Q I know you are small-animal practitioners, but I thought you might be able to help me. We purchased a horse some years back for the children to ride. She is a sweet horse, but has had problems with her teeth and her feet and now really cannot be ridden. We would love to find her a nice home to retire to, maybe a kids' camp or something. What do you suggest?
A: This touches on a subject that is very near to my (Dr. Henri Bianucci's) heart, as this situation reflects one that my family is currently in. We are the caretakers of our children's two aged ponies, Ginny and Chief, who have outlived their rideable years. What do we do when the benefits we derive from our animals run out? When, by no fault of their own, they no longer fit into our lives?
There are basically three categories of owned animals: pets, producers (of food or fur) and service/performance animals.
As sad, or offensive, as it may sound, the second category is probably the most honest relationship of the three. Yes, there may be some deceptive marketing that depicts happy chickens laying eggs or dairy cows on a small family dairy farm, but the reality is more often a large, mechanized production facility. However, there are no illusions about the role of the participants. The beef cows aren't regarded as parts of the family.
From a distance, the service/performance and pet animals differ in their relationships with us. Pets are kept solely for our pleasure, while service animals have a job to do. Where these relationships do not differ is that they are both founded upon the animal fulfilling a need of the human. So as needs or the animal's ability to fulfill them change, the relationship is redefined.
There are some shocking examples of this. In the Vietnam War, service dogs that served as sentries and on patrol were credited with saving countless lives. After the war, in a U.S. military policy of forced abandonment, more than 1,000 German Shepherd war veterans were left behind.
In 1986, Ferdinand was all the rage in the horseracing world. He won the Catalina and Malibu Stakes. He then won the Kentucky Derby. In 1987, he was named Horse of the Year. A stallion, he went to stud in 1989. It is reported that in 2002 he was sent to Japan and slaughtered.
Fortunately, as a society we are waking up. The dog handlers from Vietnam were so disturbed by the abandonment of their dogs that they worked to prevent this from happening again. Now, the military leaves no dogs behind.
In 2006, the New York Owners and Breeders Association established a voluntary fee called the “Ferdinand Fee.” It helps fund racehorse retirement and rescue groups. When horses are sent to breeding facilities, many owners have buyback clauses to prevent them from winding up in slaughterhouses. Such an arrangement is in place for 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, who is in Japan.
These changes reflect an evolution in how we, as a society, regard our duties as animal owners. It acknowledges that our responsibility for them goes beyond the point when they are no longer useful or convenient to us.
As for your horse, it is very difficult to place one and be assured of its care and welfare in the years ahead. So do your homework and follow up regularly on the horse's condition, and agree that you will help relocate the horse if things don't work out.
I'm not saying one should keep an animal at all costs. If someone finds themselves physically, temporally, financially, emotionally or otherwise unable to provide good care, they should not have an animal.
But it is absolutely incumbent upon them to find a better alternative.
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.