Horse slaughter plants have become legal again, after Congress quietly unbridled restrictions on processing horse meat. President Barack Obama signed the enabling bill on Nov. 18.
Entities already are considering opening plants in Oregon, and possibly Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Georgia and Missouri, slaughter plant proponent Sue Wallis said.
Between 120,000 to 200,000 horses will be killed for human consumption per year, she estimates.
In coming months, the first couple of plants may open, said Wallis. The Wyoming state representative said her pro-slaughter group “United Horsemen,” is working closely with entities to open what she says will be humane slaughter plants. However, plants will have to get state approval and could face court challenges, said Lauren Silverman Simon, a federal lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States. Wallis also said she is working with some tribes on eventually opening plants to help control multiplying wild horse herds.
“I guarantee it will happen. The horse world is very motivated,” Wallis said. “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.”
As vigorously as Wallis has worked to return horse slaughter to this country, others have worked just as passionately to keep it at bay.
“They're signing the death sentence for thousands of our American horses. The wild mustangs in Oklahoma and every horse in Oklahoma is at risk,” said Oklahoma City horse advocate Stephanie Graham. “Horses are going to die and it's going to be brutal.”
Nine million horses
Though there are many issues, the debate boils down to how Americans view the country's estimated nine million horses. Many people consider horses the iconic symbols of the American West, creatures loved in their role as work, show, pleasure and companion animals. Some say slaughter is wrong for these animals. Others say they love their own horses but slaughter is appropriate and better controlled if done in American plants in order to reduce excess horses. Some view horses as livestock and their meat as an appropriate food on the dinner plate, not only in other countries but also on American tables as recently as the mid-1940s.
American horses are regularly hauled away and killed in Canada and Mexico slaughter plants. Last year's government figures show almost 138,000 U.S. horses were exported for slaughter.
Since 2006, Congress has effectively prohibited horse slaughter in the states by not funding U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections of horses transported for slaughter and at slaughter houses. State laws shut down the last three horse slaughter houses, in Illinois and Texas, in 2007. After that, the non-funding prevented others from opening. If it can't be inspected, it can't be sold.
The bill that effectively changed the policy was a huge spending bill covering several different agencies and departments such as the USDA.
Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, got an amendment passed in the House Appropriations Committee in May to continue the ban on funding inspections. But a few lawmakers stripped out the amendment before the bill was finalized, passed by both houses this month and signed into law.
With legislators hearing from all sides of the issue, they requested a Government Accounting Office report (see the accompanying article for details) for guidance in assessing what has happened since the ban on funding USDA inspections.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he voted against Moran's amendment to continue the ban.
Cole said numerous horse owners in his district are “pretty unanimous that they want the means to deal with an excess population.”
He said opponents of domestic horse slaughter “are letting their hearts overrule their heads.”
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., was one of the members of a House-Senate committee who worked to strip out the amendment.
“We wanted to allow horse slaughter again in America because of an unanticipated problem with horse neglect and abandonment,” he said.
He said horse abandonment and abuse in Colorado rose to 1,588 in 2009, up from 975 in 2005.
“The number of horses exported for slaughter really just offset whatever Jim Moran thought he was going to save from slaughter,” Kingston said.
He said horse slaughter has never really stopped but simply moved to Canadian and Mexican plants.
“But we can't monitor horse slaughter in a plant in Mexico or Canada. And so we don't know if it's being done humanely or not because the USDA obviously doesn't have any jurisdiction there,” Kingston said.
“Along the way, these horses are having a rough transit. USDA does not have the jurisdiction over how the animals are treated along the way,” he said.
Moran has co-sponsored a permanent ban through legislation called the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.
“I am committed to doing everything in my power to prevent the resumption of horse slaughter and will force Congress to debate this important policy in an open, democratic manner at every opportunity,” Moran said in a statement.
Sen. Herbert Kohl, D-Wis., is another committee member involved in stripping out Moran's language.
Lynn Becker, spokeswoman for Kohl, said the senator's goal was “to prevent the neglect, mistreatment and abandonment of horses in the United States.”
Simon, with the Humane Society of the United States, took issue with the argument that the domestic slaughtering ban has led to more cases of neglect and abandonment of horses, saying that the recession was the main cause. All types of animals are abandoned in economic downturns she said, because people can't afford to take care of them.
“The vast majority of American horse owners would not choose this practice,'' she said.
Moreover, she said, horses were transported long distances within the United States before the ban.
Simone Netherlands, founder of Respect4Horses, questioned the fiscal justification for opening up horse slaughter plants.
“In this time when the focus of Congress is supposedly on reducing spending and creating jobs, it is a ludicrous measure to spend tax dollars in order to reinstate an inherently cruel predatory business, from which Americans stand to gain nothing. Horse slaughter plants operating until 2007 have never created a total of more than 178 jobs,” Netherlands said.
Wallis contends animal advocacy groups simply want to end animal agriculture.
“Only about 2 percent of the population makes any part of their living from agriculture. So it's very, very easy for special interest groups such as HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) or PETA to put together slick advertising campaigns,” she said.
“All you have to do is throw up an ad with a weepy-eyed kitten, a three-legged dog and a skinny horse and you've got a lot of grandmas sending you $19.95 per month,” Wallis said.
Cynthia Armstrong, Oklahoma state director of The Humane Society of the United States, responded that Americans don't eat horses.
“And they don't want them inhumanely killed, shrink-wrapped and sent to Japan or Belgium for a high priced appetizer. Where and how one makes a living isn't an issue here. In our culture and in our hearts, the horse holds a lofty place. And it's not on the barbecue grill,” Armstrong said.
Graham said Americans just need to talk and find a viable, humane solution to the issue.
“Many people think this will be humane euthanasia and they think of Fido getting put to sleep on the veterinary table. That's not the way it is,” said Graham.
“Horses are sensitive animals and you cannot tell me the horse at the slaughter plant cannot smell the blood on the other side of the pen. They're freaked out. They know death is coming,” she said.