HARRINGTON, Del. -- As trailer after trailer loaded up wild, western horses yesterday, 13-year-old Cathy Louden was just browsing, longing for the day when she can adopt her own horse.
But the Elkridge girl might never get that chance. The federal Adopt-a-Wild Horse & Burro program -- after 24 years of quietly finding homes for 165,000 animals -- is at the center of a controversy.
Program officials, horse advocates and various news reports disagree on the details. But over the years, thousands of the adopted horses have gone not to loving homes but to slaughterhouses -- and eventually to Japan or Europe for human consumption.
The program also is heavily subsidized. The federal government collects an adoption fee of $125 -- far below its cost of $2,000 per horse. Because a slaughterhouse will pay about $700 for an adult horse, an unscrupulous adopter can profit at taxpayer expense.
The Bureau of Land Management, which administers the program, says news reports of the practice were overblown and outdated. The problem, they say, was also largely confined to western states, where there are fewer legitimate adopters and more slaughterhouses.
But the bad publicity is threatening the entire program, including the occasional adoptions at places such as the Delaware State Fairground in Harrington.
There is talk in Congress of cutting the program's $16 million annual budget nearly in half, say program officials. That might end the annual adoptions in Harrington.
"If they cut our funding in half, to me there's just no way we can handle the program," said Hord Tipton, director of Eastern states for the Bureau of Land Management. "These adoptions, they're critical to keeping the populations down."
Yesterday, 75 wild horses -- which just a month ago were scrounging for food on fragile western rangelands -- got new homes. About 8,000 horses are adopted through the program each year.
The adopters in Harrington yesterday were a mix of stable owners, hobbyists and would-be cowboys. Several had for years adopted horses through the federal program and reacted angrily to news that it might face cuts.
"I think it's a good program," said Ed Dechaine of Greensboro, who last year adopted a mare that later gave birth. "A lot of people enjoy these horses."
Despite the threat to the program, the mood was festive yesterday as the crowd watched horses eat and play in their pens. Every few minutes, a pair of wranglers used whips to maneuver a horse -- wild-eyed, stomping with fright -- toward a waiting trailer.
"I think it's a fine thing," said Tennessee wrangler Robert Adcox, "because it gets a lot of homes for these horses that otherwise wouldn't have homes."
News of the trouble has moved supporters of the program to rally on its behalf. In between gazing at the horses, adopters yesterday talked about the threat to a program they cherish.
Cathy Louden, who wants to train race horses when she grows up, organized a party and bake sale that raised $45 to help protect the program and its horses. "There's too many horses out in the wild," she said. "Most of them, if they don't get brought in, they'll die."
Some horse advocates dispute that, saying that the Bureau of Land Management -- bowing to pressure from politically connected cattle ranchers -- is cutting the herds of wild horses too thin. Marc Paulhus, director of horse protection for the Humane Society of the United States, says 165,000 wild horses were on western lands when the program began in 1973, compared to 42,000 now.
Bureau of Land Management officials say they want to cut the herd to 25,000 -- a number horse advocates say could hurt the viability of some herds.
But Paulhus and other critics -- while quick to accuse the program of shortcomings such as lax adoption procedures -- defend its existence as a humane means of population control.
"The program in general is a good one," said Robin Lohnes, executive director of the American Horse Protection Association in Washington. "The problem has been a lack of enforcement."
Program officials disagree. They say only a small percentage of the thousands of horses adopted each year end up in slaughterhouses.
In the Eastern states, applicants for adoption must describe -- and draw -- their corrals. They must also sign a contract accepting the program's rules.
After adoption, the federal government keeps title to the animals for a year. During that time, program officials say, they visit up to 40 percent of the adopters. All complaints are investigated.
"If we know the animal is going to go to slaughter, we don't [transfer] the title," said Art DiGrazia, a program supervisor. "But after we title, there's nothing we can do."
The nearest slaughterhouse -- only four are left in the country -- is in Illinois.
So, if slaughterhouses are rigorous about taking only horses with titles, then the one-year waiting period should make it unprofitable to adopt a horse in Delaware with the intention of later selling it for slaughter. Program officials say they have stepped up monitoring at slaughterhouses.
"Most of the horses that end up going to slaughter are acquired by well-meaning people who don't know a thing about horses," said Paulhus, of the Humane Society. "If the right people get the horses, they keep them."
Pub Date: 9/21/97