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The 10 horses found dead in a field in Magna likely died of thirst or hunger, according to a preliminary examination by the Utah State Veterinarian's Office.

The horses were found in a private, fenced off field near Pleasant Green Cemetery, around 3500 S. 9200 West. Police and witnesses said the horses appeared to have died of thirst, but the official cause of death will not be known until the state veterinarian's office completes necropsies of the animals.

Seven of the ten horses were too decomposed to be examined, but the three looked at by the State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Utah State University showed signs of dehydration and malnutrition. The bodies of the three horses were sent to another lab, where necropsies will be performed to confirm those initial suspicions, said Larry Lewis, a spokesman for the Utah Dept. of Agriculture and Food.

Increasing numbers of horses have been abandoned in Utah's western desert in recent years as the price of horse feed has shot up, Lewis said. Some in the agriculture community have lobbied for a state slaughter facility to discourage owners from abandoning horses they can't afford to feed.

"Who knows what was in play with those ten horses," Lewis said, "but in the past, some have made a case that if there was a slaughter bill, the ability to humanely slaughter horses, they would be put away in a more humane way."

Sandy Nelson of Salt Lake County Animal Services, which is conducting the investigation with the Unified Police Department, did not recall any recent cases of horse abandonment in Salt Lake County, adding that "this is our biggest horse case lately."

Usually, animal investigations are undertaken solely by Salt Lake County Animal Services, but Unified Police is assisting with the investigation because it involves such a large number of horses.

In addition to determining the cause of death, the necropsies will pinpoint when the horses died, Nelson said. Unified Police Lt. Justin Hoyal said animal cruelty could not be ruled out, but the course the investigation takes will largely depend on the results of the necropsies, which will take at least two weeks.

Kennecott Utah Copper Corp., which owns the land, but leases it to Erda Livestock, will await conclusions from the investigation before making any decisions on the future of the land, said Kennecott spokesman Kyle Bennett.

Officials from Erda Livestock did not immediately return calls for comment Monday afternoon.

Twitter: @Harry_Stevens

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