Captive Bolt Controversy

No matter your position on equine slaughter, there is a question in the minds of horse owners of whether a penetrating captive bolt is a "humane" form of euthanasia for horses. Many individuals and groups are dismissing captive bolt as inhumane, even if they have not researched the method, have not discussed it with someone knowledgeable in equine euthanasia, or haven't witnessed it first-hand (not via video, since we all know how clever people can be with computers; 2004 Oscar winner "Lord of the Rings" is proof of that technology). There are other considerations: Since cattle are also killed by captive bolt in slaughter houses, does using the "inhumane" stamp on it for horses potentially give animal activists a leg up for banning its use in cattle? Will it prevent use of gunshot or captive bolt on non-slaughter horses?

Some horse owners and veterinarians feel that chemical euthanasia is the most humane means of ending a horse's life. Of course, that is not possible if the meat is going to be used for human or animal consumption (such as at zoos or for fox hounds at the hunt). The American Veterinary Medical Association has deemed it humane for horses.

While it wasn't a scientific poll, The Horse asked veterinarians and researchers from around the world to comment on captive bolt euthanasia. The overwhelming response was that it is humane. Some comments appear on page 26; following are others.

"I have seen it used hundreds of times on cattle and horses and know in my mind that it is very humane and much more instantaneous than (chemical) euthanasia. The animal literally knows nothing.--Jerry Black, DVM

"I would equate captive bolt with gunshot and consider both as humanely superior to lethal injection when performed properly. The public's perception of lethal injection as being the only humane procedure parlays to the standards of the veterinary profession in this country--we simply do not teach instanteous lethal trauma.

"I do not randomly shoot my patients, but select gunshot for those where lethal injection is cardiovascularly inappropriate as a means of euthanasia or when horses and handlers are placed at risk by the less efficacious lethal injection."--Doug Byars, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVECC

"In the UK (United Kingdom), the captive bolt is never used for horses. The only weapon designed for humane destruction of horses is the Cash humane pistol single shot. Intravenous agents are always preferred in the UK, but at equestrian events or racing there are circumstances that shooting with a free bullet may still be necessary. The captive bolt is used extensively and apparently quite safely for slaughter of farm animals, particularly cattle.--Leo Jeffcott, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, MA, DSc

"Captive bolt in the hands of an experienced person is completely humane because the horse is immediately rendered unconscious. It has the same effect as a gunshot when placed properly. I believe that it is more humane than chemical injection for two reasons. If you watch horses that are euthanized with an injection, many of them experience a period of bewilderment or confusion just before they lose conscienceness. There is no doubt that they are aware that something strange is occurring. Second, many of the horses following chemical injection do not die quickly and require a second or third dose. With gunshot or captive bolt, the horses is rendered unconscious immediately.

"I have visited one of the slaughter plants in Texas and stood next to the person using the captive bolt to euthanize the horses. The horses walked into the stun box without fear or nervousness. The captive bolt was trigger activated and the horses were euthanized immediately. I'm not sure where people get the notion that the horses are repeatedly bludgeoned. USDA veterinarians are in the slaughter plants to ensure that the horses are handled and euthanized properly. I examined a number of skulls with them and found that the placement of the captive bolt strike was exactly in the right place every time.

"The AVMA panel on euthanasia examined all of the humane alternatives for euthanizing horses before publishing their recommendations. AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) has reviewed their guidelines and agree with them completely."--Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT H

"My experiences with horse slaughter plants cover about five years, when I was on the faculty at University of Florida. We used plants in both Florida and South Carolina as a source of reproductive tracts and organs for teaching senior students.

"Since we arrived before the plants started processing, we were aware of the entire routine, including the use of the captive bolt. I must admit to being overwhelmed at the accuracy of the operators. They never failed to connect with the correct site, and the horses dropped instantly, with no complications. If you inspected the heads later, the lesions were in precisely the same spots.

"I practiced veterinary medicine from 1956 until recently, and I administered lethal doses of barbiturates for euthanasia countless times. This technique is much slower than captive bolt euthanasia, and frequently required additional injections.

"I had clients who would prefer a quicker method. On several occasions I used a pistol to euthanize horses. Aside from the danger of gunshot to bystanders (or administrators), the results are infinitely better with the pistol than with barbiturates.

"Also, I don't buy the 'fear and apprehension' problems that the activists claim. There is no wild-eyed anticipation or screaming when the environment is managed correctly."--Woody Asbury, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM.

"Both euthanasia by captive-bolt and lethal anaesthetic overdose have their pros and cons. A lot depends on training and skill. There can be disasters with either technique. A handgun equipped with a captive bolt, instead of a bullet, can wound instead of kill and produce a grisly result. However when placed properly the bolt enters the brain, destroys it in an instant and the horse falls dead to the ground. Although the horse is brain dead and insensible its heart beats for a while and its legs paddle--this can be very upsetting for people who don't understand the physiology of what is going on. I'm certain that death by captive bolt, performed by a competent operator, is humane for horses. In the slaughter house the major blood vessels at the base of the neck are opened for meat quality reasons. There is no technical difference between a bullet and a captive bolt except there is more risk with the former should a miss occur. The very stringent gun laws in Australia limit ownership of handguns (a captive bolt pistol is classed as a handgun here) to very few people (although veterinarians are eligible) so not many horses are killed this way. Mismanaged lethal injections can be disastrous, too, but that's anther story.--Chris Pollitt, BVSc, PhD

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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