The Beaver

A brown western hat snugged tight against the man’s head, crowding his ears downward. His blue and black checked flannel shirt, draped loosely over his slightly stooped shoulders, fought off the early morning Wyoming chill. Faded, well-worn jeans contrasted sharply with a big, silver belt buckle—a relic from his younger days when he competed with the best of cowboys on the bare backs of bucking broncs. And, finally, reflected rays of sunshine shot skyward from a pearl-handled Colt .44 revolver. Hanging from a gun belt strapped to his leg, the Colt came from his granddaddy. The man never left his house without the gun, especially this time of year when the Diamondback rattlers were slithering out of their dens to enjoy the early Wyoming sunshine. It was the 20th century, but the man appeared to be a remnant of the old west.

The man’s name was Clark. Sloshing through the creek in rubber waders, he slowly and deliberately closed the distance between himself and the beaver dam in front of him.

………………..

There was the beaver. Droplets of clear water spotted his slick, taupe-colored coat, glistening and sparkling in the morning sun like so many crystal pendants dangling from an invisible chandelier.

 The beaver sat still, patiently waiting, dark, button-like eyes darting across his immediate horizon. His two front teeth resembled shining white candidates for a vintage Ipana toothpaste commercial. Those strong choppers were enjoying a brief rest from their seemingly constant chewing, chomping and carving. It’s not a craving for industry and productivity that causes beavers to fill their days with felling trees and building dams. Instead, they must spend a large portion of their lives cutting and chopping to keep their teeth worn down and, thus, prevent them from elongating and stabbing painfully into their lower jaw.

The beaver’s chubby body stiffened in anticipation. “Aha,” he thought in beaver language, “I knew he’d be here.” Cocking his head to the right and raising his tiny paws to his mouth, he fixed his button-eyed stare on Clark wading through the creek.

The beaver skittered his glance upward to the snow-crested peaks of the Grand Teton mountains surrounding this place called the Hoeback Junction at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The mountains were a calendar for the beaver. He reckoned time by how far the mantle of undisturbed snow extended down the mountains’ pitted faces. This was the first meeting of the year between Clark and the beaver. The pattern was set nine years ago, when the beaver was a youngster crowding close to the soft fur of his mama while she demonstrated the fine art of dam-building. That was the first time he saw the man. That was also the first time he heard him, bellowing and cussing about “damn beavers” ruining his pastureland with their “damned chewing.”

The beaver didn’t understand the words but his senses told him there was a struggle here. He glanced at his mama but she seemed to ignore the man as she continued gnawing through the trunk of a slim, silver aspen. He remembered how the tree cracked and snapped, falling with a splashing plop into the shallow creek directly in front of the man. The cold water flew upward and backward, drenching him in instant shivers. To this day, the beaver couldn’t be sure but, when he looked at his mama, he could swear he’d seen the flicker of a smile on her mouth. That was nearly 10 springs ago. Since then, the beaver managed to give the man a couple of doussings of his own. He always remembered his now-dead mama’s smile when he did it.

………………..

 Clark stopped and surveyed the destruction around him. The crystal clear creek was one of several dotting his 2,000-acre ranch. It watered cattle and elk and moose, and even provided drinking water for himself and his family when their well ran low. Every year, after the beaver left, he waded in and cleaned out the fallen timber, freeing the water and allowing it to again run its natural course. It needed a month before regaining its clarity, draining itself of the muck and crud that accumulated above and below the surface as a result of resting stagnant in its beaver dam prison.

The man put his hands on his slim hips and tipped his brown hat back from his forehead. He didn’t look at the beaver. He knew he was sitting on a log not more than 25-yards from him, but he’d be hanged if he’d acknowledge him. Instead, the man directed his gaze and his thoughts toward the mountains.

Clark brought his eyes downward, frowning at the water eddying smack against the steps leading to the front door of his oldest son’s cabin. His four-year-old grandson was sitting in the open doorway, pulling on the rubber boots his mom handed him.

 “Mornin’, Pop,” called his daughter-in-law. “We found the water when we woke up. The beaver’s back and he must have worked all ni

“I swear, this’ll be the summer,” Clark growled. “He won’t live past June.” He hitched at his waders irritably, still refusing to glance toward the beaver.

