Rescuer defends Romania's horses from slaughter

The name of his farm translates roughly as "Saving Horses from Wolves." But for Simion Craciun, the real predators are from the nearby slaughterhouse.

When word has gotten to him that a horse is being sold to the abattoir in the poor northern Transylvania region where he lives, he has rushed out to offer more money and bring the creature back to his picturesque plot where tourists come for riding lessons, he said.

"When I see how farmers whip them, it drives me mad," Craciun said. "I go to sleep thinking about them. I wake up thinking about them."

Even in a country where the horse is a national symbol, such concern for their welfare is rare. In tough economic times, some Romanians are selling their horses to slaughterhouses because they can't afford to keep them.

Europe's horsemeat scandal has focused the spotlight on Romania and its network of 35 plants authorized to butcher horses. France says Romanian butchers were part of a supply chain that resulted in horsemeat being labeled as beef in frozen meals across Europe. The Romanians have bristled and say the meat was properly declared when it left the country.

Horse exports have been growing, up about 10 percent from 2011 to 2012, with about 6,300 tons of horse, mule and donkey meat exported. Many of the horses were sold by private owners.

Bedraggled horses and rickety carts were once a common sight even in the center of Bucharest, with owners sometimes whipping the animals until they collapsed. But as part of an effort to modernize the country after it joined the European Union in 2007, Romania banned horses from cities, making them a burden for many owners.

In the countryside, peasants have a more pragmatic relationship with their animals, and look after them rather like an owner services a car. But with costs between (EURO)100 ($135) and (EURO)150 ($200) to keep a horse every month - up to 40 percent of the average national salary - it can be far too expensive for subsistence farmers to afford them.

"Horses are expensive to keep and many owners have been forced to give them up, especially since they were banned from cities," said Nicu Stoica, a riding instructor who owns several horses.

Yet beaten, malnourished and unkempt as they are, horses have remained an intrinsic part of agricultural society, plowing the fields, cantering on country roads and, until recently, trotting side by side with cars.

Romanians, who don't typically eat horsemeat themselves, insist that other Europeans are unfairly scapegoating them. In Britain, where horsemeat is taboo, consumers have responded with particular revulsion to the scandal.

Costel Mustafa, a butcher at Bucharest's Bucur Obor meat market, considered the reaction part of the condescending attitude some Western Europeans have to Romania.

"Horse crap!" he said, as he trimmed a mutton carcass. "The French just want to denigrate us. The British? They are even worse."

But Craciun is pained at the way horses in Romania are frequently seen as fit only for the slaughterhouse. He said he paid twice what the local abattoir was offering to secure his first horse and now owns 14, eight of which he rescued from the slaughterhouse.

"Never, ever would I sacrifice a horse," he said.

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Mutler reported from Bucharest, Romania.