In the heart-wrenching annals of neglect, there can be few scenes sadder than a horse left standing to starve in the rain, fetlock-deep in its own filth.

Occasionally, this amounts to outright criminal cruelty. More often, it is a consequence of people lacking empathy biting off more than they can chew in terms of the expensive care and upkeep of horses. They take on the horse without taking on the responsibility.

These situations have spawned phone calls to authorities and the Chinook Observer for a long time, with mixed results. Pacific County deputies, police and prosecutors usually have their hands full with human-versus-human crimes. The worst neglect cases usually fit into some appropriate box in the relevant criminal code, resulting in prosecution of owners, and impoundment or euthanasia for the animals.

A lot of the time, however, ownership is ambiguous - the horses have been dumped or fobbed off on neighbors. Or the culpability can be ambiguous - decent people simply may be doing their best, but not doing enough.

This latter situation is the one generating more and more coverage in a variety of newspapers around the region, most recently Saturday in the Oregonian. A spokesman for the Marion County sheriff's office describes the situation like this: "In this economy, we're finding a lot of animals that have been abandoned. We're getting a lot of calls of animal neglect about people who are having difficulty caring for their animals."

This is true of dogs, cats and other domestic pets - many of which are landing in shelters. But horses are both more challenging to maintain and to rescue. Basic food and care for a horse runs about $250 a month, not counting the desirability for some cover to shelter them from the worst of the weather or a little acreage for exercise.

Even having a horse put down is too expensive for some, as is transportation of the carcass to the nearest rendering plant, in Tacoma.

Formal rescue options are not abundant. As our anemic economic recovery drags along, organizations dedicated to taking in neglected and abandoned horses are increasingly maxed out. But if you suspect a case of neglect, please report it to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Save a Forgotten Equine (SAFE), www.safehorses.org, also is a good resource.

If you have a horse you can no longer afford, one option is to list it for give-away at www.dreamhorse.com, which is also a great place to find a horse if you're in a position to adopt one. The Chinook Observer will always gladly run free ads for this purpose.

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