|By JANE HOUIN
WASHINGTON, D.C. — As part of the 2006 appropriations process, Congress approved a measure preventing horse slaughter by prohibiting tax-dollar expenditures for inspection of horses or horsemeat. In its final version, the slaughter ban included a 120-day delay - a temporary measure that will close horse-slaughter facilities for eight months next year.
Now, organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States are calling for a permanent ban on horse slaughter, such as that proposed in Senate bill 1915 and House Resolution 503. HR 503 was introduced in February by Reps. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), John Spratt (D-S.C.) and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and is cosponsored by a bipartisan list of 124 representatives. S. 1915 was introduced during last week’s work on the agricultural spending bill by Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) with Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hi.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) as original cosponsors.
“The overwhelming support for banning horse slaughter in both the House and Senate demonstrates that American citizens and lawmakers want to put the protection of our horses above the palates of foreign gourmands,” said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the HSUS.
Supporters of this legislation include the HSUS and other animal welfare groups, as well as the National Show Horse Registry, the National Thoroughbred Racing Assoc., the National Steeplechase Assoc. and Churchill Downs.
Others, however, like the American Assoc. of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Assoc., have dire concerns about the impact of this legislation on unwanted horses in America, including long-term placement of affected horses, funding of care for unwanted horses and the ambiguous language of the bill itself.
A small percentage of U.S. horses are ultimately unwanted according to the AAEP because they are no longer serviceable, are infirm, dangerous, or their owners are no longer able to care for them. In a written statement, the AVMA describes the processing of unwanted horses a necessary aspect of the equine industry and a humane alternative to allowing those horses to continue a life of discomfort and pain, and possibly inadequate care or abandonment.
“No one wants to see horses go to slaughter, but slaughter is currently a more humane alternative than abandonment, neglect, or being exported to Mexico, so until the horse industry develops an infrastructure - facilities, funding, personnel - to deal with unwanted horses by means other than slaughter, it remains the best alternative for many of the 80,000 unwanted horses,” said Nat Messer, DVM and associate professor of equine medicine and surgery at the University of Missouri.
In a publication outlining options for owners of unwanted or unusable horses, the American Quarter Horse Assoc. describes horses that are processed as traditionally unserviceable, vicious, or otherwise unacceptable in today’s equestrian community.
“Certainly many horse owners would not consider this an option for their unwanted horse, but for certain horses it provides a humane alternative to additional suffering or possibly dangerous situations. We respect the right of the responsible horse owner to choose this option when applicable,” reads the AQHA publication.
Currently there are three horse-slaughter plants operating in the United States: two in Texas and one in Illinois. The majority of horsemeat from these facilities is exported to Europe, where it is served in a specialty gourmet market. Additionally, by-products from the slaughter process include fertilizer, pet food, and pharmaceuticals administered for open-heart surgery.
Those in favor of banning the slaughter of horses in the United States contend there are other alternatives for unwanted horses: donation to an equine rescue organization; donating, selling, or leasing the horse to a therapeutic riding organization; selling to another individual; or euthanization followed by legal burial or cremation.
Opponents, however, claim such a ban may in fact lead to more suffering for horses that are unwanted, unused, or abused for physical, behavioral, or economic reasons, and may lead to more horses laying to waste in fields. These opponents contend slaughter is an economical alternative to the costly process of euthanasia and a means of disposal.
According to Messer’s analysis of data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, 1-2 percent (about 75,000–150,000) of the U.S. domestic horse population is slaughtered each year, with another 10,000–20,000 being exported to Canada for slaughter and an unknown number being sent to Mexico for that purpose as well; Messer estimates the number sent to Mexico for slaughter in 2004 to be around 4,000.
“No one know for sure what might happen (to these horses),” Messer said. “It is clear there are not enough rescue or retirement farms or adoption opportunities to deal with 80,000 horses, so owners of unwanted horses will have to either find other homes for them, euthanize them, export them to Canada or Mexico, or abandon them.”
Messer credits the efforts of various equine rescue and welfare organizations and increased public awareness with a nearly 80 percent decrease in the number of horses slaughtered over the last 10 years. However, with the AAEP estimating the minimum yearly cost to care for a horse at $1,825 (not including veterinary and farrier costs and in some cases boarding expenses, which can easily escalate the cost to $5,000), even well-meaning volunteers can become overburdened with the financial cost of caring for unwanted or unserviceable horses.
Although the AAEP notes several excellent equine rescue and retirement facilities operate in the U.S. and play a vital role in providing lifelong care or finding new owners for unwanted horses, there is no national body that provides oversight or accreditation for these facilities.
The key issue, however, according to the AAEP, is the number of unwanted horses that can be cared for permanently or placed with a new owner by existing facilities. Although care capacity typically ranges from five horses per facility to, in a few cases, a maximum of 1,000 horses, the capacity for most facilities is 30 horses or less.
Many horse-industry organizations agree with the need for additional infrastructure to absorb these unwanted horses. Twenty such organizations participated in a second meeting in September to continue the work began at the nation’s first Unwanted Horse Summit, which was held in Washington, D.C. in April. The participants hope to formalize a governance structure and finalize specific strategies to benefit unwanted horses this fall.
While opponents to horse slaughter often cite cruelties and suffering associated with the process, Messer contends that portrayal is not correct.
Although proponents of banning slaughter say there was no increase in animal neglect following the enactment of a similar bill, proposition 6, in California, Messer said there has been no valid, objective assessment of the claim.
“All of us in agriculture must be concerned that if Congress is willing to outlaw slaughter of horses simply because of emotional pleas from their constituents, what’s next on their agenda?” Messer asked.
Published in the November 9, 2005 issue of Farm World.