The summer drought that dried up America's heartland is being blamed for another growing crisis. Neglected and starving horses are being abandoned across Kansas and Missouri by owners who can no longer afford to keep them.
Linn County, KS rancher Ken Baugh stands in a small pen, slowly stroking the side of a visibly damaged and skittish horse.
"She's just the size of a sugar cube," Baugh said. "I just call her Sugar."
Eight days before meeting with a KCTV5 news crew, Sugar was in a world of hurt. The filly was discovered walking along a rural Linn County Highway, searching for food. Besides the obvious signs of malnourishment, the young horse had suffered another cruel injury. Sugar's halter, apparently unchanged her entire life, had grown into her face.
The rescue call came in to Linn County Sheriff, Barry Walker's office.
"(They) asked if we would pay the bill. I said ‘Sure if that's what we need to do. Treat her like she should be treated,'" Walker said.
The sheriff turned the animal over to Baugh who, with the help of a local veterinarian, cut the halter out of the horse's face. Then, they waited see if Sugar had the strength to survive.
"She was in the shape that 99 out of 100 people would have checked the euthanize box," Baugh said.
With 40 years of experience taking care of horses, Baugh is calling Sugar's recovery a miracle.
"(We'll) find her a good home," Baugh said.
"I think we will," Walker agreed. "Got them standing in line."
While Sugar seems to be on her way to a happy ending, Baugh and Walker both worry about the large number of abandoned horses they'll meet this winter.
The drought dried up the fertile pastures where horses normally graze and stunted the growth of commercial hay crops. The shortage has led to a huge spike in the price of hay and other feeds.
It's a scenario causing concern for Tina Weidmaier, president of the "Changing Leads Equine Rescue" in the Northland.
"I'm afraid, people aren't going to make it through the winter with the hay supply out there," she said.
Weidmaier's rescue operation, which only has room for eight horses, is already filled to capacity. That hasn't stopped the requests from cash-strapped owners looking for a way out.
"People are desperate," Weidmaier said. "We are getting a lot of emails a week. We can only help the ones we can."
In Northeast Missouri, the animals that don't get help could be treated by Monica Otto. The Monroe City veterinarian told KCTV5 about the unfortunate end to one recent rescue operation.
"We took those four horses," Otto said. "One of those died the next day because she was in bad shape. She wasn't euthanized. She just didn't make it. She didn't have enough strength to make it any longer."
It's a disturbing memory Otto can't seem to shake.
"It wasn't that they were old and decrepit, they just needed more food," Otto added. "It's just sad."
While neglected horses are nothing new to Dr. Otto, she's concerned about the growing number of cases.
"People who shouldn't have horses have been picking them up for nothing or a steal," Otto said, "hoping the horse market comes back up and they'll make money. That's their thought process."
When that plan fails, Sheriff Walker says some horse owners feel like abandonment is their only option. That wasn't the case, he says, when the horse slaughter industry still had a foot hold in the area.
"You didn't see this stuff," Walker said, "with horses with their ribs sticking out. If they got to where they couldn't feed them or afford to keep them, they took them to the rendering place," Walker said.
Unified Equine Missouri announced plans earlier this year to open a facility in the town of Rockville, MO. An existing USDA inspected meat facility, closed for at least two years, was being retrofitted to make the switch from cattle to horses.
Rockville is located about 100 miles south of Kansas City, in eastern Bates County. The plant would be the first horse processing facility in the United States since Congress restored funding for inspections.
Sue Wallis, CEO, Unified Equine, LLC did not return KCTV5's numerous messages for comment.
Until that situation changes, Walker is confident the pen at Baugh's Linn County ranch won't stay empty for long.
"Someone else will call," Walker said. "There will be another one that will need a little help."
Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
Tuesday, September 16 2014 3:01 PM EDT2014-09-16 19:01:19 GMT
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