Horse slaughter. The topic ignites passion on both sides of the debate. Anti-slaughter groups see the practice as an inhumane and tragic end to an animal that some say occupies a gray area between livestock and pet. Their vocal opposition has led to a proposed slaughter ban that was passed by the House and, as of press time, remains in the Senate. (More on that in a minute.)
Anti-ban advocates see slaughter as a necessary evil until funding, or at least a plan, is in place to care for the tens of thousands of horses deemed "unwanted" that had previously been slaughtered. They say without it, these horses will flood a market ill-prepared to deal with them, so could face a lifetime of abuse or neglect.
Who's right? You may have your own strong opinion. In what's often seen as a collision between emotion and reality, there seems to be no middle ground. Both sides, after all, claim to be looking out for the horses' welfare. Here we'll provide an overview plus insights from those for and against a slaughter ban.
A Change of Roles
Why the recent spotlight on slaughter? One factor is the sea change in modern American culture toward animal advocacy and away from viewing animals as a food or labor source. Another is the decrease in open land due to urban sprawl. That, coupled with increased costs in boarding, farriery, hay, and veterinary care is making it harder and more problematic to keep a horse until its natural end. When owners are unable or unwilling to maintain a horse throughout its life-time, it is sold. When age, physical disability, or behavior problems decrease the horse's value below a certain point, it may wind up at a slaughter plant.
In 2006, about 100,000 horses were slaughtered in the U.S., with the meat shipped to Belgium, France, Japan and Italy. (Unlike the U.S., many countries consider horsemeat a delicacy or staple; that U.S. slaughter figure represents only about 2 percent of horsemeat eaten worldwide.)
As American sentiments have changed, so has legislation. In 1998, California became the first state to ban the shipment and slaughter of horses for human consumption. A federal bill introduced in January of this year, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R.503), would prohibit the transport and slaughter of horses in the U.S. for human consumption. It's been passed by the House, but not to date by the Senate.
As of press time, two of the last three U.S. horse processing plants--those in Kaufman and Fort Worth, Texas--no longer process horses for human consumption. The third plant--in DeKalb, Ill.--closed in June of this year following passage of an Illinois ban, but on appeal July 19 won the right to re-open.
While H.R.503 is in committee and U.S. plants close, transporting horses to slaughter remains legal outside of California. Indeed, more horses than ever are being shipped to Mexico for this purpose. According to USDA figures, 23,818 horses were exported to Mexico in the first seven months of this year; during the same period of '06,when processing plants in the U.S. were open, the number was 6,531. The difference represents a 265-percent increase.
A prime mover for the slaughter ban is The Humane Society of the United States, a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., with 9.9 million members and a $122 million annual budget. Keith Dane, director of equine protection for HSUS, says the recent U.S. plant closings underscore the need to pass the ban.
"We anticipated killer buyers wouldn't just fold up shop and go away when the plants closed," he explains. "Some continue in this grisly trade and ship horses outside the country to slaughter, but the numbers we're seeing don't equal those being slaughtered earlier. It's a huge concern, though--horses going longer distances to worse deaths. It's up to Americans to let Congress know we are sending horses to slaughter in Mexico. There is no solution other than a federal ban."
"Our position is, if you can't take care of the horse and nobody wants it, you should humanely euthanize it," Dane adds. "That's what we ask of dog and cat owners. It's common decency."
Dane goes on to deny that the lack of slaughter outlets is causing a drop in auction prices. He says HSUS investigators report prices for horses under saddle as well as for loose horses sold by weight "are maintaining historical prices."
Yet at a sample of sale barns, prices for "loose horses" are in fact depressed: in Waverly,Iowa, from 50 or 60 cents per pound to 10 or 15 cents; in northern Idaho, from 50 or 55 cents to 35; in Missoula, Montana, from 30 or 40 cents to 10 or 15.
And in New Holland,Pennsylvania, once the largest slaughter horse market in the country, the price has dropped from 60 or 65 cents to 30 or 40--or from $600 or $650 down to $300 or $400 for a 1,000-pound horse.