The beaver continued staring at the man, thinking his own beaver thoughts. “He’s aged,” he mused to himself, using padded paws to pat down his rich fur which was drying and becoming very uncomfortable in the upward angling Wyoming sun. He thought he could feel it pulling and pinching from the inside to the outside.

 Clark did look older. Even his two boys could see it. He was 68 this summer and it had been a hard life. His grandfolks on his daddy’s side were the first white family to settle in the Hoeback. Until then, the only people had been the Indians who named those two towering mountain peaks the Grand Tetons, which translated rather crudely into “Big Tits.”. It’s no wonder Clark felt a God-given right to the land.

………………..

 The beaver was about to return to his work when he noticed the man opening his mouth to talk. He couldn’t understand the words, but the years had taught him to read much of the man’s body language. He thought the man looked worried as he leaned over and allowed his daughter-in-law to speak into his ear.

 The man finally looked at the beaver. “You flinty-eyed little devil,” he hissed. “I just found out I got me another grand-baby on the way. You keep pushing that water up to this house and I’ll be forced to use this on you.” The man patted the pistol while he held the beaver’s stare. “You hear me, you furry rat? You cause any problems and your hide will be on the inside of my coat this winter. You hear me?”

The beaver was the first to break the deadlock of their eyes. He blinked at the man….just once….one blink. The man felt his head jerk back just a fraction. “Dang,” he said to himself. He knew the beaver had just answered him. He watched as the beaver slid off the log, made a couple of deep dives to wet his fur thoroughly, and then cut through the water in a gliding motion to begin work on yet another tree.

………………..

Spring turned into summer and the piles of felled trees grew higher. The man swore the beaver never slept. The young couple in the creek-side cabin insisted they could hear his big, front teeth gnashing late into the night, followed by the plop of aspen falling into the stagnant water at rhythmic intervals.

July gave way to Labor Day. By mid-September, the Wyoming air developed its first crisp edge. The mornings were chilled, and the nights were dropping to two-blanket lows. Clark was eating supper one evening with his sons and daughters-in-law, all seated around the big table in the main house. It was near the end of September.

His younger son laid down his fork and looked at his father. “Pop,” he said, “it seems to me that beaver is worse this year than he’s ever been. The water must be 10 inches up the side of our house. It’s bothering me. Didn’t you say something about killing him?”

Clark directed his full attention to his coffee mug, never looking away from the dark brew, blowing across the top of it in tiny ripples. “Soon, son,” he said. “I’ll take care of the beaver. Probably some time this week.”

The man glanced out the front window. There was just enough remaining twilight to get a good look at the Tetons. He mentally calculated the length of the snow mantle draped down the mountain. “Soon,” he said. “Real soon.”

Clark went to the creek the next morning. He waded into the water and sat down on one of the chewed logs. He could hear the beaver on the other side of the dam, chomping and carving. He waited. In less than three minutes, he felt rather than saw the button-eyed stare. He turned his head. The two pairs of eyes—one as black as flint pebbles and the other as blue as the Wyoming sky—locked on one another. Neither man nor beaver moved. Then, as if by unspoken agreement, both turned to look at the blanket of snow drifting down the big bosom of the Tetons. “Soon,” said Clark to the beaver. “Soon.”

The beaver blinked….just once. They both understood. Each knew just how far to push the other in this battle of wills they waged each year. They understood and abided by their unspoken rules of war; rules based on steadfast, mutual respect.

Clark returned to the creek the following morning. He looked around. He waited a few minutes, his mind sliding into the unfamiliar silence. Then, slowly, he began dismantling the now vacant dam…. just as he’d done for the past several years…. just as he’d done when the beaver used to come with his mama…. just as he figured he’d do next year and the year after that. And he’d need to instruct his kids and grand-kids to do it after he was gone.

A man needed his pride but, then, so did a beaver. He’d have a new grand-baby next spring. One of the first things he’d do would be to show her the beaver. Then, just as he was straightening his back and lifting a limb from the cold water, he heard a “plop.” There was no need to turn around. He knew it was the beaver, getting in the last word before his final good-by of the year. Clark kept his back turned away from the sound. After all, he didn’t want the beaver to see him smile.

Christmas Smoke

Don’t forget to show hospitality

to strangers, for some who have

done this have entertained angels

without realizing it! (Heb. 13:2)

There! I heard it again. It was so tiny and so soft that I couldn’t be certain I’d heard it at all. I crossed one foot over the other so I could turn my body on the ladder, facing away from the nearly 10-foot tall, prickly Christmas tree that was being festooned with every imaginable decoration. I glanced down from my viewing vantage point, shaking my head and thinking the living room was a perfect tableau for a Norman Rockwell painting.

There were cardboard boxes of every size, with brightly colored satin ribbons flowing from the corners. Some of the boxes bore the obvious scars of age and all of them were open with various “stuff” spilling out. Two of the six cats were wrapped in multiple strands of lights like fish caught in a net. I felt a nearly uncontrollable urge to plug in the tiny twinklelers. I’d never seen lighted, decorated cats and this could be my only chance. I refrained.

I saw one broken ornament, and a guilty-looking cocker Spaniel sitting next to it. I was certain her repentance wouldn’t be long-lasting, however, since she was already eyeing Skipper, the black and white fox hound terrier, and his mountain of tinsel. I could see trips to the vet in my near future if I didn’t pick up and clean up some of the irresistible, shiny playthings.

I looked back at the tree. It was huge, the biggest I’d ever had; and the odd conglomeration of decorations seemed somewhat symbolic. Chaotic. Turbulent. Close to rudderless.

There! The sound. I had no idea what it was. I knew it wasn’t a bark, but neither did it sound like a cat. That was scary. What was it if it was neither dog nor cat?

Being respectful of my intrinsic fear of ladders, I carefully picked my way down step-by-careful-step. Safely on the floor, I walked to the hall closet and pulled out a heavy coat, hat and gloves. Texas weather is usually quite temperate, but we were experiencing one of our rare cold spells….as in really, really cold. Add a 30 degree temperature to 40 mile-per-hour winds and you discover the definition of not just cold but miserably cold. I tried to rationalize the situation by saying, “Well, after all, Christmas is only five days away so it should be cold.”

The bundling process completed, I turned on the front lights and went out the door with head lowered to combat the brutal wind. I stood still, trying desperately to hear over the groaning and whistling gusts. Nothing. “I can’t stand here very long,” I muttered to myself. On the heels of those words came my next thought which went something like, “But I know any creature that might be out here is definitely in trouble.”

I wrestled a flashlight from my narrow pocket and directed its beam behind the row of low-growing cedars that hemmed the front side of the house. I leaned over to push some of them back, trying to ignore the itchy pricks on my wrists where the coat sleeves parted company with the tops of my gloves. I stooped forward and there they were! Two huge, glowing, yellow-green eyes centered in what appeared to be an overly large head. And there was the sound again….the weakest, most pitiful imitation of a meow I’d ever heard. I never stopped to wonder if the cat might be unfriendly. I just said a soft “Kitty, kitty” and reached down for him. I knew extricating him from the cedars would be tricky, so I moved slowly.

I couldn’t believe what I felt when my right hand closed around the cat. He was, literally, skin and bones. I could actually place my fingers on his side and pinch around each, individual rib. I slid my left hand underneath him as I raised him higher and, again, I was shocked when I felt the opening of his rib cage. He was finally out of the cedars and in full view.

I looked at the cat under the orange/yellow bath of the porch light and, suddenly, all the Christmas tree ornaments just one room away lost their glitter. “Oh, God,” I said softly, “how could this happen?” My reaction was always the same when I faced situations such as this one. I felt suffocated by pain and, on top of that pain, was a consuming anger at our throw-away society. We throw away razors and contact lenses and TV dinners heated in instant microwaves. We throw away just about everything, including relationships. Why not animals? Just toss them out when we’re tired of them or when they change from cuddly babies to somewhat less cute adults. Sure. That’ll work.

The cat’s hipbones strained against his skin, looking as if they were trying ever-so-hard to escape their thin prison walls. I couldn’t stroke him down his back because my fingers hung on the knobs of his spine. And the head that I thought was overly large? It wasn’t. It just had that appearance because the rest of his body was so emaciated. His feet, too, appeared large….like big pads glued to the bottoms of boney sticks.

