The Slaughter Debate: Save the Horses?

Sue Copeland discusses the controversial topic of horse slaughter in the U.S. From the editors of Horse & Rider magazine.
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Sue Copeland discusses the controversial topic of horse slaughter in the U.S. From the editors of Horse & Rider magazine.

I'm opposed to the slaughter of any living thing. At least that is my gut reaction when I hear about the slaughter of horses. Yet I eat beef, buffalo, poultry, pork, and fish, all victims of some sort of slaughter. So I guess that makes my opposition to slaughter a provisional one: I'm opposed to the slaughter of any animal I don't eat.

But sadly, with horses, it's not that simple. I am sickened by the thought of any horse being herded into a chute then killed by a captive bolt to the head, to feed some guy in France. (And yes, veterinary experts confirm the bolt kills the horse, it doesn't just stun him.)

I'm also opposed to the killing of millions of unwanted dogs and cats every year. But I can't blame the French for that. It's an American problem. So is the problem of unwanted horses.

The Invisible Herd
No one knows how many unwanted horses there are in America. These are horses that owners no longer can or are willing to care for. Some may be infirm or dangerous. Others (perhaps the majority) are healthy, but no longer meeting the needs, interest or budget of their humans. What we do know is that around 90,000 horses were slaughtered in 2005?

How many of those were unwanted? Some would argue all of them--why else were they sold, even grudgingly? After all, there are alternatives. To avoid an uncertain fate for a low-value (killer price) or infirm horse, euthanasia is one option, though it (and the resulting "disposal" issue) can be expensive and heart wrenching.

It costs around $150, plus or minus, to have your vet administer a fatal injection. It can cost another $200 or more to have the body hauled to a rendering plant or other disposal site if you don't have a place to bury it. (When euthanasia drugs are used, you may not have the option of burial in your area, due to the risk of environmental contamination.)

Horses put down with a gunshot or captive bolt to the head (both considered humane euthanasia methods by veterinarians) can be buried--if you have room. If you have to rent the equipment to dig a hole, factor another couple hundred dollars. Cremation is available in some areas, but can cost hundreds of dollars or more. (And you have to get the body there.)

There are other options--but there aren't enough of them. You can donate to a college or therapeutic riding program (and some mounted patrols)--if the horse is sound enough, and sane enough, to meet the program's criteria. Vet schools may take your horse for research purposes, an option many owners find uncomfortable--just as they find the idea of euthanasia uncomfortable. Retirement farms are out there, too, but may require a monetary donation before accepting horses--and likely have a waiting list.

Such limited (and sometimes unattractive) alternatives can make a sale barn look pretty good. For a lot of folks (see that 90,000 number), it's easier to take Dobbin, the gelding who's racking up monthly expenses but is too lame to ride, too tough to handle, or too slow to race, to the local sale yard or dealer. You get to drop him off, give him a pat, and drive home dreaming about him thriving in his new home.

As you do, you work hard to tamp down the reality that a killer buyer could be his final owner. But that several-hundred-dollar check you get for his sale (killer price) helps nudge that thought away.

Do The Math
That's grim. But here's where you have to emerge from the emotional cloud of a "Save The Horses" campaign and into the glaring light of reality. With H.R.503, legislation that bans the transport and slaughter of horses in the U.S. for human consumption, what's going to happen to the unwanted? Its well-intentioned advocates haven't answered that question. (H.R.503 passed the House in September by a 263 to 146 vote; the Senate's decision hadn't been made by press time.)

Will all theses horses magically find new and wonderful homes? No. Will their owners opt to keep paying for them? Some will; most won't. Will owners pony up the bucks for humane euthanasia and environmentally sound disposal? Some will; most won't. I (and others) believe Mexico will become a player. Cheap horses. Cheap labor (pulling carts). Then they can kill 'em down there in unregulated slaughterhouses. Have we solved the problem?

Our donation, rescue, and retirement programs are ill equipped and under funded to take in tens of thousands more unwanted horses. They can't handle the overload now. Respected animal behaviorist Bonnie Beaver, DVM, MS, Diplomat, ACVB, of Texas A&M University, estimates that U.S. rescue and retirement facilities currently have a capacity for only around 6,000 horses. Her concern about the fate of unwanted horses led her to testify against a slaughter ban in a Congressional hearing.

Numbers indicate a slowdown in slaughter in the U.S. is already a big contributor to horse overpopulation. In 1996, the American Horse Council estimated the population at 6.9 million. By their 2005 study, it was up to 9.2 million. That's a 2.3 million increase in eight years--and it's not all from breeding. It's also due to the decline of horses being taken out of the population. (For instance, in 1989, 342,877 were slaughtered; in 2002, the number was 42,312.)

We certainly haven't added 2.3 million new buyers or adopters for those horses (that number is estimated to be 100,000). If we had, the slaughter industry probably wouldn't exist. So the horses' futures go from grim (but regulated and overseen by such organizations as the American Veterinary Medical Association), to grimmer.

I've seen and reported equine victims of neglect. Horses that were foundered and undernourished to the point they couldn't get up to get to water or shade. It's not pretty. There are thousands of them out there now. What will happen if/when we take away an admittedly unsavory outlet, but one that offers a quick, regulated death (yes, I've seen the slaughter videos) rather than a long, drawn-out one filled with much more suffering?

I am against the slaughter of horses. And, I'm against inhumane transport of horses top slaughter. But the slaughter industry is a symptom of a much bigger problem: the number of unwanted horses in America.

More Harm Than Good
Until we can "legislate" a way to prevent that, I (reluctantly) believe a slaughter ban will do horses more harm than good, at least for now. I'm not alone. Such pro-horse organizations as the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Quarter Horse Association, along with over 140 other reputable equine, animal health, and ag groups, oppose the ban. (Ask your vet. Chances are he or she has seen cases of neglect that make a captive bolt to the head look like the humane alternative. Mine has.)

How do we prevent the invisible herd from existing? First, we need to stop over-breeding. Sure, that's easier said that done. But perhaps if we educate more people about the fact that it's ultimately cheaper to buy than to breed (plus, you'll know exactly what you're getting), we could help limit the unwanted. I'm also open to suggestions.

Also, we can petition our state representatives to make well-thought-out and specific funding for rescue organizations a part of any anti-slaughter legislation going forward. Without it, such a bill merely removes a symptom but does nothing to help cure the problem. (To contact your senator, go to www.avma.org and put "government action center" in the search engine.)

In the meantime, and if anti-slaughter legislation doesn't become law, perhaps we can turn some of our anti-slaughter energies into the need for the most humane treatment possible in transport to, and time spent with, such plants--and into making sure current laws on the books that call for humane treatment are enforced. Experts like Temple Grandin, PhD, as Associate Professor at Colorado State University who specializes in making slaughter more humane for animals (and has done some equine slaughter studies), can help.

I'd love your thoughts. It's a tough question, one we've failed to answer for our dogs and cats. Let use the slaughter industry as motivation. Because without it and all the attention it's gotten (thank you, Willie Nelson), the invisible herd will become even more invisible. And it'll damn sure be bigger.

This column originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Horse & Rider magazine. Read Sue's follow-up column, The Slaughter Debate: Your Response.