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From the open range to slaughter

January 4, 1997 GMT

THREE FINGERS GULCH, Ore. (AP) _ You see them first.

A flowing line of horses gallops over the ridge. Behind them comes the helicopter, swooping down to five feet above the ground, banking side to side to keep the Three Fingers herd in a group.

This is the beginning of the end for these wild horses. It is their misfortune to be federally protected, deemed ``living symbols of the American West″ by Congress 25 years ago.

Most of them are destined to be served in restaurants in Europe and Asia.


We hear them coming.

Clattering hooves. Whinnies of mares to their colts. Snorts and grunts. The helicopter roaring through the draw behind them.

After 10 miles of running, the horses slow. Their heads sag.

``We try to bring them at their own pace and not push them,″ whispers BLM contract inspector Rod Coleman, crouching behind a bush.

Hidden are about a dozen wranglers, paid about $300 by contract for each horse they catch, and BLM staffers, paid to observe.

``Oh man, there’s a lot of horses. Try to not move and try to keep real low,″ whispers Coleman. ``Don’t talk now at all.″

The herd nears the Judas horse _ the horse trained to entice them into captivity. Prompted by a slap, the Judas horse bolts into the open gates of the trap, leading the herd. A hidden wrangler pulls a latch and the gate slams shut.

Now we smell them.

Sage brush and steaming horses in crisp high desert air. The horses turn toward the gate and spin around, hunting for an opening. Their eyes roll back in their heads. A stallion bares its teeth and chomps on another stallion’s neck. A foal leans tight against a mare. Some are gray, most are black, there are a few roans.

``You can’t anthropomorphize with these,″ says Jonne Hower, a public information officer with the BLM. ``We really can’t know what they’re feeling. This is all about good resource management.″

The wranglers prod the horses into a trailer with ``hot shots″ _ electric rods _ and frighten them in with ``wild rags″ _ stock whips with noisy plastic bags tied on the end.

Frightened by the closeness, the horses scramble and smack against the cold metal siding. Then they jump at the noise they are making.

Within half an hour, the trailer clatters off to an adoption center.



At the Palomino Valley Adoption and Placement Center in Reno, Nev., horses and burros are separated by gender and age.

They dash and snort from corner to corner, clustering together. Humans spook them. Wind spooks them. They spook each other.

The animals will live here at least 30 days. Stallions are gelded, treated for worms and vaccinated. They all receive freeze brands on their necks, numbers cauterized into their hides with liquid nitrogen.

Horses can be adopted at placement centers or at regional centers. Some are adopted locally. Most are trucked across the country to the East, where more than half of wild horses are adopted.

Eventually, many end up at livestock auctions.

Horse day is usually Wednesday at livestock auctions across the country.

Shane Christian works the Wyoming auctions. He’s known as a ``killer buyer,″ meaning he buys for the slaughterhouses.

He also buys BLM horses _ ``more than I’d like to,″ he says.

``They’re smallish, you know, and the meat isn’t worth much. Slaughterhouses give us less per pound for most wilds to try to discourage us, because it’s more work and less meat for them,″ he says.


``La viande de cheval, les fines bouches, n’en font qu’une bouchee,″ (``Horse meat, the finest cuts, you can’t have just one bite,″) reads a poster at the Cavel West slaughterhouse in Redmond, Ore. It depicts a juicy hunk of horse meat on a fork heading toward a pair of women’s lips.

Killer buyers arrive at Cavel West regularly with loads of horses packed in trailers.

``You get the idea why they are here, ya?″ says Pascal Derde, a veterinarian from Kalken, Belgium who manages the place. ``This one, hoo, this paint is wild, it’s crazy. That pony, it’s ancient. And this black, he has a bad leg.″

As if he understood, the black horse turns and stares at Derde. Then the horse blows loudly and stomps a hoof on the metal floor.

After they’re weighed, the horses are moved into muddy pens where they will spend hours, and in some cases weeks, eating hay and standing around. Some die in the pens but most make it to the slaughterhouse.

The ramp in is narrow and steep. Inside, in a chute about the size of two refrigerators, the horse is shot in the forehead with a special gun. A moment later the horse is bled by workers wearing white coveralls and rubber boots.

Horse carcasses, dangling on hooks, are rolled into the Boning Room where about 10 workers wielding knives and knife sharpeners and wearing metal waist and wrist shields, cut them into package-able chunks.

``If you’re not used to these views it can be a little shocking,″ Derde says.

Fat is trimmed and tossed away, although Derde says that in Europe it would be converted into cooking oil for deep fryers. The dark red meat is sealed in plastic bags, trucked to Chicago and flown to Europe.

He points to a rack of hanging meat. Among the batch is a BLM horse that arrived with a load four days ago.

It’s starting to snow. Derde pulls up the collar of his denim jacket. He says objections in the United States to slaughtering horses are simply ``a cultural difference.″ And he says there’s nothing else to do with the horses he sees.

``These have no other use, ya?″ he says.