As auction prices fall, prices for riding horses in general are seeing a decline, as well. It's not unusual to find riding horses advertised for under $600 (an online search in early August found an unregistered, broke-to-ride 10-year-old black mare for sale in Brant, Michigan, for $200).
Dane also maintains that the majority of horses slaughtered are not old, infirm, or unusable. "USDA reports that 92.3 percent of the horses that go to slaughter are in good health--they are usable horses," he says. "We slaughter fewer every year, so if we can absorb or cut back on the number being bred, and we can give horses second or third careers, I don't see why we can't get down to zero."
Christian Stoltzfuss, manager of the equine sale at New Holland Sales, Inc., isn't so sure. He sells hundreds of horses each Monday night. "If they're usable and we can find a home for them,I want to do that," he says. "But some are mentally or physically beyond repair. What are we going to do with the ones that don't find a home?"
James Tucker is general manager of Cavel International, Inc., the slaughter plant in DeKalb, Illinois. Most of the horses typically brought to his plant, says Tucker, are "marginalized by health or age or temperament. That's why people disposed of them."
Bonnie Beaver, DVM, MS, Diplomate, ACVB, of Texas A&M University and former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, also believes that getting to the point of zero unwanted horses is highly unlikely. She testified before the House of Representatives against the proposed ban and raises the same question as Stoltzfuss--what do we do with the "surplus" horses?
A Country-City Conflict
Beaver and others also view the issue as a clash of rural and urban values.
"Ninety percent of the U.S. population is three generations off the farm," observes Beaver. "Because of that they have unrealistic expectations of what it takes to raise livestock. And, for these people, the horse has taken on a greater role as a pet than as a working animal or livestock.They don't want someone eating Trigger."
She notes that the rise in numbers of horses going across the border to Mexico for slaughter has greatly increased the suffering of those animals.
"We have no control over their treatment or death [in Mexico]," she explains. "While the plants were operating in the U.S., there was an alternative for humane death, because here slaughter is USDA- and AVMA-monitored. It may not be the option we consider aesthetically desirable, but at least it was fast and humane."
If transport and slaughter techniques are ultimately deemed inhumane, she adds, a similar argument might be used regarding cattle, swine, and poultry. Mandatory vegetarianism, she notes, "is the goal of organizations who make that argument."
Tom Persechino is senior director of marketing services for the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), the world's largest breed association. Based in Amarillo, Texas, the association has 350,000 members who own 4 million horses. He stresses it's a question of dealing with reality until adequate funding offers other solutions.
"We're opposed to a ban because slaughter is a humane, viable alternative for a person who has an unusable horse," he maintains. "To date, no legislation offers any alternatives or any funding for such horses. The ban would be an unfunded government mandate, and we're concerned this does more to harm than protect horses--because some people will just neglect or abandon them. After the plants closed, we received calls from rescue and sanctuary organizations where people are now dumping horses on their doorstep."
Indeed, several equine industry experts say well-intended support for a slaughter ban is having many unintended consequences: horses turned loose; horses shot; underground collectors by passing horse auctions and crossing borders to slaughter plants; haulers transporting horses in illegal doubledecker trucks to make the economics of a load profitable, then re-loading to legal, single-level semis before arriving at processing plants.
"There are worse fates than going to an American or Canadian slaughterhouse," affirms Temple Grandin, PhD, a professor and animal scientist at the University of Colorado in Fort Collins. Grandin, a specialist in the design of humane slaughter facilities, is also a best selling author. (Her book Animals In Translation offers unique insights into how horses think and feel.)
"Horses are being shipped live on boats to Japan," notes Grandin."They are sold in Mexico and hitched to a cart and worked until they drop dead, or sent to the really terrible Mexico City slaughterhouse. Horses here are neglected on the back forty, and mustangs on the American Indian reservations are loose and starving."
Grandin adds that if we can figure out how to make do without slaughterhouses, fine. "But that will take money--so why doesn't HSUS fund sanctuaries? If we want euthanasia stations, who will fund them and how will people transport horses there? And what do you do with carcasses? In many places you can't bury them, and if you euthanize them using drugs you can't use the meat or put it in rendering plants [to be used as animal food]."
