On a Monday in early March Kelly Smith, founder of Omega Horse Rescue, walked through the barns at New Holland Sales Stables as she has for the past 27 years. On this auction day she bought a mini stallion, two thoroughbreds, a draft cross and a quarter horse mare too weak to make it to slaughter that she had euthanized.
She said she could have saved more horses – at least one more, an American Saddlebred - had she been able to take a picture of him and send it to a Saddlebred rescue group, but she was not allowed to do so.
Smith said she believes the horse was loaded on a kill buyer’s van and headed for slaughter.
The New Holland auction, the largest livestock sale in the East, had begun implementing a newly-enforced “no photos or videos” policy.
Ryan Kolb, a part-owner of the auction, said it has had the photo policy in place for a decade, but only began enforcing it recently because individuals were posting videos of the entire horse sale online.
Kolb said buyers and sellers were complaining it was affecting the after-auction sales prices.
“They were complaining that their horses were on Facebook,” said Kolb. “We don’t want to see anyone talking pictures and putting them online.”
He said his customers are happier now that the policy is being enforced. But regulars who rescue horses from slaughter say they rely on real-time images to save horses and more horses will likely go to slaughter because they can’t be seen by the world outside the auction.
“Anything visual captures the emotions and the seriousness of the situation,” said Smith. “Donors respond to visuals.”
Between 100 and 150 horses move through the nearly century-old auction every Monday, many destined for slaughter houses in Canada or Mexico. Regular sheep, goat, pig and cattle sales are held on other days.
Smith said no longer being able to take photos has meant posting descriptions on Facebook during the sale to encourage contributions.
“Fortunately, we have a big enough following and they trust my judgment.” She said. “But the ability to share photos would save more horses.”
The policy stipulates that anyone caught using a camera will first be issued a warning and if they do not comply they will be escorted out, Kolb said.
In an interview in mid-March Kolb said they have not yet had to remove anyone caught with a camera.
Smith says she is saddened that horses will be hurt by someone who did not play by the rules.
Smith suggested a compromise: Why not pick an area, have a photographer available to take pictures of the horses whose owners are comfortable with the pictures being taken? Kolb said for now the policy is set.
Animals Angels, a Maryland-based group that investigates farm animal cruelty, has conducted undercover filming of the New Holland auctions since 2006. Their work has resulted in three cruelty convictions. The most recent case, ended in January with an auction employee, John King, being convicted for failing to get help for a live pig on the so-called “dead pile” of animals. The pig later had to be euthanized.
“I am very frustrated by the decision, it’s a step backward,” said Sonja Meadows, founder of Animals Angels. “Instead of fixing the issue at hand, an animal welfare issue, they put up signs to restrict photography.”
Meadows, who noted that the auction banned access to catwalks above the auction after another dead animal case ten years ago, said it doesn’t make sense for any dealers or brokers purchasing for others not to be able to photograph animals before their sale at the auction.
“I would think it would be detrimental to business all over the country,” she said. “Why expend all this energy trying to hide when it would be beneficial to their finances and reputation to do the right thing?”
Meadows said photo documentation is key to cruelty cases. “We have presented evidence to the district attorney’s office and charges are filed,” she said.
Dramatic pictures have led to many rescues and cruelty charges over the years at New Holland. Last year images of the paint-ball battered, aged grey mare, Lilly, dumped at the auction were seen around the world and resulted in her adoption by the comedian Jon Stewart and his wife. The individual who transported her to the auction, Phillip Price of Rhode Island, was convicted of cruelty in that case.
In 2015 the New Holland Sales Stables was found guilty of two counts of animal cruelty after an injured sheep and goat were left overnight on a carcass pile in subfreezing weather. Both animals had to be euthanized.
No Impact on Enforcement
Nicole Wilson, director of humane law enforcement for the Pennsylvania SPCA explains that her organization relies on witnesses to report cruelty. While she said visual evidence is important in animal cruelty cases, she does not anticipate the no-photo policy to impact her group’s enforcement efforts.
“We have had a lot of cooperation from the auction. I don’t think the policy will affect that relationship,” she said.
Wilson said the PSPCA was last called on a possible cruelty case at New Holland in January after witnesses reported a horse collapsed and died at the auction. A necropsy showed it had a brain tumor so no charges were filed, she said.
The Lancaster Newspapers, in an editorial, slammed the auction’s move as “the wrong decision.”The newspaper wrote: “The only way to make sure that animals at the stables are being treated humanely, all the time, is by making the process open and transparent.”
Until 2009, the PSPCA had a humane society police officer assigned to the horse auction but the organization has not had the resources to fund the position since then. Meadows and Wilson said having someone who knows the cruelty law and has the ability to humanly euthanize an animal on site would go a long way to improving conditions for the hundreds of horses and other animals who move through the auctions at New Holland every month.