By SEAN MURPHY
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - State and agriculture officials launched a program Monday to help local law enforcement agencies overwhelmed with trying to care for an increasing number of abandoned animals and livestock.
Gov. Mary Fallin and Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese said more than a dozen agriculture and veterinary related entities have formed the Oklahoma Livestock Relief Coalition to accept contributions and help reimburse local sheriffs for the cost of caring for neglected livestock.
"It has been a tough year for farmers and ranchers," Fallin said.
A lengthy drought that has scorched Oklahoma pastures and sent the price of hay skyrocketing has led to sharp spike in the number of cases of livestock being abandoned or neglected. While most of the cases involve horses, there also have been reports of malnourished goats and sheep, officials said.
"We are receiving many phone calls from people about starving animals," said Dr. Carey Floyd, president of the Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Association. "People don't have any hay, there is no pasture left. Some people are really struggling to properly care for the animals."
Much of Oklahoma has been locked in a drought since October 2010 that intensified last year, when the state experienced its hottest summer ever recorded with a statewide average of 86.9 degrees. The price of hay has more than doubled since the same time last year, and many cattle producers sold their livestock because of a shortage of feed and water for their herds.
While a strong market for beef has helped cattle ranchers, fewer options exist for horse owners. Late last year, Congress quietly lifted a 5-year-old ban on funding horse meat inspections, but there currently are no U.S. slaughterhouses that butcher horses, and animal welfare activists have warned of massive public outcry in any town where a slaughterhouse may open.
When abandoned or neglected animals are discovered, local sheriffs are notified and can quickly become overwhelmed trying to feed and care for the animals.
"There's been times in the past where we had a hard time feeding the inmates, let alone someone's horses," Johnston County Sheriff Tom Winkler said.
With the help of local ranchers and veterinarians, Winkler said he's been able to care for a few horses at a time, but his office was called recently to investigate a case involving 70 horses that weren't being properly cared for.
"There's no way we could feed that many horses, even for 30 days," Winkler said. "We didn't have a place to go with them, and we sure couldn't feed them."
Winkler has been working with the horses' owner to make sure they're fed and watered. He said his problem is not unique.
"All the sheriffs in southeast Oklahoma have the same problem," he said.
Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Foundation: www.okvma.org