Horses to the slaughter

U.S. horses are meeting gruesome ends abroad, while the debate rages on: Are horses 1,500 pounds of food or friend?

Published June 30, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

On the dusty outskirts of this border city, neighbored by truck stops and desert scrub, hundreds of horses mill around a sprawling grid of pens at the Rio Grand Classic horse auction. Inside the metal sale barn, a cowboy rides a handsome palomino into the show ring, and the auctioneer's chant crescendos as the price rises into the thousands. But the bidding on some horses is less enthusiastic. These horses -- plump young pintos, old red roans, a scrawny mare and her wobbly-legged foal -- dart around the show ring nervously before selling for a few hundred dollars or less. Then they're shuffled into the "kill pen," a set of crowded corrals at the edge of the auction property. There, all but the foal are marked with green U.S. Department of Agriculture tags that designate horses bought for slaughter, most likely in Mexico, where the meat is consumed and sold abroad.

Not many people realize slaughtering horses for meat has been big business in the U.S. for generations. Yet in recent decades, public sentiment, matched by state and local laws, has risen against the practice, and in 2007 the last three U.S. horse slaughterhouses were shuttered. Since 2005, Congress has also withheld U.S. Department of Agriculture funding for horse-meat inspections to prevent new abattoirs from opening in states where horse slaughter is still legal. No federal law, though, forbids U.S. horses from being sent to slaughterhouses across the border. Which is exactly what has been happening in the two years since horse slaughter stopped here. The number killed in Canada and Mexico doubled to 49,000 in 2007 and rose to more than 72,000 last year, according to trade data.

Sending horses to slaughter in Mexico and Canada has had grisly consequences. They are hauled in crowded trailers as far as 1,000 miles from auctions and feedlots to abattoirs across the border. Many end up in unregulated slaughterhouses, where they are sometimes paralyzed with knife stabs in their backs, leaving them conscious as their throats are slit.

Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses, which export meat to Europe, are supposed to uphold horse-welfare standards similar to U.S. rules. Those mandate that horses be stunned -- rendered unconscious, typically with a captive-bolt gun, which jabs a rod into a horse's brain -- before they are killed. But many horses face a crueler fate over the border. Nicholas Dodman, a Tufts University veterinary behaviorist, says some Canadian slaughterhouses break every rule in the book. He says videos taken by an animal-welfare group and secret cameras in a Canadian abattoir show horses watching other horses being killed, a downed horse being beaten and some horses left conscious when killed.

Even more disturbing to Dodman and others is what happens in Mexico, where many horses wind up in unregulated municipal and rural slaughterhouses, which sell horse meat to local citizens. Aline Schunemann-Hofer de Aluja, a veterinary pathologist at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City, says conditions in these facilities can be "horrid." Hammers and small knives called puntillas are sometimes used to stun horses, she says. The Humane Society of the United States and San Antonio Express-News have reported that in a Juarez slaughterhouse, workers repeatedly jabbed puntillas into horses' spines. That only paralyzes horses, which remain conscious and able to feel pain as they're hung up and bled to death.

"The treatment of these animals is absolutely unspeakable," says Schunemann-Hofer. "But if you see the poverty of the people that live in these areas, it doesn't surprise you very much that they are not that concerned about the welfare of animals."

This spring, a bipartisan Senate bill joined an identical one in the House to stop the export of horses for slaughter and permanently ban horse slaughter in all states. (Currently both bills are being considered in congressional committees.) But a slaughter ban, backed by the Humane Society of the United States, and countless horse advocates, faces opposition from many livestock and horse-industry groups, including the American Veterinary Medical Association and American Quarter Horse Association. They say a ban skirts the bigger problem of dealing with America's abundance of unwanted horses, which number well over 100,000 a year. The slaughter industry, they maintain, offers a humane and economical way to dispose of horses.

Today the U.S. is home to over 9 million horses. Each can live 30 to 40 years, weigh anywhere from 500 to 1,500 pounds, and cost a couple thousand dollars a year to keep. Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University humane-slaughter expert, explains that many horses earn their keep by doing jobs -- on ranches, farms, racetracks, in rodeos and show rings. Horses often become debilitated or too old to do these jobs, and some horses may prove too ill-tempered or unable to do the job their owner wants in the first place. "Not many people that use horses for riding can afford to keep a horse they can't ride," Grandin says.

When horses reach the end of their lives or usefulness -- or become unaffordable or impractical to keep -- owners face a dilemma. They may be able to place their horse with a rescue group or new home. Or they may have to choose between paying a vet to euthanize the horse, shooting the horse themselves or selling the horse for slaughter.

