A domestic horse found loose in Nevada with the brand cut out of its hide is drawing outrage from equine advocates concerned about the growing number of horses abandoned in the wild.
Humane Society officials believe the brand was removed so the 2 1/2-year-old mare couldn't be traced to its owner, representing one of the worst cases of abuse involving an abandoned domestic horse in the country.
The animal was found last week near Round Mountain, a remote mining community about 230 miles southeast of Reno. Its brand — which functions like a car's license plate — was removed in a 6-by-8-inch patch from its left hip.
The horse is expected to recover and will be transported Saturday to a sanctuary in California operated by the horse advocacy group Return to Freedom.
The case is under investigation by the Nevada agriculture department, which so far has one potential lead on the horse's owner, spokesman Ed Foster said. He didn't elaborate.
'As cruel as it gets'
Idaho state Brand Commissioner Larry Hayhurst said he'd never heard of a brand being removed from a live horse.
"That's about as cruel as it gets," he said. "Get yourself a tattoo and cut it off, and it would be the same thing. It's like skinning you alive."
The case has outraged animal-protection groups and prompted the Humane Society of the United States to offer a $2,500 reward for information leading to a conviction.
"We need to send a strong message that this sort of abuse won't be tolerated," said Stacy Segal, Humane Society equine protection specialist.
While no group keeps track of how many horses have been abandoned nationwide, some Western states have reported a surge in the problem. Experts attribute the increase to the faltering economy, saying it's forcing some horse owners to choose between feeding their families and their horses.
Nevada agriculture officials have picked up more than 100 domestic horses from the range this year, including 90 in the past three months, Foster said. That's up from a previous high of 63 last year and 12 the year before.
Abandoned horses on rise
Wyoming Brand Commissioner Lee Romsa said his state has handled more than 100 such cases this year, up from 50 last year and an average of six to eight cases before that.
Foster said some owners think their horses will be fine in the wild, but that's not the case. Domestic horses are rejected by wild herds and usually die after being unable to find water and forage.
In Idaho, Hayhurst said he's dealt with about 70 abandoned horse cases over the past year, compared with the usual handful. He said another factor is the ban on horse slaughterhouses in the U.S.
"Unfortunately, slaughterhouses are a necessary evil," Hayhurst said. "Without being able to ship a horse to a slaughterhouse, people turn them loose."
The Humane Society opposes horse slaughter and encourages other options such as leasing a horse or giving it to one of the more than 500 equine rescue facilities in the U.S., Segal said.
"Euthanasia is far more preferable to mistreating a horse by releasing it into the wild," she said.