Protecting the American Horse

Fall 2009
Experience and Other Evidence Essays

Article 5 of 12

For the last several years the debate over outlawing horse slaughter in the United States has been a growing issue whose effects are being felt internationally. There are those in favor of outlawing horse slaughter because they believe that their pet should not be slaughtered for someone else’s plate, and that the mass killing of horses is inhumane. The other side is against banning horse slaughter because they believe that, as livestock, a government-inspected facility that humanely slaughters unwanted horses is better than the slow death through starvation or illness they would otherwise suffer. As a horse owner, and one aspiring to be a veterinarian with a large animal practice, I have experienced both sides of the issue. While I have enjoyed the companionship and personal relationship of owning horses, I have also seen first hand the cruel life of a neglected horse and know from experience the difficulty of finding proper, caring homes for horses in excellent condition. I believe that the best interests of horses and the industry must be considered from a practical standpoint rather than an idealistic one.

In a congressional hearing held on July 25 and 27, 2006, the House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture was presented with the views and positions of citizens and professionals regarding an amendment to the Horse Protection Act. This amendment, H.R. 503, “prohibit[s] all the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption and for other purposes,” (House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture 9). At first this proposal seems like an excellent idea because it saves horses from being killed by the thousands. No one wants to hear how their beloved companion became the main course for somebody’s meal; nothing sounds more unpleasant than “I’m sorry honey, Chubby was just slaughtered so the French could have him for dinner.” To most people the American Horse is a majestic creature that helped found this nation and it should not be slaughtered like steer, especially when they are in good condition. The idea of slaughter in general makes most Americans squirm when they are forced to think about where their bacon came from, much less what will happen to old Trigger in the pasture. This evasion is why there is an increase in moral vegetarianism. To most moral vegetarians animals should be given rights over their own lives and not be treated as property (Whiting). It is these people’s choice not to eat meat, but all emotions aside, there are other issues at stake.

For one, the humane treatment of horses, or animal welfare, should be the priority of the Horse Protection Act. The objective of this bill is to benefit the horse, not the ideals of people. If the horses that would otherwise go to slaughterhouses end up suffering years of neglect until starvation or illness kills them, then more harm is caused than alleviated. Horses that are unusable, because they are too old, too dangerous, or suffer from past injuries are the ones that are most likely to be the victims of neglect. These animals would possibly be left with little food or water, no veterinary or farrier care, and is some cases forced to live in confined spaces with piles of excrement causing severe health issues like emaciation, laminitis, or respiratory illness. The only escape is rescue or death.

Many opposed to H.R. 503 have wondered what can be done with the 60-90,000 unwanted horses that would have been sent to slaughter (House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture 14). Some can find new private homes, others may be lucky enough to go to a rescue organization, but all too many will have no option other than abandonment if horse slaughter is outlawed. Most of the horses that go to auction have already exhausted all other possibilities and are then bought by meat sellers. Recently, I had to sell both of my horses in a failing economy because I was going to college. I know how difficult it is to find someone to take on the care of a horse, much less get money for them. Both of my horses were on the market for two years before they were sold. Those two years of care would put a strain on anyone who could no longer afford to keep them. The estimated amount of horse care is between $1,900 and $2,300 per year not including veterinary or farrier care (House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture 15). If the necessary veterinary costs were factored in, the annual maintenance cost would be much higher.

Another issue for which the Horse Protection Act has no solution is the retrieval of stolen horses. Those in support of H.R. 503 believe that the regulation of the transportation of horses, and slaughterhouse oversight, is lax and therefore allows stolen horses to be processed as food. Many others, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, argue that a brand inspector inspects all horses before being processed and that they, in fact, find and return around 100 stolen horses annually in Texas alone (House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture 25). Without domestic horse slaughter, none of these horses would have been recovered, since slaughterhouse inspectors are the last line of defense for the regulation of the national horse herd.

The old proverb that has been repeated to me since childhood, “waste not, want not,” seems to apply in this case. Those in favor of the ban seem to prefer that the chemically euthanized carcasses of the almost 90,000 unwanted horses be processed at a loss for their owners, be buried to later contaminate the water supply, or, in places that do not allow for the burial of horses, be allowed to kill any scavengers that eat the discarded carcasses (House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture 30). People in favor of the bill understand that in the best situation none of these horses would have to die in the first place, but this is not our reality. If the carcass of the horse can be used, why isn’t it? In the past, as recently as World War II, horsemeat has been consumed in the United States. Have the American people become so wasteful and idealistic that they have no practicality anymore? If people overseas view horsemeat as a delicacy, instead of turning up noses, the American people should follow capitalist values and market those unfortunate but unwanted horses for a profit. This money could then be put to use supporting those animals that can be saved.

The banning of the international horsemeat trade is another casualty of this bill. The export of horsemeat brings around $50 million into the US annually and the loss of that income will be felt internationally (Whiting). Even in Canada, 25,000 of the 60,000 horses slaughtered annually are from the United States (Whiting). The social view of horse slaughter differs because they do consume some horsemeat thanks to their French origins. They look on in confusion at the fact that the punishment for offering horsemeat for human consumption more than once is a minimum sentence of 2 years in prison, and yet the morally questionable porn industry is not state-regulated (Whiting). Canadians view the passing of this law as “an example of federally sanctioned food taboo” that may have disastrous results for the actual welfare of the animals (Whiting).

From the point of view of many horsemen, myself included, H.R. 503 is a law that was passed more on emotion than the reality of the situation. Some continue to defend H.R. 503 believing that mass death is not in the best interests of the national horse herd and that the consumption of horsemeat is un-American. These supporters do not recognize that international trade has been hurt by the lack of horsemeat trade and the neglect, suffering and eventual euthanasia of tens of thousands of horses seems cruel, wasteful and unpractical. There seems to be no compromise available as of yet to both end horse slaughter and provide a financially sound outlet for unwanted horses, but until there is, practicality and the welfare of the entire national horse herd should be favored above the sentimentality of a few.

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