Even then, disposing of such a large animal's body poses a quandary. Grandin explains a horse corpse can be buried, cremated, composted or sent to a rendering plant or landfill. But these options may cost anywhere from $75 to $2,000, and in some places are illegal or unavailable. Grandin and others say that slaughter offers another affordable disposal option. Not only that, as author Jane Smiley recently wrote for the New York Times, "Horse slaughter makes use of horse corpses."

Horse meat is eaten in France, Belgium, Italy, Japan and many other countries. Most every part of a horse is used: hides for leather; intestines for sausage casings; tails for paint brushes; hooves for glue. Historically horse byproducts went into pet food in the U.S.; even now, several zoos here import horse meat to feed their lions and tigers.

That's why, to some, allowing half-ton horse bodies to go to waste seems absurd. "Why not let those horses have some final use? That's the whole point of agriculture," says Preston Fowlkes, who runs a cattle company in Marfa, Texas.

Horse slaughter makes sense for other reasons to people in the livestock industry. Mike O'Connor runs a cattle business in Marfa and Sanderson, Texas. He says horses, expensive to keep, are part of his capital. When a horse becomes unusable, owners can get a return on their investment by selling the horse for slaughter. "Slaughter's a significant part of their salvage value, just like it is with an old cow," he says. "That's an important part of our business."

By giving horses salvage value, horse slaughter keeps a floor on the horse market, explains Steve Friskup. He manages a quarterly horse sale in Clovis, N.M., where 5 to 8 percent of the 400 to 500 horses at each auction go to slaughter. Since the U.S. slaughterhouses closed in 2007, Friskup says values on lower-end horses -- those selling for less than $400 -- have dropped by half. He says the closures made that lower-end market less competitive, and the expense of shipping horses across the border has narrowed profit margins for slaughter dealers.

Beyond economics, many in the livestock industry believe the federal government has no business banning horse slaughter. "If people want to eat horse meat, let them eat horse meat," O'Connor says. "I don't think we ought to get into legislating food out of people's mouths."

"I'll tell you what," Friskup says, "the real question is whether these horses are livestock or pets. Right now they're livestock. And they're personal property. So by golly a man ought to be able to do what he wants with them."

Daniel Manzanares runs the livestock export pens in Santa Teresa, N.M., where almost 16,000 slaughter horses crossed into Mexico last year. He says the activists pushing for a ban don't understand how horse and companion-animal ownership differ. Wait until a scared horse kicks you in the head or shatters your femur, he says. "That's when people understand what a large animal is. We're not talking about a 2-pound Chihuahua," he says. "We're talking about a 1,200-pound animal that costs $2,000 or $3,000 a year to keep."

Because horses are so big and expensive, many insist that if slaughter is banned, more owners will abandon or neglect horses they no longer want, can use or afford. "There needs to be a way people can put them down and dispose of them that's affordable," Grandin says. "Otherwise, you're going to have neglect issues."

Without slaughter, Manzanares and others think unwanted horses will wind up like other stray animals: dumped on roadsides, starving in pastures, getting hit by cars. Some say such things are already happening. Indeed, several newspapers, including the New York Times, have reported a recent surge of abandonment and neglect cases, attributed to the recession and rising horse-care costs but also the U.S. slaughterhouse closures.

Grandin and others say slaughter, done well, is a more humane fate than abandonment or neglect. She describes how slaughter should be done: Horses are hauled a short distance to a slaughterhouse, calmly led inside and immediately stunned with an expertly placed rifle shot or captive-bolt gun. "I've seen horse slaughter done well in the U.S. and I've seen it done very badly," she says. "But if it's done here, you can control it."

Therein lies the major point of contention. Those opposed to slaughter maintain that slaughtering horses can never be humane. "They're a big part of our culture and heritage," says Liz Ross, the Animal Welfare Institute's policy advisor. "It's a betrayal to put them on a cattle truck and send them to slaughter."

Ross' organization and several animal welfare and horse-industry groups have pushed Congress to ban horse slaughter for years and are confident they'll succeed this session. Ross says horse slaughter is animal cruelty and should be criminalized. The pending slaughter-ban bills would do just that: criminalize the sale and transport of horses being slaughtered for human consumption.

Nancy Perry, the Humane Society's vice president of government affairs, explains that unlike cows, chickens and pigs, horses live and work closely with people. They're also flighty, fractious and easily frightened. These traits make them ill-suited for industrialized slaughter. Crammed into trailers for long periods, horses fight, panic and injure themselves en route to slaughterhouses, regulated or not. There they are sometimes prodded with electric goads, which terrifies animals used to being led on a halter. Then in the kill box they often frighten and slip or swing their heads. That results in many horses being stunned improperly, Perry says, so they're able to feel pain when they're shackled, hoisted and bled.

