The Rocky Mountain News reports that the sale of wild horses to slaughterhouses is on the rise. The 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act was written to end the mass slaughter and abuse of wild horse herds in 10 western states. The Bureau of Land Management gathers the horses, lets suitable owners adopt them and, after a year, turns over title.

?If you look at the legislative history, it?s clear that Congress never intended these horses to be slaughtered,? says Andrea Lococo, of the Fund for Animals? western office in Wyoming. Wild horse advocates, including the Fund for Animals, have BLM records that show hundreds of wild horses were sold for slaughter shortly after the owners received title.

?According to the BLM records that the Fund for Animals recently obtained, at least 578 wild horses were sold for slaughter from late 1998 to early 1999,? says Lococo. The BLM will soon release more records, based on information provided by the three packing plants in the United States that handle horses. Their records of adoptions are incomplete, so the final number will be far higher, says Howard Crystal, attorney for the Fund for Animals. Also, many other wild horses are shipped to Canada for slaughter, and no records are available from that country.

Two sections of the federal law are being debated when it comes to the sale of wild horses. Maxine Shane, of the BLM wild-horse office in Nevada, and BLM lawyers and administrators quote a section that says, ?At the end of the one-year period … wild, free-roaming horses and burros or their remains shall lose their status as wild, free-roaming horses or burros and shall no longer be considered as falling within the purview of this act.?

?For the first year,? Shane says, ?we keep a computer list of adopters. After adoption, we don?t track them. The horses are then private property.?

Wild horse advocates quote from a section of the same law, four paragraphs lower, that says, ?Upon destruction or death … no wild, free-roaming horse or burro or its remains may be sold or transferred for consideration for processing into commercial products.?

The 39 sale barns in Colorado are mostly in rural areas, and they use the BLM interpretation. But Shane claims the law clearly differentiates between wild, free-roaming horses and other horses titled to adopters. He says that under a 1997 agreement with the Fund for Animals, the BLM requires wild horse adopters to sign a statement saying they have no intention of selling their adopted horses to slaughterhouses.

The market price for horse meat rose in the 1990s with the demise of the Soviet Union and a shortage of meat in Eastern Europe. The price has stayed high because buyers in Western Europe are concerned about mad cow disease and meat safety.

The BLM wants to reduce wild horse herds from the current 48,000 to 27,000, which means that many more animals will be gathered and offered for adoption, meaning that more of them will end up in meat packing plants. Lococo says, ?The BLM had trouble finding qualified adopters before, but with more horses, it will get worse.?

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