Gethin Chamberlain, in Galati, Romania, for The Sunday Telegraph, 17 February 2008
RIBS SHOWING clearly through their tattered flanks, the starving horses corralled on the edge of the eastern Romanian city of Galati are just a few days away from death.
Once, they would have pulled wooden carts along the city’s streets or worked in the fields, as horses have done in Romania for centuries. But now they have been abandoned by their owners, victims of a disastrous attempt to bring the country into line with European Union law by banning horse-drawn carts from main roads.
Over the past month, hundreds of stray horses have been found roaming the streets and parks of Romania’s major cities. Many are half-starved and barely able to walk; some have died where they were discovered, unable to get back to their feet.
Pitifully thin and bearing the scars of frequent beatings, the horses rounded up in Galati will be sent to the slaughterhouse within days unless someone comes forward to claim them, or to offer them new homes. But there is little demand for an ailing animal in a country where an estimated one million working horses have been officially labelled an anachronism.
Some owners have decided it is cheaper to dump the animals than to keep them, since the cost of feeding a horse is now about pounds 80 a month. Many people living in the countryside earn just pounds 50 a month.
“People only care about exploiting the animal,” said Corina Daniela Grigore, who runs the Help Labus animal welfare group in Galati, home to Romania’s giant Mittal steel plant.
“They think that if it is no use to them any more they can just set it loose.”
She said the authorities were struggling to cope with the scale of the problem and were turning to private groups for help.
“We had a call to say there was a sick horse next to the steel plant,” she said. “We had to rent a truck to pick him up and we looked after him for four days, but his legs were injured and he could not get up off the ground. We had to watch him die.”
Similar stories have emerged across Romania after police started to enforce laws banning carts from the roads in order to bring Romania into line with European road safety legislation.
Romanian police, who say they were under pressure from the EU to cut accident figures, blame horse-drawn carts for 10 per cent of the country’s 8,400 serious road accidents last year.
Chief Commissioner Carol Varna, head of the Romanian police traffic safety department, said that more than 1,000 carts had been seized since officers started to enforce the law.
“There are some owners who just let their horses go when they cannot afford them any more,” he said.
In the past month, at least 15 horses have been found abandoned in the centre of the capital, Bucharest.
Elsewhere in the country, campaigners have been told of animals pushed into ditches and beaten to death with sticks. Television news reports showing abandoned horses dying in the snow prompted 200,000 people to sign a petition calling for a new government body to look after animals.
Calin Alexandru, a vet who is co-ordinating Bucharest’s attempts to deal with the problem, said it was a struggle to find homes for the horses. “We are seeing more and more abandoned,” she said. “We cannot find their owners.”
In response to the outcry, the government is introducing tough fines and jail sentences for anyone found to have beaten or abandoned a horse.
But horse owners, who face fines of up to pounds 100 and the confiscation of both their cart and their animal if they are caught on main roads, believe that it is the end of a way of life.
Vasile Adresana, 25, said he had no choice but to get rid of his horse when the police started cracking down on the roads around his home town of Roman, in the north-east of the country.
“I used to work gathering wood which I would sell, but the government introduced these laws under EU pressure. Everyone ignored them for a while, but when the police started enforcing the laws there were many roads that I was no longer allowed to travel on with my cart.
“There was not enough thought given to the consequences.”
His wife Miheala, 23, said one of their neighbours had kept his horse, but only because he could no longer get rid of it legally. “The animal is all skin and bone and he beats it all the time – he can’t use it for anything and he gets frustrated, but it’s not the horse’s fault.”
John Ross, a British equestrian who arranges riding holidays in Transylvania, said that the police were too quick to blame animals for the high accident statistics.
“The ban was slipped in stealthily,” he said. “There are some villages where farmers cannot legally get to their fields any more.”