To Perry, horses blur the line between pets and livestock. But she maintains that horses -- though legally livestock -- aren't bred and raised for food in the U.S. She also questions how safe horse meat is to eat, given the routine medications and performance-enhancing drugs horses take. And while horses may be an owner's property, she says, states already have animal anti-cruelty laws. "That doesn't mean those animals aren't property. You're just not allowed to torture your dog."

Further, she insists that any proliferation of abandoned or neglected horses being reported today has nothing to do with U.S. slaughterhouses closing. She says there is no proven causal link between slaughter and abandonment and neglect. "In a poor economy, neglect cases always go up. We're seeing the same number of horses go to slaughter in Mexico and Canada as there were before here, so any change that we're seeing right now isn't related to slaughter. It's got to be the economy."

Most slaughter opponents agree there's a horse overpopulation, but Perry doesn't buy the argument that slaughter offers the necessary solution. "We do have an obvious surplus of dogs in this country," she says. "Nobody would condone shipping our dogs to Korean slaughter plants."

Perry and others also dispute that all horses being slaughtered are old or unusable. They say most are in good condition and were just unlucky when a slaughter dealer bought them. Alex Brown, an exercise rider at Canada's Woodbine Racetrack, manages a horse-welfare Web site and regularly attends auctions. He says slaughter dealers mostly bid on younger, healthy horses and contract with slaughterhouses to supply a certain number of horses. "Don't ever believe they're scooping up the horses that nobody else wants. It's a demand-driven business, " he says, that profits foreign companies selling horse meat overseas.

Victoria McCullough, an oil-company owner and competitive horsewoman in Wellington, Fla., bought almost 200 horses being sold for slaughter at an Ohio auction last year. A few were so injured or neglected they had to be euthanized, but about 90 percent were under age 7, in good condition, and have been adopted, she says.

Such slaughter-horse demographics lead her and many others to blame irresponsible breeding for the horse overpopulation. The slaughter industry, McCullough says, rewards overbreeding by providing a dumpster for breeders' surplus horses. "It's just like puppy mills," she says. "These people need to ask, 'Is there a market for this horse?'"

In fact, slaughter opponents say a slaughter ban would shrink the unwanted-horse overpopulation, as overbreeding would be curbed. And, because so many slaughter horses are in good condition, Perry says most would be easily reabsorbed into the horse market; others could go to sanctuaries and rescues or be retrained for second careers. The rest, she says, should be humanely euthanized.

Grandin believes those plans are impractical. She maintains that some owners will neglect or abandon horses if slaughter is banned. And while she agrees overbreeding may be a problem, she says that's reason to promote more-responsible ownership, not ban slaughter. "A better way to deal with the problem is to make slaughterhouses obsolete," she says, by curtailing "indiscriminate backyard breeding" and making alternatives to slaughter more affordable and widely available. She adds that banning slaughter won't stop horses from being slaughtered in Mexico because slaughter dealers will just claim the horses they're exporting are for breeding or riding. As for sanctuaries and rescues, she says many are full and financially strapped because of the recession, and there aren't enough to take the 72,000 or so horses now going to slaughter.

Perry counters that the nation's 450 rescues are always full because new horses are brought in when horses are adopted. And because so many slaughter horses would be reabsorbed into the horse market, she says only a fraction would end up in those facilities, which could be expanded to handle that influx.

Probably not Walkin' N Circles Ranch, says Anna Bowser, administrative director at the horse rescue in Edgewood, N.M. She says her facility, with 60 horses, already has tight finances and an ever-growing waiting list. Livestock-board and animal-control officers are bringing them more seized and abandoned horses, and more people, faced with feeding their horse or their kids, are giving up horses. "The trick is to find people to adopt them," she says. "It's not like owning a dog."

She shows off her newest arrivals: a mare and her days-old fuzzy foal. The mom and a filly had recently been brought in by an animal-control department, which found the horses starving and abandoned. The filly had been attacked by dogs and was nearly dead.

Bowser says her group tries to remain apolitical about slaughter. "There's no easy answer," she says. In New Mexico, where attitudes about animals are wide-ranging, taking a stance might interfere with the group's ability to help horses. "I see all animals the same way," she says. "They are our brothers and sisters on this earth. I try to treat them like I would want to be treated."

By Megan Wilde

Megan Wilde is a writer and horse and donkey owner in Alpine, Texas.

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