Texas Highway 43 is filled with cars traveling between Henderson and Tatum, but just off the road, near a county facility, sit donkeys that are no longer wandering the terrain of rural Rusk County.
Instead, the 13 animals are receiving nourishment at a holding facility behind the Precinct 2 transfer station. They temporarily are there as county officials work to get them a new home.
The scene is indicative of a stray animal issue that's facing counties statewide. Some officials in East Texas counties said they are seeing an increase in large stray animals, such as donkeys and horses, which requires more resources and money.
Rusk County has sent as many as 30 donkeys to a refuge outside San Angelo within the last year.
“Anytime we pick up cattle, people will generally come and pick those up, (and) horses we seem to end up with are those underfed …” Rusk County Judge Joel Hale said.
“People get where they can't feed animals because they don't have the means, don't have the money, I think. Last summer probably brought it more to the forefront because of the drought. I'm sure the county has always had to deal with it, but it seems we've had more animals.”
According to the auditor's office, the county has spent nearly $13,500 since January for stray animals, such as horses and donkeys. That includes feeding costs and other supplies. It originally budgeted $10,000.
“When horses reach a certain age and become either unproductive either for riding purposes or breeding purposes, there needs to be something available to do with them besides letting them die,” he said. “A lot of people couldn't afford to feed those horses, so while we had horse slaughter in the U.S., they could take them to any sale barn and get … money for that, and now … that's been stopped.”
He said people don't only turn loose horses on roads. The animals also will be staked to a tree or staked out somewhere to graze and run out of something to eat.
He encouraged neighbors who see horses in that condition to report it, so the sheriff's office can respond.
As far as donkeys, he said, people can't unload them at a sale barn anymore because they are worth little, so people let them out on county roads.
All of these reasons in part prompted the county to build the holding facility off Texas Highway 43, which houses one horse in addition to the 13 donkeys. In the past, horses have been sent to a horse rescue in Trinity.
“We don't have very many to die, but … occasionally we'll pick one up that's in such bad condition they can't be brought back,” Commissioner Hale said. “We try to make an effort to find who the animal belongs to.”
Chief Sheriff's Deputy Ron Duncan said livestock owners should also ensure that the sheriff's office has a way to find out that they own the animals, so it can eliminate the need for authorities to pick them up.
Commissioner Hale said the issue concerns him because he's in the livestock business and takes care of his horses. Therefore, he said, it bothers him anytime he sees livestock or pets neglected or abused.
From a county standpoint, he said, the issue is a financial concern because it takes manpower, feed and veterinary bills in order to get some of the animals back to good health, and Rusk County already is over budget for stray livestock.
“I would say if you can't take care of livestock, make plans to get rid of them some way before they get in that condition,” Commissioner Hale said. “Abusing livestock is a terrible thing, and most people, if they'll just try, they can find a home or they can contact these rescues themselves and try to get rid of these animals on their own rather than just letting them starve to death or turning them out on the county roads.”
Rusk County Precinct 4 Commissioner Harold Howell agreed with Hale, saying he is primarily concerned about owner responsibility.
“I know there's quite a few animals that people are turning lose, (and) luckily we've got a facility to take care of them for awhile,” he said. But “the issue I have is first people seem like they're not wanting to take care of their responsibility and wanting to shove it off on someone else. The county has to feed them and take care of them. I feel like whoever has ownership of animals should take responsibility.”
As far as county finances, Howell said he is certain that the stray animal budget will likely get a good glance.
“Every administration is different. We will be getting a new sheriff one way or another, and it depends on his administration,” he said. “This is a big county. People have livestock, (and) I don't know if efforts are being put out there enough to locate animals, but I know it's an ongoing problem because we have to take care of the animals (and) supply feed.”
At the same time, Howell noted that he believes the county really stepped up in trying to help and move the animals out to safe places through other organizations like the refuge.
“I think the county has really stepped up to try to help. You can't just leave livestock. You have to do something with them,” Howell said.
Rusk County is not the only entity dealing with stray livestock.
In Smith County, officials recently saw an increase in the number of animals they had to pick up and take to the impound area, which is in the north end of the county.
“We always are dealing with stray livestock and stray animals, but over the last couple years, we have seen an increase as to the extent,” Sheriff's Lt. Tony Dana said.
When Smith County takes in animals, it must give them hay, feed and water. If the animal has a medical condition, the county also must provide veterinary care while it is in custody, and animals must have a Coggins test, which tests for equine infections anemia and costs up to $35 per animal, Dana said.
The county holds animals for 18 days, and if the owner cannot be located, it takes them to a public livestock auction.
Last year, Smith County picked up 167 total livestock — 69 horses, 20 donkeys, 68 head of cattle, eight goats and two pigs.
Out of the 167, it was able to return all to the owners except 66, which were taken to the sale auction, Dana said. Livestock taken to the sale barn averages up to $200, so animals sometimes don't bring in enough money to pay for their care prior to the sale, he said.
On average, when hauling to the sale barn, fuel and feed cost is factored in, it costs the county about $300 per animal to impound for 18 days. That cost does not include labor and the cost of deputies that have to pick up the animals.
“We have trustees that help us feed and all that, but they can't pick up. We have to send deputies out,” Dana said.
This year, the county already has picked up 89 head — 33 horses, 16 donkeys. 35 cattle, and five goats— and taken 21 to sale. Six animals — two goats, one donkey and three horses— were donated to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Dana said the county anticipates exceeding last year's number.
In Cherokee County, officials may not get one report a week or it might get one a day for two weeks, said Ricky Moore, Deputy Sheriff/Animal Control officer.
People were using donkeys to guard cows from coyotes, but sale barns quit taking them, and there are instances where people open their gates and let their donkeys lose, he said.
Once donkeys are picked up, the county has to pay someone to house and haul them, but they also must be fed. The cost of picking up a donkey in Cherokee County is $60.
Moore said a cowboy helps the county by taking the animals to his house and turning them out in his pasture.
“So far, he has not had a donkey claimed,” he said. “He's got donkeys that have been there two years. He's got a pasture full.”
That's why, like other officials, he said people need to understand they're responsible for their animals.
“It's understandable that fences break and trees fall … (but) I look at my horses every day when I leave. … People need to think about that and take care of them, and if can't take care of them, find someone who can,” Moore said.