Slaughter Horses

Slaughtering horses is a topic that offers a no-win situation for a journalist; you’re going to upset someone if you just bring up the topic. So why did The Horse decide to look into this issue? Because horse owners in this country deserve a first-hand account of the process from someone with no vested interest. That way, each owner can make up his or her own mind on the issue. We aren’t on the side of the animal rights activists, and we aren’t on the side of the slaughter-houses. We are on the side of the horses.

I think all horse owners agree that if there were a universal alternative to slaughter that was humane and affordable, we would support it wholeheartedly. However, in the real world, there are people who don’t take good care of horses. There are horses which need to be euthanized for physical or mental problems. There are oversupplying and casting off of horses in sports, and funding isn’t available to buy all the unwanted horses and give them good homes. For these reasons, there has to be an outlet for those unwanted, neglected, or abused animals. (Abuse includes underfeeding and lack of proper veterinary and farrier care.)

Banning horse slaughter isn’t the solution. It merely re-routes the problem in a different—and potentially worse—direction.

Instead of campaigning or voting for a ban on horse slaughter, responsible horse owners should be taking an active part in educating other horse owners to combat owner ignorance. Horse owners also should be legally obligated to accept the responsibilities that go along with horse ownership, including proper care of the live animal, and euthanasia and carcass disposal. All horses will die; owners make the choice as to how and when.

There has to be an outlet for unwanted horses. Horse owners should get involved in the slaughter process. We should demand it be as humane and non-traumatic as possible. We need to support legislation that controls transportation to slaughter. We have to demand state or federal laws that provide for standardized care of horses at public auctions (especially stockyards). We need to support taxes that pay for the inspectors (brand and USDA) who work at slaughterhouses.

We should submit ourselves and our peers to the same standards that we demand of those ‘inhumane, big rig, possum-bellied, commercial horse-hauling and feedlot industries.’

What? Regulate ourselves? What madness is this?

According to research conducted by Colorado State University on transportation of horses to slaughter, many of the horses which had ‘welfare’ problems had them because of their owners, not because of the slaughter process. Nearly half of the horses arrived at the slaughter plants not in huge semitrailers or double-deck trucks, but in gooseneck trailers.

During July and August of 1998, the Colorado State researchers surveyed horses arriving at the Dallas Crown and Beltex slaughter plants in Texas—two of the biggest. A total of 1,008 horses were surveyed. Forty-two percent of them arrived at the plants in double-deck trailers; 9% arrived on straight single-deck trailers; and 49% arrived in gooseneck trailers. The Colorado State researchers noted that of the horses they saw, a total of 78 horses (7.7%) had severe welfare problems. A somewhat grim finding was that 60 of the 78 horses with severe welfare problems—more than three of every four—were suffering from conditions caused by owner neglect and abuse, not transportation stress or injury.

So, perhaps the ‘problems’ attributed to the slaughter horse industry start before horses ever enter the downward flow that takes them to the slaughter plant. Could it be that welfare issues addressed at early levels might decrease the number of horses which need to be slaughtered?

In all honesty, we must admit that there are welfare problems in even the highest echelons of our equestrian sports. Should we ban all those sports because of the few who break the rules or don’t care about their horses?

The horses which go to slaughter all have had owners who, for some reason, gave up on them, most likely after exhausting all their resources, their friends resources, and their billfolds. The horses usually went through public auctions where anyone could have bought them. No owners did.

The Final Scene

Then there is the area no one wants to mention—the kill floor. Many animal science majors had to take a live animal and carcass evaluation class in college. In that class, the students inspected a sheep, pig, or steer as a live animal and made estimations of its quality and amount of meat prior to slaughter. They were privy to the slaughter process and saw the carcass halved and as cuts of meat.

A field trip to the cattle slaughter facility that brings us those nice cellophaned packages in the grocery store started with manure-splattered holding pens and the kill process, and followed through to the ripping of the hide from the carcass and the science of meat cutting.

For better or worse, horses don’t have it any different. The USDA inspectors are there. The process of killing has evolved into a fine art. The animals are destined for meat and, therefore, chemicals can’t be used.

Many animals—whether they be horses, cows, or pigs—have involuntary muscle contractions for a very brief period after they are killed. Those contractions make it look like the animal is flailing its legs in some macabre dance to get away as it is suspended above the kill room floor. That’s not the case. I contacted practicing veterinarians from around the world and asked them about their methods of putting horses down. They use captive bolt, bullets, and chemicals. Not every death is perfect with any means, but a bullet or captive bolt is considered both humane and effective if done properly. In fact, some very high-profile veterinarians prefer a single gunshot to the brain for euthanasia because of the instant passing of consciousness and the lack of side-effects often found with chemical euthanasia.

There still will be people who refuse to take their heads out of the sand and won’t try to make the slaughter process better for the horses. If a ban on slaughter in the United States is achieved, that won’t stop the abuse and wastage of horses. It merely will make the lives of those unwanted horses worse with longer trips to slaughter in countries that won’t regulate their welfare as carefully as we do at home.

Just as a reminder, before Californians passed Proposition 6 that made it a felony to sell or transport a horse across state lines for sale to slaughter, the Legislative Counsel of California had determined that the bill violated the commerce clause of the US Constitution.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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