His fur was gray….a smokey gray….the color of fireplace smoke drifting skyward on crisp October afternoons. It felt dull beneath my fingers. Some people may not realize it, but “dull” is a feeling as well as an appearance.

I cradled the cat in my arms, afraid I’d snap one of his nearly exposed bones if I placed the least pressure on them. He didn’t struggle. He probably didn’t have the strength for a great deal of movement. I wondered how he’d managed to wedge himself behind the cedars. Then, as I tried to stroke him, I saw him push against the warmth of my coat. For what must have been the millionth time in my years of loving animals, I felt my heart crack as I looked at the pitiful creature.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get you inside where it’s warm.” The big yellow-green eyes blinked at me. “We’ll need to put you in your own room,” I continued. “I have no idea whether or not you might have anything contagious, even though everyone in the house is vaccinated against all imaginable germs and bacteria. Besides, you’re in no condition to meet anyone right now. Even a gentle swat would send you tumbling.” He seemed to pay attention to my running, one-sided conversation.

Dogs and cats alike rushed at me when I opened the front door and walked in, acting as if my absence spanned weeks rather than minutes. The gray cat never stirred. Some special feline sense seemed to tell him he was okay as long as he had me in his corner.

“Okay, guys,” I said to everyone. “Let me through. It seems we received an early Christmas present.” Dogs jumped. Cats rubbed. There are times when I know exactly how Moses felt when he parted the Red Sea. “Let me through,” I repeated. Noses lifted upward, straining for a whiff of the newcomer. Had they been able to verbalize, I’m quite certain I would have heard, “Let us see. Let us see.”

I took the thin, scruffy cat into the guest bedroom, and promptly plunked him in the middle of the bed. He looked at me and blinked, appearing totally at home on the yellow comforter with its mauve roses. “Look,” I said, “everyone needs a name so, at least for now, yours will be Smokey.” He filed no protest so I assumed he was comfortable with it.

Okay. The next step was food. Not too much and not too rich. All my cats stayed fat on dry food, but the canned variety might be better for Smokey’s condition. Leaving him in the bedroom, I foraged in the kitchen cupboards and came up with Ocean Whitefish. I put not more than two, level tablespoons in a bowl. Taking two more small bowls from the cabinet, I put milk in one and water in the other. I returned to the bedroom, finding Smokey curled into a tight ball and sleeping between two pillows. I decided to arrange a litter box for him before awakening him to eat.

Everything was ready. His three bowls were on a metal tray which I put on the bed. The cat was just too weak to jump up and down. I brought him out of his warm slumber by stroking the head that looked too large for his shrunken body. Blink! The yellow-green eyes burst open.

“Come on, Smokey, guy,” I crooned. “How ’bout some dinner?” I picked him up and took him to the food. He smelled, turned his head and covered me in a yellow-green stare. “Go ahead,” I encouraged. “It’s yours.” He lapped at the milk three or four times, sniffed the food and took the smallest possible bite. “Go on, Smoke,” I encouraged again. “You need to eat. Not a lot, but more than that.” He looked at me as if he understood. He took another small bite, but he was doing it more for me than for himself. He returned to the spot between the pillows, wobbling from weakness and the soft mattress. He looked at me before he returned to his warm nest.

“It’s okay, Smokey,” I said. “Maybe you need rest as much as you do food; but you really must eat.” The gray cat had been sinking to the bed but, when I told him he really must eat, he stopped his downward motion and looked at me. I rushed to him, putting my hand on him and pushing him gently to the mattress.

“It’s fine, Smoke. There’s no need to get up right now,” I told him.

There was something very strange about this cat. He seemed to have this all consuming desire to please me, and I was nothing more than a total stranger who happened to pull him out of the cedars. He kept looking at me and I kept looking at him. I had a feeling we were connected by some invisible thread, and another feeling that said he understood everything that was happening to both of us. It was highly peculiar but, at the same time, I felt suffused with a spreading warmth and sense of well-being. I could almost feel him absorbing every negative vibration from the house, sucking it all into himself and leaving clean, clear, positive air to fill the rooms and hallways. I closed the door gently, leaving him to his rest while I returned to the Christmas tree. Somehow, the scene I’d left less than 45-minutes earlier had changed. It was quieter….more serene. I felt like an idiot saying it, but the entire atmosphere of the house seemed altered. I certainly didn’t intend to say I thought it was because of Smokey’s presence.

I took Smokey to the vet the following day. The diagnosis was straightforward and basic. He was emaciated. On a scale of one to 10, his overall system was functioning somewhere between a two and a three. He was probably wormy so they administered a very gentle med since they were afraid he was too weak to sustain even a normal dosage. He didn’t appear to have anything contagious. Would he live? They weren’t willing to offer a prognosis.

As I spoke with the vet, I couldn’t help but notice one of the techs from the corner of my eye. She stood next to the examining table, bending over slightly, stroking Smokey. The gray cat rested his head on her right hand while she used her left hand to caress repeatedly from his neck to his flank. Her movements seemed almost hypnotic.

“Lisa,” I said. She didn’t respond. I raised my voice. “Lisa.” She turned and looked at me, but her hand continued its ministering kindness. “This is the most wonderful cat,” she said. “There’s something so special about him.”

I looked at her and then at Smokey. “Yes, I know,” I answered.

I wrapped Smokey in his towel, holding him as tenderly as a baby, and placed him on the passenger seat of my car. I talked with him on the short drive home.

“Well, Smoke, at least we know there’s nothing contagious. The Christmas tree is all finished and, even if I do say so myself, it’s probably one of the most beautiful ones we’ve ever done. If you’ll eat just a little bit for me today and tomorrow, you can come out and admire the tree with the rest of us. We’ll leave the door to your room open when we get home and see how that goes. Okay?”

I reached over to stroke the gray cat. He purred and rubbed his head against my hand. Funny thing. He was still as emaciated as ever but, for some reason, his head no longer seemed out of proportion to his body. His bones still strained against his skin. I could still imprison his ribs between two fingers. But, somehow, I was no longer aware of all those things. All I saw was….well….beauty. That must be what Lisa witnessed when she stood there stroking him at the clinic.

I unwrapped Smokey and put him on his yellow comforter, leaving the door open and sitting in a rocker near his bed. The cocker Spaniel was the first to venture in. She sniffed the gray cat. He purred and rubbed his head against her neck. The other two dogs trooped in. Sniff. Purr. Rub. It became a ritual. The six cats came in, usually in twos or threes. They hopped on the bed and approached the gray stranger. No hisses. No swatting. Just quiet. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen.

The days until Christmas passed with Smokey becoming no better and no worse. Somehow, in my heart, I knew he wouldn’t live; and I couldn’t help wondering why I was so instantaneously in love with this gray cat.

It was finally Christmas Eve, a day we usually approach with fever pitch excitement since the mountains of presents are opened Christmas Eve night. This year, though, it was different. It was quiet. Peaceful. More reverent. The way everything had been since Smokey came from the cedars. The lights were plugged in on the tree, hundreds of dainty, white flickerings among the branches of the towering spruce. It seemed to dance with fireflies. Satin bows graced the boughs and a lace-clad angel perched on top. Underneath was the stable with the Christ Child’s manger.

Everyone was there, watching the tree as if it might disappear at any moment. Yet, there was a magic something in the air. I glanced down and there, curled up next to the stable, was Smokey. He’d come from the bedroom on his own. All I saw was his beauty, and I felt so blessed to have him.

Somehow, as soon as I opened my eyes Christmas morning, I knew what waited for me. I walked into the living room and there, still curled next to the stable, was Smokey. I’d left him there the night before because I felt that’s where he wanted to be. He’d died during the night. I cried as I stroked him but, at the same time, I knew he’d been a special gift; and I also knew it might be years before I knew his true meaning….if ever. For the first few moments, I felt the crack that had come to my heart when I first met him begin to widen. Then, just as quickly, it was stopped by the mortar of his magic and mystery.

It was three, maybe four, years later when I stood in the checkout line at the grocery store. I glanced at the rack where all the little pocket books are displayed and saw one on cats. I picked it up and laid it on the counter. Later that night, I read a piece titled “The Gospel Of The Holy Twelve” by Gideon Ousley. In 17 lines, it revealed the story of the birth of Jesus. The last three lines told of an ox, a horse, an ass and a sheep, who were in the cave with Mary, Joseph and the Child. And, it said, beneath the manager was a cat.

Ah, Smokey. Were you that cat?

Now, I make a fire every year on the first, crisp, October afternoon. Then I go outside and watch as the gray smoke floats heavenward, looking for all the world like a gently curling cat’s tail – a gray cat’s tail . My heart grows full, tears gather in my eyes but I smile through them. And I think….

Ah, Smokey. Thank you. Thank you for purring peaceful meaning into Christmas.

Slaughter

(*Warning! This is an extremely hot-button issue and may not be suitable for all readers. Discretion is advised. Also, article is unavoidably long.)

“As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.”

-Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

I’m going to jump right out there and declare my personal life philosophy.

I believe it is morally criminal to inflict needless pain, suffering and terror on any breathing creature, human or animal. And no breathing creature, human or animal, should be sentenced to spend its final days/hours in abject fear. I learned 20-years ago that I can live very well, and very nutritionally, on an abundant variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, grains and very little flesh of any kind.

I realize fully that the majority of the world does not agree with my choices  and that’s fine. It does, however, strengthen my resolve when I read the words of world-famous people who share my view, such as Mr. Tolstoy.

Immanuel Kant (philosopher, 1724-1804) once said, “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

What about horse slaughter? How does it fit into the scheme of things? Where does it rank? Are we able to discuss the subject with objective reason and logic as opposed to emotional overflow? I’m going to try.

The last of the three horse slaughter facilities, located in Illinois, was closed in 2007. Two plants were located in Texas. A resident living in the small Texas town with one of the plants was quoted as saying, “The smell and sounds coming from there were horrible.”

The facilities were closed on a technicality, which was created by the federal government, after funding for inspectors was eliminated. Enter the law of “Unintended Consequences.” Plants in the United States were closed but tens of thousands of horses continued meeting their fates in slaughterhouses. Only the locations changed. Now, horses are crammed into trailers and trucks, some double-decker. Stallions and mares are shoved into the same vehicle. There are even babies. The majority of the horses are absolutely healthy, since they, after all, provide the most, and best, meat. It’s very easy for the healthy ones to trample the few old, sick and injured while “elbowing out” there own piece of still-suffocating space.

These are long, ugly rides with the final destination being the bloody floors at kill houses in Canada and Mexico.

We need to look at facts and work from those points, since this is a situation that should be predicated on one thing….the welfare of the horse.

People in the U.S., with only a few exceptions, do not consume horse meat. But, it will probably surprise most to learn that wasn’t always the case; especially in the 1940s during World War II. Horse meat was eaten. It wasn’t a long-lasting practice and, today, the biggest and most consistent consumers are in Europe and Japan, where it’s considered a tender, sweet-tasting delicacy.

Many pro-slaughter supporters insist the number of horses making that bleak trip to Canada and Mexico was created by the closure of the plants. According to available data, however, this is not true, and if we’re going to arrive at anything that is positive for the horses, we can work only with the truth.

This slaughter argument actually has similarities with the abortion issue and there may never be a one-size-fits-all solution for either one. Regardless of your personal views on abortion, there is one element on which everyone probably agrees. That is: abortion should never be used as a form of “birth control.” The same is true of slaughter.

Many of us won’t own up to it, but by and large, we over-breed horses. The absolutely amazing advances in equine reproductive technology have, in many instances, allowed production to outstrip demand. Does anyone really think all six of those babies out of a Quarter mare in one season will succeed on the track and/or be lucky enough to have a “forever home?” Slaughter, then, becomes our “birth control.” We all are aware that nearly every industry has been adversely affected by the economic downturn prompted by the recession, but there’s a significant difference between the horse business and other industries. In most cases, manufacturing industries will severely curtail production and turn to selling inventory. The breeding industry, because of the way it’s economically structured, can’t (doesn’t) follow the same course.

We throw around the term “unwanted horses” rather loosely. The serious recession and overall tough economic environment a few years ago accounted for more ill-kept horses than the lack of slaughter. Thousands and thousands of people lost their homes during the mortgage meltdown but it wasn’t because those were “unwanted homes.”

