By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The yearlong Texas drought is taking a heartbreaking toll on horses and donkeys, thousands of which have been abandoned by owners who can no longer afford the skyrocketing price of the hay needed to feed them.
"We get 20 to 40 calls a week that horses are alongside the road and left; nobody's claimed them," Richard Fincher of Safe Haven Equine Rescue in Gilmer, in east Texas, told Reuters. "Sheriffs are calling us all the time."
Before this year, he would get more like three or four calls a week, he said.
The problem, according to Dennis Sigler, a horse specialist at Texas A&M University, is that the drought has dried up the hay fields, leaving horse owners having to pay double or triple the prices they are used to paying for hay, if they can find hay at all.
"The price of hay and feed today is at levels we have never experienced before because of the drought," Sigler said. "In addition to that, pastures are short, and folks who have horses on pasture have no grass for their horses. There is just no market for horses this year."
In addition, Sigler said, the drought has forced Texas ranchers to sell some of their cattle herds, leaving them with horses that are no longer needed to ride the range.
"They're just hurting," Fincher said of Texas horse owners. "The economy and the drought has got them in a crisis."
Texas ranchers have been buying hay from as far away as Oregon and Idaho, but Northwest Farm Credit Services says supplies of hay are beginning to fall behind demand even there.
The situation is even more dire for donkeys. Originally brought to the American West as a pack animal, donkeys no longer have value on the plains. Livestock sales typically will not accept donkeys. Mark Meyers of the California-based Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, the largest group of its kind in the country, said donkey abandonment has reached epidemic proportions due to the drought.
"They are loading them up, usually going to the next county at least, and dropping them off," he said, adding that 95 percent of the group's efforts are now concentrated in Texas.
"We get almost one new abandonment case in Texas every day," Meyers said. "And that could be between one donkey and twenty donkeys abandoned at a time."
Sigler puts the value of the horse industry in Texas at $5.3 billion, and 1 million people in the state own horses. There is no record of how many horses have been abandoned in the state due to the hottest and driest summer in the state's history.
It costs between $150 to $200 a month in normal times to feed a horse. With hay prices in many cases tripling, more people find horses are a luxury they cannot afford, Fincher said.
Horse abandonment is a crime, and state law requires abandoned horses to be held by the local sheriff's department for 18 days, he said. After that, most are sold at a sale barn for whatever prices they can bring.
Fincher said he expects the problem to continue.
"People just can't afford to feed horses anymore," he said. "They're too busy trying to feed themselves."
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)