Godfather’s Princess had lived a long life — 27 years — when she fell ill last October.

“When they reach a certain age, sometimes you opt for surgery, but sometimes the outcome is not good,” says Sue Fleczok of Simi Valley.

Fleczok had owned the precious paint mare since the horse was just 3 years old, a member of the family who grew up alongside generations of children and grandchildren. “Most horse people want to hang onto their horses as long as possible,” she said. But it got to the point when euthanasia became the only sound alternative.

“It was a decision I had to make, spur of the moment, because she was suffering,” Fleczok said. “It was like losing one of my kids.”

Fleczok’s scenario can be commonplace for horse owners and equine enthusiasts. As with any animal companion, euthanasia is sometimes the road reluctantly traveled down when old age and sickness set in.

Yet, as Americans weather the storm that is the current economic climate in the U.S., many people are seeking to find ways to conserve money. It seems that euthanasia has been fast becoming a consideration for people with pets that are young and in perfectly good health, yet who have become too expensive to care for.

Statistics from the Ventura County Animal Regulation Department show that from 2007 to 2008, 2,109 dogs were euthanized — 582 more than the previous year — as were 2,479 cats, 322 more than the year prior. Yet it’s not just the putting down of dogs and cats that remains on the rise.

According to Roberta Warne of Dignified Dead Animal Disposal (D.D.A.D.) in Moorpark, an organization that arranges the removal of domestic animals after they’ve passed away, she’s seen an increase of about 10 to 15 horse euthanasia cases a month since the New Year.

“People get scared and they know they have to cut back,” Warne says. “Horses are a luxury, and luxuries are the first things to go.”

“Some people nowadays, with the economy the way it is, it’s a tough decision,” Fleczok, president of the Greater Los Angeles Paint Mare Club, says. “It’s becoming more of the topic of conversation. You hear of abandoned horses or ones they’re giving away because you can’t afford them. You try to place them if you can.”

The scenario recalls one of the most recent crimes against animals in the past year, when last October three people were arrested for felony horse abuse at Ojai’s Lockwood Valley Ranch. Fifty-two horses were handed over to animal regulation, where they’ve taken up most of the room at the department’s two shelters in Camarillo and Ojai.

It presents a major problem for Kathy Jenks, animal regulation director, because she has no room to receive otherwise healthy horses that people are looking to turn over.

“For many years, people have a horse, you ride it, you show it, and they retire it and let them live out their lives,” she says. But now, “We’re seeing people actually turn in ridable, good horses they just can’t afford anymore. We get calls probably every day.”

So does Cindy Murphree, who heads the California Coastal Rescue horse shelter in Ojai. According to Murphree, the shelter historically has received about two phone calls a week from people seeking to relinquish their animals. Today, it’s inundated with requests.

“We are overloaded,” she said. “I get between two to 20 horses every day that need help we have to turn away. We can’t take them in.”

According to local zoning codes, the shelter is allowed up to 19 horses on its nine-acre property. Maxed out, it has 25 now, with some smaller-sized horses, grouped together, accounting for one animal.

Yet it’s not just the lack of room available at the shelter; even volunteer caregivers are not immune to a bad economy.

“A lot of people where the economic situation is hard can’t afford it,” Murphree said. “It’s hard for us to do it.”

A year and a half ago, she said, it cost the shelter about $60 a month to care for one horse. But since then, that price, taking into account the cost of feed, supplies and veterinary care, has almost tripled to $160.

Even if space allowed, the shelter’s hands are tied. Murphree said the only feasible way to provide for such an influx of horses would be to accept ones that could guarantee a quick turnover for adoption. But with more people opting to give up their horses, potential adopters seem unlikely.

As a result, the shelter finds itself in a position of offering euthanasia as an option when it normally doesn’t.

“I tell them it’s kinder to the horse to put them down,” Murphree notes. “It’ll wind up going to slaughter or have a rough life. I’ve never had to tell people in the past you’d be better off putting that horse down. Now I tell that to people. It’s a hard call and I don’t like being forced to do that. But we don’t have a lot of choice sometimes.”

Still, the prospect of putting one’s horse down can be financially, as well as emotionally, taxing. Kevin Smith, a Ventura equine veterinarian, says euthanasia by injection can cost up to $200; for disposal of the body, at least another $275. It can place horse owners in a binding situation.

“It’s expensive,” says Jenks of county animal regulation. “People can’t afford to feed them but they can’t afford to put them to sleep. If they could afford it, they could afford to buy hay.”

As such, most financially unstable horse owners are faced with the lesser of, in this case, four evils.

“Actually it’s a combination of giving them up, leaving them in backyards, euthanasia or sending them to slaughter” in places like Mexico or Canada, says Murphree. That goes to include the recent development of what Jenks has criticized: “low-cost euthanasia clinics” that have sprouted up in Northern California for people with low funds.

In terms of animal abandonment, Warne says there’s a misconception among horse owners that horses can fend for themselves in the wild.

“They think they can take care of themselves, and they can’t. They’re domestic animals,” she says. “It’s like dumping a cat or a dog in the streets.”

As a veterinarian who would be the person put to the task of euthanizing a horse, Smith holds a different opinion on the matter. Owners of most of his horse patients across Ventura County, Smith says, would consider euthanasia as the last possible alternative to killing a healthy animal.

“As far as euthanasia, it’s been gossip, as far as I know,” he says. “They’re not going to get rid of their buddy. They’re going to find a home for their friend.”

Bob Reitz, a volunteer at California Coastal Rescue, said the shelter, which has been housed at its Ojai location since August, is in dire need of donations.

“We’re doing the best we can for what we have for them,” he said.

According to Murphree, the shelter and other nonprofits like it rely solely on donations and grants, and receive no state or government aid at all. The hope is to receive enough donations to expand the facility to provide for more horses. According to Jenks, the county humane society has also done its best recently to aid horse owners by providing free hay to them, though the feed supply is very limited.
Murphree hopes people who own horses or any domesticated animal will turn themselves around financially and be able to hold onto their pets.

“If the economy improves, it should ease up a little bit, but things have to happen where people keep their jobs,” Murphree said. “The public needs to know horses need as much help as dogs and cats.”   

paul@vcreporter.com