Final Roundup

Despite increasing public pressure to ban the practice, thousands of Colorado's horses will end their lives not out to pasture but on foreign dinner plates. Unless some determined rescuers—and their unlikely allies—can save them.

February 2008

In the weeks before and after that auction last spring, the three U.S. slaughter plants began to shut down because of court decisions in Texas and Illinois; the Illinois plant was the last to close, in September.

But while this would seem to be good news for horse advocates, the end of slaughter here has only moved it across the border. The animals, including the ones from the Fort Collins auction, are now facing more prolonged periods of mistreatment and cruelty as they're trucked longer distances, often without food or water, to Mexico and Canada to be butchered in slaughterhouses less humane than those here. In the United States, horses are killed "humanely," as approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, by a gunshot or a penetrating captive bolt, both intended (though not always successful) to result in quick deaths. In Mexico, the second-largest producer of horse meat after China, things are different. A plant worker stabs horses in the back with a large blade, often repeatedly, in an attempt to sever the spinal cord. This leaves horses paralyzed but still sensible to pain as they are dragged from the kill box, hoisted up by a chain, and their necks are slit.

Animal welfare groups like the Humane Society, as well as horse rescue operations and their sympathizers, believe that the only way to save America's horses from foreign forks is federal legislation that will ban both domestic slaughter and the transport of horses for slaughter over our borders. The Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which stipulated a total ban on the practice and the sale or transport of American horses for slaughter, passed in the 2006 House session by an overwhelming vote of 263-146, but died without reaching the Senate floor. The 2007 session closed with the bill stalled, and its status looks unertain in 2008.

Interestingly, the forces actively opposing the bill include such horse-loving folks as the American Quarter Horse Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, another big veterinary organization. They argue universally that without horse slaughter to dispose of unwanted animals, the government would be forced to provide horse welfare for every horse not killed. Their second argument contends that slaughtering horses reduces the abuse and neglect they would otherwise suffer from owners who don't want them any more.

But horse welfare advocates refute these arguments as unsupported by facts, just like the myth that lame and elderly horses find their way to slaughter. After all, ban supporters point out, about 10 percent of the total U.S. horse population (of about 9.2 million in 2005) dies every year. Nine percent of them die naturally or are humanely euthanized and disposed of without problems. The other one percent consists of slaughter horses, mostly young and healthy animals.

A detailed study by John Holland, a passionate horse advocate and consultant in the field of intelligent automation, explains that the one percent of "unwanted" slaughter horses would simply be absorbed into the general population by resale, rescue, or euthanasia if slaughter were banned. Holland notes that slaughter numbers have been generally declining, while the total U.S. horse population has actually been rising by three to five percent annually. Yet there's been no corresponding stampede of wandering, unwanted horses on the nation's byways, and no need for government horse welfare.

Legislators like Colorado Democratic Representative John Salazar, a lifelong rancher and horse owner, choose, however, to echo the financial argument. He voted against the anti-slaughter bill twice, citing a pro-slaughter report and arguing it would cost $1,900 per year to house each unwanted and abandoned horse—$127 million in the first year to properly care for the animals if the ban were enacted. But in Colorado, euthanasia for a horse costs a few hundred dollars, and charitable hearts help fund the thousands of animal shelters around the country. Why would horses be any different?

Another possible reason for the slaughter advocacy is the slippery slope theory. The American Quarter Horse Association—which claims a large number of members involved in farming and ranching—seems afraid that outlawing the slaughter of horses for human consumption may lead to bans on the slaughter of other animals. In a letter urging its members to contact their elected representatives, the AQHA says the anti-slaughter measure must be defeated "because it sets a precedent for banning other meats for reasons other than science, safety, or public health." Nearly identical "we're next" language appears in other letters to Congress opposing the anti-slaughter bill, letters authored by the Farm Animal Welfare Coalition, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and the National Pork Producers Council. At an Agriculture Committee hearing in 2006, Representative Salazar revealed similar motivation, commenting "I like meat," and at the end of the hearing saying he'd probably have to turn into a vegetarian if the bill passed.

Despite opposition, horse advocates remain optimistic that the slaughter ban will eventually pass—it has been placed back on the Senate legislative calendar for 2008. But in the meantime the auctions continue.