of animals that are arriving at their door. It's no longer just older and sick animals. There are a number of young, healthy horses like Montana. Vanagas said the organization recently took in four registered horses from La Pine that an owner tried unsuccessfully to sell on Vanagas said that when the owner offered to give the horses away to a good home, she got calls from people asking if she would pay for their gas to come and pick up the animals. She declined.

A Wider Problem

Central Oregonians aren't the only ones struggling to take care of their animals. The issue of horse neglect and abandonment is being watched closely around the state and the country as the economy slips deeper into recession and people are forced to choose between feeding their families and feeding their horses.

"There is a growing problem of horse neglect and abandonment which is a direct result of the economic downturn. People are finding it more difficult to take care of their horses, so they are likely to neglect or abandon them," said Scott Beckstead, the Pacific Northwest Coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States.

Beckstead, who runs the organization's horse rescue and sanctuary operation in north Douglas County, said he expects the issues surrounding horse welfare to get worse over the next few months, which are typically difficult for horse owners on the margin as they try to scrape together enough money to pay for hay to carry their animals over until spring. To address the issue, he recently formed a horse advocacy group that includes state agricultural officials, law enforcement and volunteers. The Oregon Horse Welfare Council has already met twice, including once in Central Oregon, to discuss ways that the government, farmers and advocates can work together to prevent a crisis. Among other things, the group is focusing on ways to provide hay and veterinary services to animal owners who might be in a pinch this year. The group has also put together a network of foster homes to house animals that have been surrendered by their owners or seized by law enforcement because of neglect.

"We're not trying to bail out anyone, this is basically people in Oregon who love horses trying to help each other out," Beckstead said.

Closer to home, local vet Doug Evans has started a hay co-op of sorts to help out struggling horse owners. The effort, which he and his wife started working on after hearing the story of a horse that had been abandoned, shot and survived in Crook County, is dubbed Grass Roots and aims to connect horse owners in need with hay for their animals. Working with another local vet, Byron Maas, Evans and his wife have secured a barn east of Bend where they can store hay and have already taken in a two-ton donation from the local sheriff's office. Evans said they are now seeking out animal owners who need assistance, but don't know that it's available.

Horses aren't the only animals suffering because of the faltering economy and housing market crash. As the jobless rate increases so do the number of unwanted dogs and cats, which are arriving at local shelters. The Redmond Humane Society has seen a 25 percent increase in animal surrenders over the past year. That jump followed a roughly six percent decrease in surrenders between 2006 and 2007. At the Humane Society of Central Oregon, Executive Director Pat Roden said the organization has seen about a 12 percent increase in owner surrenders from last year. Roden said pet owners in rural areas have been the hardest hit in terms of animal surrenders. She said the shelter has gotten animals from as far away as Burns and Christmas Valley since the economy began to falter.

And like the situation with horses, Roden said it's, "young healthy animals; it's not just older animals."

Back at Equine Outreach, Offsteader digs into her jacket pocket and fishes out a baby carrot for Montana who wraps his neck around her shoulders-a forelock of golden brown hanging over his brow-and jams his nose into her hand.

"Oh, I miss you," she whispers to Montana.

And it's clear that the feeling is mutual.

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