Horse slaughter ban could be reality

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Jul 24, 2006
by WLJ
Silent movement on bill could mean an extra 90,000 horses with undetermined futures.
Horse slaughtering could be banned permanently in the U.S. in the very near future. In just two months, thousands of unwanted horses may not be shipped to slaughtering facilities. Instead, they will be kept alive, but with equine shelters at maximum capacity, unanswered questions as to who will care for and board them persist. A hearing is to take place July 25 where lawmakers will hear from both sides regarding the permanent ban on horse slaughter. After members of the House return from break in September, a vote is expected the first week of their return.

A vote in favor of House Bill 503, “The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act,” would mean an immediate and permanent ban on the “shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling or donation” of horses in interstate and foreign commerce for slaughter for human consumption. The bill would save approximately 90,000 horses from slaughter yearly, something proponents say is a win for animal welfare. However, opponents cite disaster in the making.

“They think by saving unwanted horses they are solving the problem,” said Cathy Purcell, spokesperson for the three existing U.S. horse slaughtering facilities. The three U.S. slaughtering plants include Dallas Crown in Kaufman, TX, Beltex Corp. in Fort Worth, TX, and Cavel International in DeKalb, IL.

“By doing this, they are actually making the problem worse; 60,000 to 90,000 horses per year, think of how that will snowball.”

According to USDA, 65,976 horses were slaughtered in the U.S. in 2004 and 91,757 were processed in 2005. The meat was then sent abroad for human consumption.

Along with her list of foreseen consequences, Purcell added the loss of jobs, millions in U.S. exports vanishing, Dallas and Fort Worth losing their number one air freight customer and the bottom dropping out of the horse market. She said research indicates an instant loss of $304 per horse in the U.S.

A research study conducted by six universities agrees the consequences are plenty. In fact, the study cites a “conservative estimate of the total cost of caring for unwanted horses, based upon 2005 statistics, is $220 million.” The report states the cumulative annual maintenance costs of otherwise processed horses since the year 2000 would have exceeded more than $513 million in 2005. The report also assumes the export value of unwanted horses for human consumption to be roughly $26 million. The study also states that horse processing facilities offer a humane end-of- life option for approximately 1 percent of the U.S.’s 9.2 million horse population. Validating opponents’ concerns, the study suggests more cases of animal neglect, translated into animal cruelty, will be derived from such a ban.

Carolyn Stull, with the veterinary medicine extension at the University of California Davis, not only participated in this particular research study, but also conducted extensive research for USDA since the early 1990s. She has focused her research on transport conditions and on slaughtering plant regulations.

Stull is not only convinced through research that a ban on horse slaughter would provoke a series of unintended consequences, but more so convinced by witnessing them firsthand in her home state. California banned the slaughtering of horses for human consumption and transportation with the intent to do so in 1998.

“The ban not only took away slaughtering, but also took away all funding for USDA inspections, Stull said. “If this passes, we may have serious biosecurity issues to deal with.”

After conducting the research, Stull said with confidence that if a disease outbreak in horses was ever to occur, there would be no government control.

“There would be no biosecurity, nothing to protect the horse market,” she said. “If a disease outbreak happened there would be no way to process humanely and no way to dispose humanely. The one way to secure an outbreak with veterinarian supervision would be gone. The wow factor after doing the study was how in the heck are we going to dispose of approximately 90,000 head of unwanted horses a year. We can’t cremate that many and shelters are full as it is.”

She said with no processing facilities, diseases would be more prominent and could put public health at risk. As an example, she cited West Nile Virus.

Purcell agrees the consequences of this ban are being overlooked, while emotions take control and foster an opinion that lacks facts.

“Lawmakers are only hearing from people like Bo Derek who can afford fancy retirement homes for elder horses,” said Purcell. “They are not hearing from ranchers,” but she urges them to speak up.

Purcell said the bottom line is determining whether horses are livestock or pets. She said most activists would agree they are pets, and if that is the case, she said pets have to be put down when they can no longer live healthy lives or “perform the functions ranchers hired them to do.”

