Summit draws crowd to discuss horse slaughter, welfare

Jan 21, 2011

The times, they are a changing’. At least, that would seem to be the case as regards the much ballyhooed clash over horse slaughter and horse population control. Long portrayed as a showdown between morally-outraged animal lovers and cold-hearted, money-minded profiteers, a new middle ground is being carved out by equine professionals, veterinarians, scientists and horse enthusiasts who view humane slaughter as part of the solution to ballooning equine populations which many claim have led to abuse, starvation, and abandonment.

Horse slaughter has not been practiced in the U.S. since the last U.S. horse slaughter facility was closed down in 2007 following an appropriations rider that pulled federal funding for the USDA inspection of horse meat.

But the anti-slaughter tide may be turning, or at least getting a second hard look. The Summit of the Horse (Summit), which was held Jan. 3-6 in Las Vegas, NV, represents a historic first congregation of horse industry professionals, scientists, vets, and horse lovers who see humane slaughter as a partial answer to the difficult questions of an inflated horse population, an overabundance of unwanted horses, and the impacts of these horses on both rangelands and economies.

The event drew 209 attendees, with another 879 unique spectators participating over an internet broadcast.

Participants of the Summit represented a broad range of interests and expertise, from horse rescue owners and native tribal representatives, to ranchers and range scientists, to vets and wildlife experts. Some attendees traveled from Canada and Mexico to participate, and the event garnered extensive national media coverage. Articles appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, among other newspapers, as well as being featured on a score of radio and television programs.

Sue Wallis, executive director of United Horsemen, the non-profit horse industry group that organized the Summit, was delighted at the exposure given to the event.

“[O]ur primary objective as organizers was to create a forum where the voices of the horse world, and those deeply concerned about the health of lands where horses both wild and domestic are managed, could be heard by a misinformed and emotionally manipulated American public,” stated Wallis.

“That goal was achieved beyond our expectations.”

Wallis is a Wyoming state representative and sixth-generation rancher. Dave Duquette, reined cow horse trainer and president of United Horsemen, and Tracee Bentley, legislative affairs for the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts, joined Wallis in putting together the event.

According to United Horsemen’s website, the Summit was intended to raise and discuss pressing questions “surrounding the management, sustainability, and economic viability of our horses and our horseback culture.” Over the course of four days, over 45 conference speakers tackled difficult issues and sought answers.

Among the highlights of the conference, renowned animal behavior specialist and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, Dr. Temple Grandin, who was also the subject of a recent award-winning television bio-pic, spoke on standards for the humane handling of horses, setting a background for a potential future humane horse slaughter protocol.

On a separate issue, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Bob Abbey discussed sustainable and realistic solutions to the BLM Wild Horse and Burro program. BLM has made clear that they will not use euthanization or slaughter as a means of controlling expanding horse populations on public rangelands, although the law calls for these measures. Yet with adoption numbers continuing to fall, this has made the question of how those populations are to be controlled all the more acute, and BLM is under pressure to come up with workable solutions.

According to a report in the Elko Daily Free Press, both Abbey and Grandin were asked to boycott the Summit by the Humane Society of the United States. They refused.

Other notable speakers included J.D Alexander, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association vice president; Bill desBarres, executive director, Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada; Karen Budd-Falen, public lands attorney and owner of Budd-Falen Law Offices; and Katherine Minthorn Good Luck, Umatilla Tribe, Intertribal Agricultural Agency.

Duquette indicated that the exposure created by the Summit will challenge the public to start thinking about the slaughter issue in a different light and to recognize that horses are suffering right now from abandonment and neglect.

Radio stations have been eager to host Duquette and Wallis on their programs, and as far as Duquette is concerned, the air time offers a tremendous opportunity for the United Horsemen to spread their message.

“The main solution that we’re proposing is to bring back processing as an option,” explains Duquette. “…[T]hat will help the exasperated situation, and also revive the horse industry.”

Duquette emphasized that public education, and the fundraising to make it possible, are the main challenges facing the organization. The public has largely supported a ban on horse slaughter, driven by horror stories circulated by animal rights activists about inhumane processing plants. United Horsemen hopes to show the public that horse slaughter can be practiced humanely, like the slaughter of other livestock. But with the public’s stomach having been turned, United Horsemen have an uphill battle.

“The general public has been very misled by the activist groups. [They]’ve done a really good job of putting misinformation out there,” admits Duquette.

“That’s our biggest hurdle, is to educate all the folks out there as to what we’re up against.”

Some vocal critics of the Summit remain staunchly unconvinced that slaughter is the answer, or even that there is a problem that needs solving.

Written off as a “slaughter conference,” “slaughter summit,” and a “slaughterfest” by animal rights advocates, the Summit was criticized as a congregation of killer buyers and other people who could profit from the slaughter of horses and have no interest in their welfare. Such animal rights groups adamantly oppose trucking slaughter horses to Mexico and Canada, where horse processing is still legal, on the ground that the transportation and slaughter conditions are inhumane. However, they also oppose reopening U.S. slaughter facilities under a new humane horse processing protocol on the basis that horses are pets and companion animals, and should not be treated as food.

A number of demonstrators congregated outside the South Point Hotel where the Summit was being held to protest the Summit’s agenda. In one bizarre incident, anti-slaughter and animal rights journalist Simone Netherlands was asked by organizer Wallis to depart the event after it was found that she had signed in under a false name and slammed the Summit in a news interview the previous day, according to Duquette. Netherlands then accused Wallis of physical assault. A review of video footage by police and South Point security found no evidence of violence.

According to Duquette, the single most beneficial outcome of the Summit was getting the foundation laid for a broad coalition of groups to organize behind the idea that equine slaughter can be an acceptable and humane practice.

This week, Duquette and others will travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with a broad representation of wildlife groups, conservation districts, the Public Lands Council, and major horse industry groups to hammer out a unified position on the issue of slaughter with a view to influencing lawmakers and having USDA inspection of horse meat reinstated.

“That’s probably the greatest accomplishment [of] the Summit,” remarked Duquette.

Wallis, meanwhile, found that the willingness of people from diverse backgrounds to search together for solutions to hard questions represented the greatest achievement of the event.

“That atmosphere of respect and decorum may, in fact, be the finest triumph of the Summit of the Horse,” Wallis stated.

“Did we solve every problem? No. But I guarantee you that every single one of us who participated in those discussions, who listened to those experts, who shared our experiences, our frustrations, and our challenges, came away with a much deeper understanding of the true scope and breadth of the problems, and the absolute mandate to move forward to make things better for horses and horse people.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent