Dr. James Holt of Brandywine Veterinary Services prepares to draw blood for a Coggins test on a horse scheduled to go through the New Holland Auction.
What’s it like to be the veterinarian on duty at the New Holland Sales Stables? “I’ve had death threats, my office has been broken into, I’ve had my tires slashed,” says Dr. James Holt, of Brandywine Veterinary Services. Clearly there’s not a James Herriot vibe here. The beloved veterinarian in the classic book All Creatures Great and Small would not recognize this level of hostility. Holt, however, is practicing in a vastly different venue. As he reflects on the disturbing threats from people who are supposedly acting out of compassion for the animals that are at the sales barn, he is philosophical. “You pick your road and keep going,” he says.
The New Holland Sales Stables, home of the largest livestock auction east of the Mississippi River, is a raucous mix of commerce, animals and often profoundly disparate perceptions of what is best for the thousands of animals that pass through the vast facility on a weekly basis. Emotions can run pretty hot. There is no shortage of critics of the auction, of the so-called kill buyers who purchase horses for the abattoirs in Canada, and of the people who are presumed to be responsible for the health and well-being of the animals that are for sale.
The auction has been targeted by equine rescue groups and animal welfare activists for years, largely because many of the horses wind up being sold to the meat buyers who haul the horses to Canada for slaughter. Additionally, the activists have frequently reported that there are horses in the sales lot that are underweight, sick, and unable to bear weight on all four legs. There is no law prohibiting the sale of horses to the meat buyers, but activists and bloggers have complained that Holt and others who are supposed to look out for the welfare of animals are not doing enough.
Where Law Falls Short, Standards Are Applied
Holt has worked for New Holland for 15 years—12 years with the horse sales. On a recent Monday morning, he fielded questions from prospective buyers and sellers as he drew blood for Coggins tests, examined horses and wrestled with one feisty mini horse in an effort to determine whether or not it was a gelding. He’s assisted by his wife, Amber Holt, and Lori Eberly, who completes the paperwork for the blood tests, and help Holt locate horses he still needs to examine. “Sometimes it’s like a scavenger hunt,” Amber Holt explains, as her husband races ahead through aisles crowded with horses and people.
Holt is not defensive or argumentative when asked about reports from activists who say that they’ve seen horses at the New Holland stables that are too sick or thin or injured to be sold. He says he pulls one or two horses out of the sale every week.
“Pennsylvania law says you can’t sell a horse that can’t be worked or used,” Holt explains. “But the law doesn’t define what that means.” It is a complicated issue, as Pennsylvania’s cruelty statute seems almost deliberately vague when it comes to the treatment of horses and cattle.
The statute details the many instances in which an individual could be charged with cruelty: “A person commits a summary offense if he wantonly or cruelly illtreats, overloads, beats, otherwise abuses any animal, or neglects any animal as to which he has a duty of care, whether belonging to himself or otherwise, or abandons any animal, or deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, drink, shelter or veterinary care, or access to clean and sanitary shelter which will protect the animal against inclement weather and preserve the animal's body heat and keep it dry.” The last sentence in this part of the law, however, reveals the ambiguity that people in Holt’s position negotiate daily. “This subsection shall not apply to activity undertaken in normal agricultural operation.”
In the face of the law’s lack of clarity, Holt says that he applies his own set of standards to the horses at the sales stable:
• They can’t be blind in both eyes. They can be blind in one eye, but not both;
• They have to have a Henneke score of three or more;
• They must be able to effectively bear weight on all four legs at the walk, and turn in both directions;
• They can’t have any bleeding wounds;
• They can’t have evidence of other debilitating conditions.
What is Best for the Horses?
Holt says that anywhere from 200 to 400 horses go through the auction every week. Holt says that about 20 per cent of the horses wind up going to the abattoirs in Canada. The stables are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s an extremely busy place, and although Holt is the lone veterinarian on duty, his are not the only eyes looking out for the animals. “There are both state and federal inspectors here almost on a daily basis. Six to seven thousand head of animals pass through the sales barn every week.”
When horses arrive in poor condition, it’s not always easy to figure out the best course of action, Holt says, because often the owners of the horses are not present. “I’ve struggled with reporting people, but that would limit my ability to help the horses. It’s not clear cut who created the situation that presents itself here.” When horses arrive at the auction, they have a chance to be cared for. “The thing that is difficult about this situation is that if people bring horses here and are reported, my ability to help a horse is limited if people get in trouble.” He says that there are consequences to not being able to identify horses in trouble and to help them. The worst consequences would be borne by the horses that suffer abuse and neglect, hidden from view. Holt believes that reporting the owners of horses that arrive at the auction in poor condition might discourage other horse owners from sending horses that are in questionable condition. The result, he thinks, might be that horses he may have had the opportunity to treat, to remove from the auction, to turn over to LAPS or other rescue groups, would instead be left suffering beyond the reach of anyone who could help them.
He worries that people who abuse or neglect their horses may just abandon them rather than take a chance on sending them to the auction. Haulers often bring loads of horses to New Holland from as far away as Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. Holt says that when a horse fails to meet the standards for going through the auction, he tries to contact the owners. “We work with the Large Animal Protection Society (LAPS), and they take some of the animals if the owner relinquishes custody.”
Sometimes, though, there’s no time to wait for permission from the horse’s owner. Holt says that recently a horse got spooked by a truck as he was being led from the blacksmith. “The horse ran down toward the parking lot, slipped and hit a curb with his leg.” Holt says that there was nothing to do but euthanize the horse.
A Mini and a Pick-up Truck and the Perfect Paint
As heart-breaking as the plights of horses can be, Holt says there are often events that just leave him wondering. “Last week someone bought a mini pony and decided to transport it in the back of an open pickup truck.” Holt says he went outside and told the guy he couldn’t do that. An argument ensued and Holt called the police. The police officer also told the guy not to try to ship the mini in the pick-up truck. “It turns out,” Holt says “there’s no law against shipping a mini in the back of a pick-up.” But Holt insisted on keeping the mini at the sales barn until proper transportation could be arranged. “The next day the mini was gone,” he says. “Who knows how or where it was shipped?”
As he made his rounds through the sales barn recently, he stopped to examine a beautiful young paint. “I’m looking for a paint like the one the Cisco Kid rode,” an elderly man said. “But that one’s too tall.” Holt stops, confused. “Who’s the Cisco Kid?” The man doesn’t bother to explain, but says that he already has one paint that is perfect and is looking for another, shorter version of the paint Holt is examining.
Holt is moving quickly through the list of horses he needs to examine, as the auction is set to begin shortly. But he pauses to talk to the man about the paint. It’s clear that they are not on the same page—they’re not even reading the same book—separated as they are by years, cultural touchstones and points of view.
A Tide of Horses
If Holt’s estimate is correct, and 20 per cent of the horses that come through the sales barn wind up in the abattoirs, what happens to the rest of the horses? Many are purchased by people who are looking for horses for themselves, their children or their equestrian program. But it’s also clear that rescue groups purchase a lot of the horses—and that doesn’t always mean the horses are finally safe. Troubles persist for many rescue groups, both with finances and ongoing legal issues.
The number of horses that are no longer suitable for racing, competing or showing continues to rise. These horses wind up in a precarious limbo in which there are few protections. There are not enough resources to care for a rising population of horses that have no homes, no jobs, and no apparent futures. It’s disheartening to contemplate these horses and their situations, and equally disheartening to hear of the threats of violence against the veterinarian who represents one opportunity to provide help to horses that are in trouble.