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Animal advocates demand halt in state wild horse sales

WASHINGTON - Animal rights advocates on Friday demanded Interior Secretary Gale Norton put a stop to wild horse sales until the government writes new rules to protect them from being slaughtered.

A West Virginia lawmaker said the destruction of six horses this week would ring a "wake up call" for Congress to re-examine a law it passed last year relaxing sales of the animals.

Government officials and wild horse groups stepped up investigations Friday following the disclosure that the horses had been bought on April 15 and resold to a meat plant in DeKalb, Ill., three days later.

The horses were the first to be reported slaughtered since Congress late last year relaxed a 34-year old ban on the slaughter of horses sold or offered for adoption by the Bureau of Land Management.

The initial buyer was identified Friday by horse advocate groups as Dustin Herbert of Meeker, Okla. Two government sources confirmed Herbert as the purchaser.

Attempts to contact Herbert at his home were unsuccessful. A phone message said his answering machine had been turned off.

The slaughter was reported to the BLM on Tuesday by a federal inspector working at Caval International, a meat packing plant in DeKalb, Ill., where the animals had been resold, agency spokeswoman Celia Boddington said.

"We have been diligent and sincere in our efforts to find good homes offering long-term care for these horses," BLM Director Kathleen Clarke said in a statement. "However, we have no control over the horses after they're sold."

The BLM said it has sold and delivered 992 wild horses since March. Another 950 have been sold pending delivery. The transactions are under a new program that removes sales restrictions on animals that are more than 10 years old or that have been offered for adoption three times without takers.

BLM officials maintain the Oklahoma buyer misrepresented himself in the transaction but there is no legal recourse against him. The buyer said the horses would be used in a troubled youth program, they said.

Citing their own sources, animal rights activists said that Herbert purchased six horses from a BLM holding facility in Canyon City, Colo., and sold them directly to the slaughter plant.

Government officials later confirmed the location of the holding facility but could not say whether the animals were sold directly or through a middle person.

The horses had been captured on public lands in Wyoming, but no other details on them were available. About half the 36,000 wild horses that roam the West are in Nevada.

"The Canyon City facility is one of the best. If it can happen from one of the best, it can happen anywhere," said Nancy Perry, government affairs director at the Humane Society of the United States.

"This guy certainly turned the horses around very quickly so it sounds like he had the intention to slaughter them all along," said Chris Heyde, policy analyst for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation.

Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Kt., and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., sent Norton a letter Friday demanding that the BLM craft public regulations for horse sales.

BLM officials have said it was not necessary to write such rules.

"Our directive from Congress is to sell the horses, period," Boddington said.

Rahall and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., introduced a bill earlier this year to repeal the law that authorized the new sales. It has attracted little support and has not been scheduled for hearings.

"What has transpired here is a wake up call to the Congress," Rahall said in a statement.

Animal rights groups suggested the government could sue Herbert for fraud if he signed a BLM bill of sale stating the purchasers "intend and desire to provide humane care to the wild horse(s) and/or burros."

But Boddington said the BLM couldn't sue a buyer for slaughtering a horse because the animals are considered private property once the sale is completed.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the slaughter of the six horses an "extremely regrettable exception." He blamed the buyer for misleading the BLM.

"I am saddened that the individual who bought these animals under false pretenses did what he did," Reid said in a statement. "He lied to the BLM and betrayed the confidence of the American people."

Reid said wild horse advocates should be given a larger role in caring for wild horses and finding good homes from them.

The Senate last week approved legislation by Reid and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., which earmarked $5 million for a privately run horse center in Northern Nevada

"Nobody wants to see wild horses and burros sold to slaughter and the best way to prevent that is to reform the BLM's wild horse and burro adoption program," Reid said.

Ensign was not available for comment. An aide said Ensign planned to introduce legislation next month banning the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

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