Horse legislation spurs speculation over slaughter facilities, unlikely supporters

Dec 9, 2011

The ink had hardly dried on the latest agriculture spending bill when horse industry advocates began toasting the historic removal of a six-year ban on USDA horse slaughter inspection. Signed into law Nov. 18, the new bill no longer contains a congressional rider that has banned USDA inspection of horse slaughter facilities and meat since 2006, effectively mothballing the once $65 million American horse slaughter industry.

Texas and Illinois saw the last remaining horse slaughter plants shuttered in 2007.

Supporters of lifting the inspection ban and resuming horse processing have argued that domestic slaughter plants are necessary to prevent the suffering of unwanted horses, which, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report, are being increasingly abandoned and starved, and to provide an economic “floor” for the horse industry.

In a statement, Sue Wallis, Wyoming state representative and vice president of equine advocacy group United Horsemen, voiced her satisfaction with the development.

“We could not be more pleased,” said Wallis, “and grateful to our many partners and supporters to once again have a clear path to increase the welfare of horses, reinvigorate the devastated horse-related economy, and promote the ethical, appropriate use of horses ...”

Currently, many unwanted horses are shipped across the border for slaughter in Mexico and Canada. But uncertain slaughter conditions, uncomfortable shipping arrangements, and prices driven down by shipping costs have all added weight to the argument that horses and horse owners would be better served by state-side slaughter facilities inspected by USDA.

The big question now on everyone’s mind is: Who will open the first horse slaughter plant? And where?

According to a report in The Oklahoman, there is speculation that horse slaughter plants are being considered in several western states, including Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, as well as in Georgia and Missouri.

Although no one has yet stepped forward to throw their hat into the ring, Wallis is confident that the effort and passion she and others have put into promoting humane slaughter as a key component of horse welfare will see a slaughter facility operating by spring.

“I guarantee it will happen,” Wallis told The Oklahoman. “The horse world is very motivated. We’ve really laid the groundwork ... to make sure it’s done very, very well. Everyone in the horse world is so excited we may have an opportunity to turn the whole equine market around.”

Yet there are several reasons why opening a horse processing facility at this early stage may be somewhat risky, and could give investors pause before going full steam ahead.

First, although Congress has lifted any impediment to funding USDA inspections, it did not specifically allocate any federal funds for that purpose. Critics of horse slaughter, such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, have claimed that the inspections could cost up to $5 million a year and maintain that the expenditure is inappropriate.

“At a time when Congress is cutting funds for education and other vital programs,” read a statement on the group’s website, “it is outrageous that taxpayers would be asked to add $5 million to the budget for something as senseless as horse slaughter.”

However, there are indications that USDA would in fact be willing to carry through with inspections if and when they are requested. According to a report in the Billings Gazette, USDA has released a statement indicating that although no horse slaughter facilities that provide meat for human consumption are currently in operation, if one were to open, USDA “would conduct inspections to make sure federal laws were being followed.”

It is also questionable how long-lived the lifting on the inspection ban will last. The new appropriations bill is only effective until September 2012. Conceivably, the language banning inspections could be reinserted in subsequent bills. Alternatively, anti-slaughter activists continue to pursue legislation that would ban horse slaughter outright.

But the lifting of the horse slaughter inspection ban has not come without some unexpected supporters. In a move that is likely to stun many animal rights activists, the controversial animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has come out in favor of reviving the American horse slaughter industry in a bid to end the practice of transporting horses long distance to Mexico and Canada, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Better known for nearnaked publicity stunts and splashing fur wearers with bloody-red paint than for measured responses to animal related issues, PETA released a statement to the Times explaining that although the best solution would be to ban horse slaughter entirely, allowing for domestic slaughter is preferable to shipping horses to uncertain fates in other countries.

“PETA was always worried about the horse-slaughter bill, fearing that it might cause more suffering while the option existed to ship horses on a frightening, long, and miserable journey to Canada or Mexico to meet their end in slaughterhouses there,” the statement read.

“This transport of live horses—often in vehicles with low ceilings in which horses must hunch over, slipping and sliding on their own waste ... is an indictment of the horse-breeding and ranching business. To reduce suffering, there should be a ban on the export of live horses, even if that means opening slaughterhouses in the U.S. again.”

That said, PETA’s objective to eliminate all slaughter of American horses remains unchanged.

“[T]he better option is to ban slaughter in the U.S. and ban the export of live horses so that no one is slaughtering America’s horses,” the statement emphasized.

“It’s quite an unpopular position we’ve taken,” PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk told the Christian Science Monitor. “There was a rush to pass a bill that said you can’t slaughter [horses] anymore in the United States. But

the reason we didn’t support it, which sets us almost alone, is the amount of suffering that it created exceeded the amount of suffering it was designed to stop.”

Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent