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Number of abandoned horses increasing in New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP)--The old mare wandered through shadeless, waterless Valencia County until she was just leather around bones, weak teeth in a drooping head--left to fend for herself among the mesa's scrub by owners unable, or unwilling, to care for her.

After she was rescued in August 2008 and taken to Bomar Equine Rescue in Belen, the horse named Grace regained some of the 500 pounds she was underweight. Grace, estimated to be about 30, lived peacefully until she died of a stroke in December, rescue director Marguerite Bowers said.

With expensive care, even more expensive euthanasia and a national ban on horse slaughter--the most common means in the past of unloading unwanted horses--the number of owners abandoning horses like Grace to the New Mexico desert is increasing.

Now a group of animal rights activists is working to get a bill through the Legislature that would establish a permanent fund to help subsidize equine euthanasia and provide grants to licensed horse shelters to help with renovations and upkeep.

"We would like to see the situation for horses improving," said Heather Ferguson, legislative director for Animal Protection of New Mexico. "But in no means do we intend to house and shelter all the unwanted horses. That simply is not a viable solution."

The state's six licensed equine shelters are near capacity, though some report extra open space thanks to a recent increase in adoptions. Those not at physical capacity are at financial capacity.

"Basically the horse rescues are full," leaving people with few options, said New Mexico Horse Council president Rusty Cook.

The number of emergency calls to the New Mexico Livestock Board tripled from 41 in 2007 to more than 134 in 2008, board Executive Director Myles Culbertson said.

"Almost all have to do with abandonment and malnutrition," Culbertson said. "It is going to become a burgeoning problem. New Mexico and the West, they are all having the same problem."

Groups in California and Illinois already offer low-cost euthanasia for horses, a procedure that at full price costs between $300 and $600. Some of the money in the proposed New Mexico fund would go to veterinarians offering similar programs, said Ferguson.

Heather Zorn of Desert Sky Ranch in Belen said she would love to house every elderly and unwanted horse--but she's out of space and money. She estimates it costs a minimum of $300 a month to care for each horse.

And calls for help keep coming.

Six months ago, she'd get a call a day from someone looking for a place to take an unwanted horse, Zorn said. Now, she said, she's getting three calls a day.

"The owners go from pleading to irate to you better come pick up my horse or I'm going to kill it," Zorn said. "There have been a few cases when I've called the vet and told them to go euthanize a horse."

Then she's covered the vet's bill.

If the proposed state fund would subsidize euthanasia and body disposal costs and would be fairly distributed, she would fully support it, she said.

"How would you rather die?" Zorn said. "Would you rather be eaten by coyotes and starve to death or would you rather go in a humane, professional way?"

The horse fund bill is HB781



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