There were 90,000 horses slaughtered in the US in 2005. Nearly 20,000 of those were sent, live, to Canada, Mexico and Japan. France alone chewed down on 300,000 horses in 2003. The total horse population in 2005 was 9.2-million. American Horse Council data says 10-percent of the entire population dies of accident/injury, illness or natural causes each year. That 10-percent, then, accounted for 920,000 horses. That’s a lot of decomposing horses or renderings or incenerations or whatever, but there has been no concern voiced regarding the possibility of a negative environmental impact. (The opposite is suggested by some associations and organizations.) Also of interest is that the reported equine abuse cases did not rise in California after the state banned slaughter for human consumption. Horse theft, however, decreased by 34-percent. Horse thieves are much more active when they can make good money on the hoof.

The American Veterinary Association says there is no way to track stolen horses when, indeed, there is at http://www.netposse.com It’s estimated that 40-50,000 are stolen each year. The number seems to rise in direct correlation to the per-pound price.

The Quarter Horse industry prides itself on growing and growing and….. There’s nothing wrong with that, provided that growth is sustained in an appropriate manner. Unfortunately, though, slaughter plant records say 70-percent of all horses positioned in front of the captive bolt gun are Quarters. According to those same records, only 10-percent or less of all slaughter horses are old, sick, injured.

All these issues may become moot points in the final shakedown. The European market is in a constant argument with itself about accepting horses from the US because of the drugs most of them are given during their lifetimes. Statements must be signed attesting that a horse sold for slaughter has not been administered Bute for at least 180-days. We all know how to get around that requirement….just lie. Some countries, however, wised-up and performed their own testing, finding levels of several medications that are not approved in animals for human consumption. The European Commission Food and Veterinary Office found serious violations as recently as 12-months ago. For those of you who prefer to not eat horse meat, be careful since it’s sometimes mixed with beef and sold back to the US.

A huge spending bill (H2112) signed during President Obama’s administration covered several different agencies, including the USDA. Rep. Jim Moran (D) spearheaded an amendment that retained the ban on funding horse slaughter inspectors. The amendment passed but was stripped out at the last minute by just three congressmen. This particular appropriations bill was critical for keeping the government viable. It had to pass and it did. Interestingly, one report states that nowhere in the bill is horse slaughter specifically mentioned. That same report further states that Congress did not allocate new funding for horse meat inspections, thereby passing the estimated cost of $5-million per year to taxpayers.

The European Union has tightened its rules regarding imported horsemeat. The only way to fulfill some of these regulations is to hold horses on a feedlot until they test clear of drugs. This is not economically feasible since it comes close to doubling the price of the horse. Simply put, the United States was never geared to raise horses for human consumption on a broad scale.

The racing industry consistently expresses serious concern over its public image. The over-riding objective seems to say that image will be considerably improved through the elimination of medications/drugs. And, indeed, it will but what about that rotten portion of the image that becomes even worse when horses such as Ferdinand end up on someone’s table?

We can make slaughter plants sound more acceptable by referring to them as “abbatoirs” and we can make the process of bleeding out sound a bit better if we use the term “exsanguination.” In most plants, the captive bolt is used; either the penetrating or non-penetrating form. Use of the penetrating bolt has decreased due to fear of spreading disease. The penetrating bolt is discharged from a gun into the forehead of the horse and then retracted. Since it penetrates, unwanted bacteria/substances is still on the mechanism when it’s used on the next horse, meaning the resulting, tidily shrink-wrapped meat could have contaminants other than drugs. Additionally, a horse’s brain is located towards the back of the skull which means it’s more difficult to penetrate. And, if it is penetrated, it’s nearly impossible to prevent brain matter from clinging to the bolt and contaminating equipment.

The non-penetrating bolt (actually either one) should render the horse unconscious. It is then hoisted by its back leg via a chain and bled out. Unfortunately, the process doesn’t always work as intended and the horse is still very much alive and aware when its throat is slit. A horse is extremely sensitive to its surroundings. It’s aware of death, and terror spreads like wildfire. By the time he reaches the kill chute, his head is likely tossing wildly. Even the best marksman would have a problem. The situation is exacerbated when the non-penetrating bolt is used. A precise aim and hit become imperative. (Information tidbit: the captive bolt pistol was invented in 1903 by Dr. Hugo Heiss, former director of a slaughterhouse in Germany.)

