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The Slaughter Question

Horse slaughter becomes a hot issue after California's Proposition 6 banned the transport of horses for slaughter in the state.

┬ęPractical Horseman. All Rights Reserved.

Jeanette's new gelding, Bart, just wasn't working out. His classified ad had touted his as an "awesome athlete" that would be great for an "intermediate rider." After she'd had him a short while, she discovered he used his athleticism mainly to rear and buck at unpredictable moments. Unable to sell the gelding at private treaty--because she refused to misrepresent him--she opted in frustration to send him to a local livestock auction. She'd heard stories from friends who'd found riding horse there. Maybe the right person would find Bart, she reasoned, someone with the skills and patience needed to transform him into a reliable mount.

With that happy ending fixed in her mind, Jeanette shrugged off a few misgivings as she handed Bart over to auction-yard workers. The next morning, alas, nobody fitting Jeanette's daydreams found her gelding at auction. For $750, though, a man who knows how to turn a profit from horseflesh did. That afternoon, Bart was loaded onto a cramped double-decker trailer and hauled across six states to meet his end in a slaughterhouse.

Bart's story couldn't have taken place in California. Since the passage of Proposition 6 in 1998, the sale and transport of horses for slaughter have been banned in that state. Now, slaughter opponents are zeroing in on the last two equine slaughterhouses in the United States, hoping a little-used state law will close down the foreign-owned Texas plants for good.


On the other side of the issue, slaughter proponents--which include many who make their living in the horse industry, and groups such as the American Quarter Horse Association--view banning slaughter outright as folly that will lead to tragic, unintended consequences.

The key point of contention is whether horses should be slaughtered at all--that is, whether slaughter is, or can be regulated to be, a suitable alternative for unwanted horses. Within that issue arise other arguments over the treatment and circumstances of horses before and during transport, as well as their treatment and method of death once at the slaughter plant. Further disagreement swirls around the fate of unwanted horses should slaughter be banned.

In this article, we'll look at both sides of the arguments surrounding this highly charged issue.

Slaughter in America, Dinner Abroad
The term "slaughter" applies to the method of procuring meat for human consumption. By law, the slaughter animal is kept alive until it can be immediately processed for food. The method of death must not introduce foreign substances into the animal's body; therefore, no euthanasia drugs may be used. Instead, the animals receive a stunning shot to the brain, then are immediately bled out (exsanguinated) and dismembered.

This procedure differs dramatically from rendering, in which the carcass of an already-dead animal is processed into byproducts, such as bone and blood meal for animal feed and fertilizer, stearic acid for car tires, and tallow for soaps. It's permissible for horses arriving at a rendering plant to be dead from disease, natural causes, or euthanasia drugs, because the intense heat in the vats breaks down any potential contaminants, disease-causing organisms, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals.

Despite Americans' passion for beef, pork, and chicken, we don't eat horsemeat. It's the foreign market that drives the American horse-slaughter industry. Belgium, France and Switzerland are the leading horsemeat consumers. And, with recent mad-cow and foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks, Europeans have increased their demand for horsemeat, both domestic and imported. (Other countries exporting horsemeat to Europe and Asia include our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, as well as Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.)

Largely as a result of this demand, approximately 70,000 U.S. horses are slaughtered or exported across the borders to slaughter in Canada or Mexico each year. This accounts for about 1 percent of the nearly 7 million horses in America. Horses slaughter was at its height in the late 1980s, when animals were sold off in great numbers after tax shelters for horse farms collapsed. According to United States Department of Agriculture figures, about 400,000 horses were slaughtered in the United States or shipped to Canada for slaughter in 1990. Today's figure is less than a sixth of that number.

Another marked decline is in the numbers of U.S. plants processing horsemeat. A decade ago, more than a dozen existed. Now there are just the two Texas plants, whose futures are increasingly uncertain.

Unsound, unhealthy, unmanageable-ultimately unwanted-horses wind up in the slaughterhouse. Every breed and type can be found, from failed or broken-down racehorses and former pleasure and show mounts to unproductive breeding stock and by-product foals of the Premarin industry (which uses pregnant mares' urine to produce hormone-replacement drugs for women).

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