The two largest U.S. veterinary associations--the 8,000 member American Association of Equine Practitioners based in Lexington, Kentucky, and the 75,000-member American Veterinary Medical Association based in Schaumberg, Illinois--both oppose the slaughter ban because members believe it will result in less humane slaughter abroad, longer shipping distances, and more neglected and abused horses.
Rescue and retirement facilities are often suggested as a partial solution to the question of "surplus" or unwanted horses. Bonnie Beaver estimates that U.S.rescue and retirement facilities currently have a capacity for only about 6,000 horses--not nearly enough to absorb all the animals that have been going to slaughter.
Susan Wagner, founder of Equine Advocates in Chatham, N.Y., has her own point on this topic.
"Just because we can't rescue them all doesn't mean we should keep slaughter legal," she says, noting that her facility houses 65 rescued horses on 140 acres.
"Seventy percent of Americans favor the ban, but special interests--the farm bureau, cattlemen, veterinary associations, rodeos--thumb their nose at that," she continues."It's not a food issue, it's a cultural issue, and I believe we will never have intelligent discussion about surplus horses until horse slaughter is made illegal. Once that happens, you'll see solutions, such as fewer indiscriminate breeders, because they won't be able to get rid of their horses for meat. They are now breeding misery."
In fact, advocates on both sides of the slaughter issue agree that whether or not an individual, an organization,or a breed registry supports a ban, they must accept responsibility for overbreeding.
"Breed organization members need to consider whether there's a market," says Persechino, adding that low registration fees and members who count on sending undesirable foals to auction and slaughter contribute to overbreeding.
"We shouldn't use slaughter as a dirty outlet for our culls," he insists. "Breeding fewer horses of more quality can make just as much money."
California: A Questionable Model
California, which implemented a ban in 1998, could be viewed as a trial success story ,according to Wagner and others who contend abuse and neglect did not increase in the wake of the ban.
But according to Tom Lenz, DVM, past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), California failed to create a regulatory body or even allocate funding to oversee and enforce the ban. Consequently, he notes, evidence of abuse is only anecdotal, and horses continue to be shipped to a processing plant in Tacadecas, Mexico, 10 hours south of the border.
"The people doing the shipping or the abusing aren't talking about it,and no state agency is overseeing it," he observes "It's like they passed the law and then looked the other way."
Cavel general manager Tucker believes the publicity around unwanted horses and the slaughter ban move is in part a profit-making tactic by humane groups. "The more issues they can inflame, the more donations they get," he says.
A Better End
Naturally, humane groups beg to differ. Humane care is the crux of the matter for the 1.6 million-member People for Ethical Treatment of Animals based in Norfolk, Va. Matt Prescott is PETA manager of factory farming campaigns.
"Horses are part of our heritage and don't deserve to be packed on to trucks and cruelly transported to slaughter and strung up in front of other terrified and dying animals," says Prescott.
He adds that responsible horse owners should have their aged or suffering horses euthanized by a licensed veterinarian. As for other "surplus" horses, "The kindest option is a rescue organization, sanctuaries with loving guardians."
Whether they are against slaughter or see it as the lesser evil, most agree that the current furor over unwanted horses could never have happened on this scale in previous eras. But today's increased media attention, more successful fundraising, and the rural-to-urban population shift lend greater urgency to the issue.
"People are starting to realize in our society that animals are not toys or disposable objects to be abused and discarded when they become not useful or inconvenient to us," says Prescott. "Banning horse slaughter is a natural step in society's progression."
Lenz counters that until such time as legislation provides for infrastructure, oversight, and funding, America should not stop processing horses here. "We should allow the horse industry to deal with this problem," he maintains.
And, fortunately, that is happening--not soon enough for many horses, but a change is taking place, says Lenz. "I can see a shift in the horse industry--people are becoming aware they need to be more responsible about breeding and buying, and they need to think about what they do with a horse if it doesn't meet their expectations."
We can also hope that the Unwanted Horse Coalition, which met for the first time in the fall of 2007 (and of which Horse & Rider is a member), will come up with some innovative and far-reaching solutions.
This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Horse & Rider magazine. Read part 2 of this special report, The Slaughter Debate: Solving the Puzzle.