Jan. 25, 2005 – Last November, the US Congress approved an amendment that reversed three decades of US government policy prohibiting companies from slaughtering wild horses living on public lands. The amendment permits the sale of wild horses that have been rounded up and are more than ten years old or that have been unsuccessfully offered for adoption three times. Lawmakers buried the language in the 3,000-plus pages of the FY 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Bill that President Bush signed into law last December.
This development has outraged animal rights activists. "The amendmentâ€™s passage now opens up the floodgates," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Washington, DC-based Humane Society of the United States. "The US government will no longer try to adopt the thousands of horses that are on public lands. Instead, it will allow horses to be sent directly to auctions where they can be bought, slaughtered and then sold for horse meat."
The amendmentâ€™s passage is the latest controversy in the long-running campaign of animal rights advocates to protect American horses from what they charge is indiscriminate and inhumane slaughter. US Department of Agriculture statistics show that humans slaughter tens of thousands of horses annually in the US, while many more are being shipped to meet a similar demise across the US-Canadian border.
"Itâ€™s an American tragedy," said Karen Harkson, President of Equine Voices Rescue and Sanctuary in Amado, Arizona. "These horses suffer terribly before they are butchered. Eighty percent of those horses are healthy, and many more of their [former] owners donâ€™t realize that they will be slaughtered." The non profit Equine Voices Rescue and Sanctuary rescues horses and then works to have them adopted.
At the plant, the horses are shuttled through a chute where electrified pins zap them in the forehead, ostensibly to stun them.
The amendment affects some 37,000 horses and burros presently running free on public lands in ten western states as part of the Bureau of Land Managementâ€™s (BLM) National Wild Horse and Burro Program. The BLM holds in captivity an additional 14,000 horses in Oklahoma and Kansas, while keeping a few thousand more in regional facilities.
According to Markarian, horses on public lands are being targeted because they are seen as competition for forage by the cattle industry. "Cattlemen claim that the cattle are in competition with the horses and burros for forage because of recent droughts in the West in the recent years," he said. Markarian, however, pointed out that the approximately 37,000 horses and burros are sharing the same land with three to four million cattle. "Itâ€™s nearly one horse per 100 cattle, but the ranchers want the horses and burros off public lands," Markarian said. "Cattle ranchers get a free ride on the backs of American taxpayers. They are using public lands and the American taxpayer is paying for it."
Maxine Shane, a BLM spokesperson, told the press last November that at least 8,000 of the horses held in captivity are eligible for sale to the highest bidder. But as Patricia Stafford, a Rock Hill, SC activist campaigning against horse slaughter, explained: "The USâ€™s entire wild horse population will be affected because they are located on public lands that the BLM manages."
Since the BLM began its adoption program in 1973 until September 2004, more than 203,000 wild horses and burros have been adopted. Historically, unadoptable horses have been returned to the range. "We believe that wild horses living on public lands should be left alone and not be made a part of the pipeline heading to the slaughter houses," Markarian said.
That is whatâ€™s happening, though -- not just to the wild horses of the West, but also to horses of all ages and breeds. Losing race horses, sick and disabled horses, surplus riding school horses and foals that are used in the Pregnant Mare Urine industry, which produces the estrogen-replacement drug Premarin, are slaughtered for their meat. The national Humane Society reports that many of the horses its investigators have seen purchased for slaughter were in good health and bought for just a few hundred dollars.
What is remarkable is that most of this thriving slaughter industry occurs at just two plants in the US: Beltex and Dallas Crown Inc., both of which are foreign-owned and located in Texas. Two other plants, also held by foreign interests, have burned down since 1997. Authorities suspect that the Animal Liberation Front was responsible for the first fire in Richmond, Washington, while they have been unable to determine the cause of the second fire at the plant in DeKalb, Illinois, which re-opened last June.
Little is known about the two plants in Texas, for they keep low profiles. According to court papers, Beltex has processed horsemeat for human consumption for 27 years and employs 90 people. In 2001, it processed 27,000 horses and had gross revenues of $30 million. In the same year, Dallas Crown Inc., which has 40 employees, processed more than 13,000 horses and had gross revenues of $9 million.
The horsemeat is shipped to Europe or Japan where it is sold for as much as $20 a pound. In Japan raw horseflesh ice cream is reportedly becoming popular.
"The fact that horsemeat is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world is helping to fuel the horse slaughter industry," Brown said.
The slaughter of horses continues in Texas, although state law has prohibited the sale, possession, transport and export of horsemeat for human consumption since 1949, and horsemeat is not legally consumed anywhere in the United States. The two Texas horse slaughter companies have filed suit in federal court claiming that federal law trumps the enforcement of Texas law so their operations are legal.
Forced closure of the slaughter plants is opposed by several prominent horse and veterinarian groups, including the American Horse Council, the American Paint Horse Association and the American Quarter Horse Association, some of the worldâ€™s largest organizations for horse veterinarians and owners.
Temple Grandin, a professor at the University of Colorado at Fort Collins and a leading authority on the treatment of livestock by humans and has designed widely adopted slaughterhouse systems, criticizes anti-slaughter groups. In a recent interview with TNS, she charged that opponents of horse slaughter misunderstand the consequences of the trade. Grandin explained, "Some horses do get hurt on trucks, but the biggest problem is owner neglect -- long before the horses get to the slaughter houses."
Animal rights activists counter that the inhumane treatment of the horses is endemic to the industry. On its website, the Humane Society of the US notes that "the cruelty of horse slaughter is not limited to the killing of animals." It describes the following scenario as typical of the industry:
Often terrified horses and ponies are crammed together and transported to the slaughterhouses in double-deck trucks designed for cattle and pigs. The truck ceilings are so low that the horses are not able to hold their heads in a normal, balanced position. Inappropriate floor surfaces lead to slips and falls, and sometimes even trampling. Some horses arrive at the slaughterhouses seriously injured or dead.
At the plant, the horses are shuttled through a chute where electrified pins zap them in the forehead, ostensibly to stun them. They are then hoisted to the ceiling where their throats are slit and the blood collected in the buckets on the "killing floor." The bodies are then stripped for the meat.
Horse slaughter opponents have lobbied for the passage of the American Horse Slaughter Act (HR 857 IH), which several legislators have introduced into the house. The act will prevent the slaughter of horses in the United States for human consumption. An individual in violation of the law could be fined $2,500 to $5,000 and imprisoned for up to one year in jail. The bill currently has at least 181 co-sponsors, but it is still in committee.