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October 25, 2011

In Colombia, Horses Pull Too-Heavy Loads

Humane Society International

  • Transporting recycling materials. Alex Rothlisberger/HSI

  • Checking for signs of abuse. Alex Rothlisberger/HSI

  • Competing with motorized vehicles. Alex Rothlisberger/HSI

  • A profession passed from generation to generation. Alex Rothlisberger/HSI

  • Confiscated horse shows signs of possible abuse. Alex Rothlisberger/HSI

  • Exhausted from galloping on pavement. Alex Rothlisberger/HSI

  • Most VTA drivers don't carry a form of ID. Alex Rothlisberger/HSI

  • Napping between stops. Alex Rothlisberger/HSI

  • Learning to share the road. Alex Rothlisberger/HSI

by Alexandra Rothlisberger

Animal Traction Vehicles, or Vehiculos de Traccion Animal (VTA), have long been a hot topic with animal welfare groups in Colombia.

Better known as VTAs, these carts with four car tires are used to carry heavy loads of recycling materials, debris from construction sites, vehicle parts, furniture and other items. Often, the massive loads are stolen. Always, they’re pulled by small, malnourished horses sometimes barely able to manage them.

On a typical day, the horses transit the carts alongside buses and cars, going back and forth on city bridges, rushing through motorcycles and pedestrians while trotting on hot cement streets. But on too many occasions, a horse collides with another vehicle, collapses from exhaustion, or is dragged by the cart when the animal cannot muster the strength to pull it uphill. Sometimes, a horse will even give birth on the middle of the street.

Give now to help us improve the lives of these working equines and other animals who are suffering.

Animal welfare organizations in Colombia have decidedly seen it all. Because the need to help these horses is so great, some groups are focusing almost solely on this issue: ADA Colombia and Fundacion Amigos del Planeta in Bogota, and Asociacion Sentir Animal and PazAnimal in Cali.

Exposing cruelty and neglect

The issue of trying to help these horses is complex. The people who depend on them, called carreteros, have proclaimed their legal right to work, and the government cannot confiscate their animals without substituting something that will allow them to continue to earn a living. The business of the carreteros is passed on from generation to generation. It’s a strong, well-organized community, but with extremely meager wages, it’s also very poor and has for decades been neglected by its own government.

HSI visited Bogota and accompanied Fundacion Amigos del Planeta on one of the “operations” they perform every week in the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of the city.

The animals are mostly in poor shape, never having been seen by a veterinarian or a farrier. They’re worked around the clock, with no rest between shifts. They’re not fed properly and the water they consume they find in puddles and polluted city streams. Many have open sores, bleeding wounds and scars that reflect the cruelty they suffer, like a swollen eye after one horse was beaten on the head with an iron stick.

ADA Colombia and Fundacion Amigos del Planeta conduct these operations in conjunction with “auxiliaries," or police-in-training. They stop the VTAs to check on the animals' condition, looking for sores, wounds and signs of abuse and malnourishment, and to make sure each one is wearing much-needed shoes. If the horse is in bad shape, the groups have the legal right to take him away for veterinary treatment. Most of the time, resources are unavailable to care for any more horses, so the operations are really a way to make those doing the checking up known to the community and demonstrate that someone is looking out for the horses.

When the animal welfare groups respond to an emergency such as a collision between a horse and a vehicle, they must act quickly, as the carreteros have in the past pulled the horse back onto the cart, only to drop the animal in the next curve of the road in their rush to get away. The cart owners are often armed with knives and bats and congregate quickly to support each other. Often, the animal protectionists have to euthanize an equine in agony and then flee without the corpse; there are many illegal slaughter houses that will buy the dead animal and process it for food, so the carreteros will not risk losing the money a dead horse can generate when they already lost the income a living animal produces.

Working toward transition

Medellin is the first city in Colombia to implement a solution to benefit both animals and owners. After years of working on this issue, the city substituted every working horse within city limits with either a motorbike with a roof and a trailer that carries up to 700 kilos, or seed money for those who wished to switch professions. Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, has now prohibited the transit of horses through its streets. Horses who were surrendered during the designated time period were placed with farms and are now safe from harm.

To help accelerate this process in the country's two other mega-cities, HSI hosted a forum in Cali this past September. Donate to support our efforts.

Alexandra Rothlisberger is program manager, Latin America and the Caribbean, for HSI.

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