Horses being transported to slaughter at a now-defunct Texas plant.
Dixie Wilson  /  ARTEX
The Animal Welfare Institute says these horses, including one with cut and swollen eyes, were among animals being transported to slaughter at a now-defunct Texas plant. Such cases illustrate the inhumane treatment of many horses destined for the meat market, the group says.
By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
updated 9/24/2008 5:45:40 AM ET 2008-09-24T09:45:40

The emotional debate over slaughtering horses for human consumption gained new life in Washington this week as a House committee approved a measure that would ban the practice nationwide and halt the export of U.S. horses destined for dinner tables in other countries.

While it’s unclear whether the Judiciary Committee’s Tuesday approval of the slaughter ban will lead to passage by the full House and Senate before the clock runs out on the current session of Congress, the panel’s hearings refocused attention on an issue that has motivated animal-welfare groups for years.

Outraged by what they say is cruel treatment of horses sold for meat, the groups already have succeeded at forcing closure of the three remaining U.S. horse slaughterhouses — two in Texas and one in Illinois — in recent years. But since thousands of horses are still exported for slaughter in Canada and Mexico, and many states have no laws that would prohibit the opening of new plants, the groups have been seeking federal regulation since 2001.

“There’s absolutely no way to make it humane,” said Chris Heyde, deputy director of government and legal affairs for the Animal Welfare Institute, one of the ban’s principal backers. “It’s an industry that cannot be regulated to make it humane.”

So the “Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act,” sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of Judiciary, and Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., would make it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to possess or transport horse meat for human consumption or horses intended to be slaughtered for human meals.

A necessary option
But opponents of the law, including some cattle ranchers, horse breeders and veterinarians, say that the now-defunct U.S. slaughterhouses, regulated and inspected by the Department of Agriculture, were run in a humane fashion and provided a necessary option to deal with unwanted horses.

“From a welfare perspective, they’ve made things a lot worse,” said Mark Lutschaunig, director of governmental relations for the American Veterinary Medicine Association, which represents 76,000 U.S. vets. Lutschaunig said his group is hearing reports of a sharp increase in cases of horses being neglected and abandoned by owners who can no longer sell them at auction for slaughter.

Despite the fact that horse meat is widely eaten by Europeans and Asians, the vast majority of Americans have no interest in taking a bite out of Old Paint. Since no U.S. horses are raised for that purpose, they only come to the meat market as castoffs: old, sick, too unruly to ride or genetically deficient. Because horses are not regulated as meat animals, Heyde said, the process by which they are slaughtered is fraught with cruelty.

About 100,000 American horses are exported for slaughter in Mexico and Canada each year, roughly the same number as when the U.S. slaughterhouses were operating. There are about 9 million horses in the United States, according to federal estimates.

Harrowing stories, images
Web sites maintained by Heyde’s group and others contain harrowing accounts, photos and videos of horses being transported to the slaughterhouses. “Deprived of food, water or rest, the horses are forced onto double-decked cattle trailers” and hauled for 24 hours or more, according to the Animal Welfare Institute’s site. “Callous workers use fiberglass rods to poke and beat their faces, necks, backs and legs.” At one plant in Mexico, horses are “stabbed repeatedly” with knives in “a barbaric practice (that) simply paralyzes the animal. The horse is still fully conscious at the start of the slaughter process, during which he or she is hung by a hind leg, his or her throat slit and body butchered,” it says.

Partly as a result of such publicity, the anti-slaughter campaign has drawn supporters as diverse as country musician Willie Nelson and Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens. It has political backers as far apart on the spectrum as liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Alaska’s conservative Sen. Ted Stevens.

Earlier versions of the bill have passed overwhelmingly in previous House sessions but have been snagged in the Senate. With much bigger issues on the table, congressional observers admit it’s a long shot that the current version will become law before Congress' scheduled adjournment this week. But they say a likely extension of the current session and a possible post-election lame-duck session mean the bill cannot be counted out yet.

Meanwhile, opponents of the slaughter ban say its proponents are being guided more by their hearts than their heads. “This was legislation based on nothing more than emotion,” said Colin Woodall, executive director of legislative affairs of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Woodall said his group has two key objections to the bill.

“The biggest concern we have here is you’re criminalizing an act that is right now not illegal,” he said “It’s criminalizing the agriculture industry’s ability to handle their property.”

Secondly, “They don’t have a solution for what we’re going to do with these horses. There aren’t care facilities, enough of them, to take care of these horses.”

The high cost of death
As for euthanasia, “You have to have that animal hauled off” or buried, Woodall said. “The price can get pretty high” as opposed to selling the animal for slaughter, which could actually bring in a few hundred dollars. The result, he said, is “people out there who would make the choice to allow their animal to just starve rather than having a veterinarian come out there to euthanize the animal.”

And like Lutschaunig of the veterinarians’ group, Woodall said that with the closure of the U.S. slaughterhouses, cattle ranchers are seeing an increase in abandonment of horses. “We’re getting reports … from our members who will go to church and come home and there’s two or three horses tied to their gate.”

Those arguments are quickly countered by the anti-slaughter forces. “If a horse has been abandoned now it has nothing to do with the fact that slaughter here has ended,” Heyde said, because the same number of U.S. horses are being shipped to slaughter out of the country as were being slaughtered previously at the U.S. plants.

Gail Vacca, who trains thoroughbred racehorses in DeKalb, Ill., and has been active in the anti-slaughter movement since 2002, called reports of an increase in abandoned horses “pure propaganda. … We’ve got a 54-page document debunking almost every single claim of abandoned horses. It’s ridiculous. “

Vacca also said that the cost of euthanasia is not always as high as claimed by some foes of the bill. In Illinois, she said, she can have a horse euthanized and disposed of at a veterinary medicine school for less than $100. Admittedly, that’s for a horse that is well enough to be transported while still alive, and it can cost much more if an owner wants to bury a horse or have it hauled away after it has been euthanized.

Vacca also believes that “the slaughter option … encourages and perpetuates irresponsible breeding and irresponsible horse ownership.” She said key opposition to the anti-slaughter bill is really coming from the meat industry, like the beef group and others which are “always opposed to any animal welfare initiative. … They do not want people to think of animals, whether it’s your pet dog, a cow or a horse, as a sensitive being. It’s their Achilles' heel and they know it. They know the more enlightened that people become to the meat industry, the more regulated they’ll be.”

But Woodall of the beef group and Brent Gattis, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist who currently represents the Livestock Marketing Association and formerly represented the slaughterhouses, said the bill’s backers also have other motives.

A fund-raising ploy?
“There are no horses being killed in the United States,” said Gattis, who raises cattle and has worked for 10 years for the House Agriculture Committee. Animal rights groups need issues like horse slaughter to raise funds, he said, contending the current bill “just keeps it in the headlines and people send you money.”

And Woodall added, “When you look at their propaganda and you look at their mission statements, their goal is to end the meat industry. They want everybody to become vegetarians. At the end of the day, they want everybody to stop eating meat.”

Vacca chuckled at that contention.

“They try to reduce it to the slippery slope,” she said. “They try to equate this movement to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and vegetarians. I’m a thoroughbred racehorse trainer. Believe me, PETA hates me. And I eat meat.”

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