Wyoming passes legislation allowing for slaughter of unclaimed horses

Mar 19, 2010

In a landmark act of legislation, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal signed HB-122 Disposal of Livestock into law last week, effectively allowing for the slaughter of abandoned horses in the state of Wyoming. More specifically, the law provides the Wyoming Board of Livestock with several tools for handling livestock that fall under the board’s jurisdiction which are classified as abandoned, feral, abused, or estray (when ownership cannot be established). As before, these animals can be offered at sale to the public. However, the new law also allows for the slaughter or euthanization of abandoned or feral livestock animals.

The law does not pertain to wild horses protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which are under federal jurisdiction.

Although the law is designed to address issues pertaining to all species of feral, stray, and abandoned livestock, a primary motivation behind the legislation was to manage the growing problem of abandoned and unwanted horses, which has not only caused a serious softening of the horse market, but also has resulted in the suffering and starvation of abandoned animals.

Furthermore, according to a press release from United Organizations of the Horse (UOH), a mutual benefit trade organization of the equine industry, the number of unclaimed horses in Wyoming has annually been tripling in recent years, ever since the 2007 closure of the three remaining slaughter plants in the U.S., two of which were in Texas, and one in Illinois. These unclaimed horses have presented state authorities with an ongoing and expensive problem. In previous years, the cost of gathering and maintaining unclaimed horses could be offset by offering these horses at sale to buyers. But with horse demand at historical lows, these stray horses, which are often of poor quality, frequently bring next to nothing at sale. Emergency funding has become necessary in the past to absorb the costs of feeding and boarding unwanted horses, and with no other alternatives on the table, solutions to Wyoming’s horse overpopulation problem have been hard to come by.

The new legislation will allow the Wyoming Board of Livestock to have unclaimed horses slaughtered for human consumption, with the meat being sold at cost to state institutions or charitable programs in Wyoming, or else at market price to Wyoming retail consumers, with the proceeds funneling back into the Wyoming Department of Livestock-run program. There is also the possibility that horse meat may be marketed to zoos.

According to Jim Schwartz, director of the Wyoming Board of Livestock, sale of unclaimed horses is still strongly preferable to slaughter, and there are no plans to provide horse meat on an ongoing basis. "The first priority is probably to try and sell the animal," says Schwartz. Alternatively, horse slaughter may occur in isolated situations where unwanted horses cannot be placed and there is a demand for the meat. However, "The Livestock Board does not anticipate getting into the meat business," explains Schwartz. "The legislation has given us options: we can continue to sell, we can send to slaughter, or we can dispose of the animal. Those are options we haven’t had in the past."

Though many people may not realize it, slaughtering horses for human consumption is still legal in all states except California, Illinois, and Texas, which have state laws banning it. Proposed federal legislation, the "American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act," strongly supported by Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, would have federally banned horse slaughter altogether in 2007. But despite the efforts of Pickens and other animal rights activists, this bill failed to pass in the senate, and no federal ban was put in place.

But although slaughtering horses for human consumption is still technically legal in most states, it is practically unfeasible. This is because for the past several years, Congress has put a rider on appropriations measures that prohibits the use of funds or user fees for inspection of horse meat meant for human consumption. In other words, the USDA will neither pay, nor accept payment for inspectors overseeing the processing of horse meat bound for human consumption. With no USDA inspection, no horse meat can be sold over state lines, unless it is for the far less lucrative zoo meat market. But processing zoo meat does not bring sufficient returns to justify the existence of a horse packing plant. By contrast, the product previously sold out of the Texas and Illinois plants was primarily destined for sale in Europe and Japan, where horse meat fetches a premium.

The Wyoming legislation circumvents the ban on USDA inspection of horse meat by authorizing the slaughter of unclaimed horses by state-inspected facilities. Wyoming, like many western states, has its own state-run meat inspection program. Processing facilities and horse meat would be inspected by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, which has standards that meet or exceed those of the USDA. Although state inspection, as opposed to USDA inspection, precludes selling any horse meat over state lines, the Wyoming Board of Livestock would be free to sell horse meat for human consumption within the state, and to export meat for zoos to any state of its choosing.

Explains Sue Wallis, executive director of UOH, "There’s absolutely nothing preventing us from slaughtering a horse in Wyoming and using the meat in Wyoming after it’s been through a Wyoming-inspected slaughter plant."

The Wyoming legislation is revolutionary in that it allows the Wyoming Board of Livestock to take the expensive problem of horse overpopulation and use it as a resource for providing needy people with inexpensive, high-quality food. Although the board has no intention of using the slaughter option as either a primary or an ongoing means of horse control, the very presence of the option itself signals a shift in thinking about horses and their appropriate uses for humans.

And the forward-looking aspect of this experiment goes beyond a rethink of how to manage the horse issue. Parties involved with shaping the legislation also aim to develop a model for the humane processing of horses that will make the practice more widely acceptable to the public. UOH is coordinating a working group that includes state agencies, private meat processing businesses, nonprofit relief organizations, Dr. Temple Grandin, veterinarians and other experts to design a system for processing the horses, and for the efficient and practical use of valuable meat and byproducts. The product of this working group will be a pilot Equine Assurance Program which will serve as a example for other states to utilize to address animal welfare concerns, and ensure the humane handling, transportation,and processing of horses. It is also designed to address meat quality issues.

The new Wyoming legislation is an attempt, at least in part, to solve the horse overpopulation problem common in so many western states. Although there are no plans for the Board of Livestock’s slaughter option to be used regularly, what is unique about the Wyoming legislation is that it is based on the key assumption that horse slaughter is an acceptable, humane practice, and that horse meat can be a food source, not just for foreigners, but for Americans, as well. That assumption represents a profound shift in thinking, from conceiving of horses as pets and companions, to viewing them as livestock.

Sue Wallis anticipates that this shift will not be welcome in all quarters: "Of course there will be ... an uproar from the animal rights folks, and that’s to be expected. Their whole agenda is to shut down animal agriculture completely. They know that horses are the point of the spear because they can convince urban people that horses are like dogs and cats. There are zillions of people in this country who love horses. And those folks are easy to manipulate. ...What’s harder is to tell them the truth." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent