The author of a bill that would legalize horse slaughter in Oklahoma agreed it could mean monetary gain for the livestock auction house owned by her grandparents and managed by her family.
Rep. Skye McNiel said that gain would be shared equally by all the state's horse auctioneers and is not substantial compared to the financial gain to the state's horse owners who are seeking an avenue to dispose of animals that have lost their use.
The Bristow Republican, whose grandparents opened Mid America Stockyards in Bristow more than 40 years ago, said she proposed House Bill 1999 because she saw a problem firsthand and decided to help solve it.
“It's no different from an attorney running a tort reform bill or a pharmacist running a pharmacy bill,” McNiel, 34, said. “I'm from rural Oklahoma and I run rural legislation. I mean, who better to understand policy than somebody who lives it every day?”
Critics of the legislation complain that, among other things, the bill presents a conflict of interest for its author. An advocacy group called Wild Horse Observers Association filed a complaint last month with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission for that reason.
Law has exemption
But a state law that prohibits legislators from introducing bills that would benefit their immediate family makes an exception for legislation that “could reasonably be foreseen to accrue to all other members of the profession.”
Though Mid America could see commissions on horses sold at its biweekly auctions double or even triple should the bill become law, so too would the 11 other businesses licensed by the state to auction horses.
Patience O'Dowd, founder of the Wild Horse Observers Association, said she believes McNiel, in introducing the legislation, blatantly violated the intent of the ethics law.
“If it's a good bill, then perhaps another legislator should bring it,” said O'Dowd, who lives in Placitas, N.M. “Usually you don't want to even have the appearance of having an issue. If they don't want to be squeaky clean, then maybe they shouldn't be in that office.”
Closures hurt prices
The last domestic horse slaughter house closed in 2007, a year after federal inspections of such facilities ended. The market since has moved to neighboring countries, Mexico and Canada.
More than 18,000 horses were shipped from Oklahoma to Mexico for slaughter last year, according to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
Terry Crawford, legion executive officer for the Oklahoma Livestock Marketing Association, said the slaughter house closures meant higher freight costs to ship horses abroad.
Prices for horses sold at Oklahoma auctions subsequently were reduced to 30 cents per pound from as high as a dollar per pound previously, Crawford said.
Effect on auctions
Sloan Varner, McNiel's brother and an auctioneer at Mid America, the largest horse auction in the state, estimated as many as two-thirds of the 5,000 horses sold there in a typical year are sent to slaughter houses.
But the family has no way of knowing for sure what happens to the horses they sell, Varner said.
“It's not our business what they do with them,” he said. “All of the guys that buy slaughter horses also buy riding horses, and sometimes they buy horses intended for slaughter that they go out and fool with and sell back to somebody who intends to ride.”
Varner said a horse sold at Mid America today fetches about 25 cents per pound — or about $250 for an average 1,000-pound horse — compared to about 80 cents per pound before the 2007 slaughter house closures.
The company collects a 6 percent commission on each horse sold, he said.
If 5,000 horses are auctioned in a year, weighing an average of 1,000 pounds, Mid America could expect to collect about $75,000 in annual commissions on horse sales.
Were prices to increase under McNiel's legislation to pre-2007 days, the company could make as much as $240,000 commission on horse sales in a year's time.
If a slaughter house opened in Oklahoma, those numbers likely would be substantially higher.
McNiel said neither she nor her husband has any ownership stake in Mid America, nor do they intend to.
She said she worked full-time at the auction house until she was about six months' pregnant with her oldest daughter, now 10, but now only checks in horses during auctions every other Monday night and serves food in the cafeteria on Fridays.
McNiel said her experiences in livestock auctioning give her a firsthand understanding of the issues faced by those who work in the industry.
“I see the problem of the abused, abandoned, starved horses, and I see what it does when our sheriff has to pick up those horses and quarantine for 30 and 60 days — it's taxpayer dollars,” she said.
“And I see when people have nowhere to go with their horses but just to turn them out or cut fences and put them into somebody else's pastures. I understand this issue maybe more than anybody else.”