“This just boils down to the animal rights wackos putting emotions above the well being of animals,” she said. “Just because PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is going nuts doesn’t mean the facts should be muddied with the sentimental attachment to horses.”

Although PETA was unavailable for comment last week, their Web site serves as a descriptive spokesman for their cause. On the organization’s site, onlookers are told of the horrific procedures involved in horse slaughtering and it urges individuals to contact their legislators to ban horse slaughtering all together.

Purcell said this type of information being spread to uniformed citizens is simply playing on emotions. She said, most critically, the information is not completely true. Purcell said horses are not stunned as they were several years ago, they are killed immediately with a “knock gun” or a “bolt gun,” which does not temporarily stun the animal.

Purcell said this initiative is being led by many other animal rights activists including J.P. Goodwin, the grassroots coordinator at the Humane Society of the United States, the world’s richest animal-rights organization. This organization is not related to the Humane Societies that shelter animals in the U.S.

Goodwin, who previously co-founded the Texas-based Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade, is clear about his intentions, writing in one Internet activist listserve: “My goal is the abolition of all animal agriculture.” He’s developed a lengthy arrest record in pursuit of that goal. He was arrested and convicted for being the ringleader of a crew that vandalized fur retailers in multiple states during the 1990s. Purcell said he released some 10,000 minks, of which 4,000 or so died. She said the same will happen with thousands of unwanted horses with no one to care for them.
Jim Ahern with Cal Poly’s agribusiness department in San Luis Obispo, CA, also participated in the massive study. He focused on the human consumption perspective. Ahern said although most Americans do not consume horse meat, we cannot dictate what is food and what is not for the rest of the world. He continued by saying the nutritional value of horses is higher than most red meats.

“Banning horse slaughter could affect people in these export markets as they rely on horse meat for affordable food and it makes up a large percentage of their diets,” said Ahern.

He said although many consider Belgium and France to be the largest consumers of horse, the U.S.’s largest export markets are China and Mexico.

“We export approximately 1.7 million pounds to China, nearly triple Mexico’s 600,000 pounds, the second largest export market.”

He said by banning slaughter in California, he has witnessed the elimination of the lower end of the horse market. Ahern said burros are already running wild on public land property as well as wild horses in northern San Luis Obispo county and he assumes the population will just get larger with a permanent ban in the U.S. With most of this property being desert land, he ponders how the horses will survive. Stull agrees with Ahern’s concerns, recalling an incident in San Luis Obispo where hundreds of horses were found starving and with shelter facilities already saturated, viable options for control were gone.

“We couldn’t handle hundreds, and money certainly doesn’t exist to handle thousands,” said Stull. “California couldn’t even take care of their own little problem. What’s going to happen when that problem is not so little?”

The bill, introduced by Reps. John Sweeney, R-NY, John Spratt, D-SC, and Ed Whitfield, R-KY, is expected to be brought to a vote in September, though it is not by any means the first attempt to ban horse slaughtering. A measure to further protect horses from slaughter was signed into law in November by President Bush. The law bars USDA from paying for inspections of horses before slaughter and started March 10. The idea, according to PETA, was to force plants to shut down because federal law requires all livestock to be inspected before slaughter. However, the three slaughterhouses said they will pay the inspectors’ salaries under a “fee for service” arrangement similar to the system used for elk and other exotic animals. The USDA since agreed to allow slaughtering to continue under this arrangement. This further inspired activists’ fiery passion to end slaughtering. There is also a similar bill in the Senate (S. 1915), introduced last October by Sens. John Ensign, R-NV, and Mary Landrieu, D-LA. It has been referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The fast moving House bill’s hearing will be heard by the Energy and Commerce committee, which Purcell said has angered some who feel it should be heard by the agricultural committee. She said there is talk of having two hearings, the second one in the House Committee on Agriculture.

“These initiatives have been bantered around like a political football,” said Purcell. “Here we go again, they are not following the facts, or their facts are wrong. This time, a permanent ban is closer than ever before and ranchers need to speak up.” She continued by saying it makes more sense to side with veterinarians, not PETA, and urges ranchers to call their lawmakers. — Mike Deering, WLJ Editor