The purpose of the traumatic stunning is to induce unconsciousness before the animal is bled out. The bleeding must be done while the heart is still beating and, hopefully, consciousness does not return prior to the horse drawing its last breath.

The employee turnover in slaughterhouses is, not surprisingly, high. One barely has time to learn his job before he’s gone. The nightmare factor for those employees is, no doubt, intense. Also, all three of the previous plants in the U.S. were owned by foreign entities that made millions of dollars while paying almost nothing in federal taxes to the United States. Not to mention that the properties in the small towns where the plants were located became impossible to develop, resulting in a significant loss of property taxes.

Prevailing conditions are severe.  The overall horse industry is over-breeding, especially the segment engaged in Quarter horse racing. Parts of the country, such as Texas, have been ravaged by wildfires and drought. The monthly cost of feeding a horse is astronomical due to the price of hay. Shelters, animal control facilities and rescue groups say they’re receiving more and more calls.

A few years ago, the world of small animals rallied under a banner that boldly proclaimed “No More Homeless Animals.” I looked at the words and thought, “Who’s spreading that fairy tale.” I am, however, amazed at the strides made toward the realization of that goal. There has been a relentless push for responsible spay and neuter programs. Puppy mills are either being closed or subjected to much stricter oversight.

The situation, however, is decidedly more complex with horses. First, it’ll probably be a very cold day in hell before over-production stops. And, like it or not, slaughter will always be with us. The actual number of horses slaughtered after the plants closed actually did not decrease; they were simply sent elsewhere. And, regardless of what anyone says, slaughter conditions are inhumane; beginning with the holding pens prior to being loaded, to the transport, to the holding pens at the plant ,to the kill chute, to the kill floor. The USDA has provided hundreds of pictures documenting the abuses. So, where we are is changing those conditions from start-to-finish. Consistently humane standards must be initiated, regulated and enforced. No exceptions allowed. One very positive move made by one pro-slaughter group is calling in Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State. I’ve spoken with Dr. Grandin and am familiar with the way she revolutionized many slaughter facilities for the humane benefit of cattle.

We must also plot other solutions and ferret out the possibilities for potential options. For instance:

States might consider funding temporary rescues that include tax revenue-generating jobs and thereby making it easier to find homes for those horses. States might also provide additional funding for sanctuaries and animal control agencies to deal with the problems. One Nevada horsewoman says the county animal control service is responsible for picking up a euthanized horse at no charge.

There could be low-cost euthanasia available, not much different from the low-cost spay/neuter clinics for small animals.

Groups of sanctuaries have voiced solid suggestions, including the creation of state and regional training centers and networks, where young, healthy horses (who make up more than 90-percent of the slaughter population) are trained for productive lives; support for the growing network of sanctuary operators who connect with one another for horse placement; develop and expand existing networks of foster homes.

The Oklahoma Racing Commission has approved a rule to designate $100,000 per year from the breeder’s incentive fund to help care for retired racehorses. Frank Stronach has formed an after-care program to find homes for retired Thoroughbreds.

There’s the possibility of government-funded, strategically located euthanasia facilities. It’s not necessary to staff them with vets. Well-trained techs will suffice. Charge $25 or $50, just enough to defray some of the costs.

Whatever we do….slaughter….other options….or a combination….the focus is on the welfare of the horse. How far back in development would this country be if we’d been unable to do so much of our early building through the willing labor of the horse? We throw disposable razors, diapers and contact lenses into the trash every day. We must stop extending that unthinking process to the horse. We cannot make movies such as Seabiscuit, Secretariat and War Horse that show people the dignity and majesty of the horse and, then, turn around and tell those same people how we inhumanely slaughter 150,000 or more per year. That makes no sense to those people. We can’t flash smiles at them, slap them on their backs and say, “Hey, come to the races tonight” and expect them to understand how one-third of the horses they watch fly down the track will, ultimately, be brutalized.

Abraham Lincoln said, “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”

Don’t care for Lincoln?

How about Albert Enstein who said, “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinance is from injury to animals.”

Have a bone to pick with Enstein?

Then try Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, “Not to hurt our humble brethren (the animals) is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission – to be of service to them whenever they require it…If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

Well said, Francis. Whatever we do….slaughter….other options….or a combination, we’ll hopefully remember that we have a higher mission.