Horse slaughter: the meat of the matter now that Congress has lifted controversial ban

horse meatIf you’re of a certain age, you might recall that until the 1940’s, horse was eaten in the United States–most notably during World War II, when beef prices rose and supply dwindled. By the eighties, dining on Mr. Ed definitely wasn’t culturally acceptable, even if purchased for “pet food,” and in 1998, California Proposition 6 outlawed horse meat and slaughter for human consumption.

Why, when so much of the world–including much of the EU, Central Asia, Polynesia, Latin America, and Japan–routinely dines upon this delicious, lean, low cholesterol, abundant meat, do we shun it? Blame anthropomorphism and our fervent equestrian culture. Like dogs, cats, guinea pig, alpaca, and other cute, furry creatures consumed with gusto by other ethnicities, Americans just aren’t down with eating what we consider pets.

According to The Chicago Tribune, however, it’s likely that at least one national horse abattoir (slaughterhouse) will be opening soon, most likely in the Midwest. As stated in the story, “Congress lifted the ban in a spending bill President Barack Obama signed into law Nov. 18 to keep the government afloat until mid-December.”

Before you get on your high horse (sorry) over this seemingly inhumane turn of events, let’s examine why the ban was passed in the first place, and why reversing it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I should also state that I grew up on a horse ranch, and to me, meat is meat. My issues regarding its consumption have and always will lie with humane treatment of said animals during their life up until what should be a quick, merciful death. Is there such a thing as a humane death? Let’s just say that some methods of livestock slaughter are less traumatic than others. But that’s a separate issue, and not the point of this piece.

Despite our cultural aversion to eating horse, the U.S. still slaughtered old, sick,and injured animals, as well as retired racehorses. Even young healthy animals were sent to slaughter for a variety of reasons including overbreeding, profit, or abandonment. Even wild horses and burros were rounded up for slaughter as part of culling programs; it’s still necessary to thin herds to keep them sustainable, as well as protect their habitat from overgrazing and erosion; starvation and predation are cruel deaths. Fortunately, these animals are now protected species and legally can’t be sent to slaughter, so they’re put up for adoption. The downside? What happens to aging and unsound animals, now that rescues and sanctuaries are at capacity and struggling for funding?

The U.S. exported horse meat to countries that do consume it, although it was also sold domestically to feed zoo animals. In 2007, the last horse slaughterhouse in the U.S., in DeKalb, Illinois, was shut down by court order, and that was that until the ban was lifted last month.

Photo credit: Flicker user Atli Harðarson]

horse meatIs this a good thing? The result of abattoir closures means that there’s no outlet–-humane or otherwise–-for horses that can no longer be used for work or pleasure. Few people can afford to keep horses as pets due to age, illness, or injury, and as previously stated, most horse rescues are at capacity or struggling to find funding. The recession has only increased this problem.

The Tribune cites a federal report from June, 2011, that noted local animal welfare organizations reported a spike in investigations for horse neglect and abandonment since 2007. In Colorado, for example, data showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60 percent — from 975 in 2005 to almost 1,600 in 2009. Explains Cheri White Owl, founder of the Oklahoma nonprofit Horse Feathers Equine Rescue, “People [are] deciding to pay their mortgage or keep their horse.”

Adds Sue Wallis, a Wyoming state lawmaker and vice president of the non-profit, pro-slaughter organization United Horsemen, “Ranchers used to be able to sell horses that were too old or unfit for work to slaughterhouses but now they have to ship them to butchers in Canada and Mexico [the latter of which has even more inhumane handling and shipping practices], where they fetch less than half the price.”

The Tribune reports that the U.S. Government Accountability Office also determined that about 138,000 horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010: nearly the same number that were killed in the U.S. before the ban took effect in 2007.

I’m not disputing the lack of humanity previously displayed by U.S. livestock auctions and transport companies taking horses to slaughter (current treatment of other livestock: also fodder for another story). Fortunately, the 1996 federal Farm Bill mandated more humane conditions. Unfortunately, it didn’t go into effect until 2001. And the down side of reinstating horse abattoirs here, according to the Tribune, is that the Obama’s ban-reversal won’t “allocate any new money to pay for horse meat inspections, which opponents claim could cost taxpayers $3 million to $5 million a year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would have to find the money in its existing budget, which is expected to see more cuts this year as Congress and the White House aim to trim federal spending.”
horse meat
Animal welfare aside, the loss of horse abattoirs is a divisive issue. I’m of the opinion that it’s impractical and wasteful to not have an outlet for surplus animals. This, of course, assuming the transport and facilities abide by regulations. I’m not a supporter of industrial livestock production and thus large abattoirs, which have been documented to cause undue stress to animals. Despite that issue, isn’t it ultimately more kind to put an end to their suffering, and make good use of the meat?

Proponents of horse slaughter frequently make the comparison to the millions of dogs and cats that are euthanized yearly in the U.S., because their owners were too irresponsible to spay or neuter. The cremation of these poor creatures is more than just a senseless loss of life: it’s wasteful.

While I’m sympathetic to recession-impacted horse owners, keeping a horse isn’t cheap no matter what your financial situation. When you buy, adopt, or take in any “pet,” you’re responsible for its welfare. If you can’t commit to providing for that animal for the duration of its life (barring certain illness/injury situations), have the decency to do the necessary research and surrender it to a reputable animal rescue or loving home.

If you’re not capable of that, a.) please don’t ever have children, and b.) never own a pet. It’s a living creature, not a toy, and I have absolutely no tolerance for irresponsible pet owners. There are valid arguments on both sides of the horse slaughter debate, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is the humane treatment of the animals in question.

[Photo credits: cheval, Flicker user noodlepie; sashimi, Flickr user rc!]