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Animal Welfare

Led to Slaughter

Five years after the last horse was commercially killed for meat in the US, slaughterhouses are seeking to resume operations — including one in New Mexico.

by Laurie Ford


The moment Zippy, number 25 at Harkers Horse Auction, settled his silky white nose on my mother's shoulder and nickered softly, we knew that he was coming home with us. What we didn't know was that as a two-year-old quarter horse with no skills, Zippy fit the perfect profile of a slaughter horse and our quick decision most likely saved his life. It was 1995, and although the slaughtering of horses for human consumption was legal in the US, the concept was still surreal to me. This perception was to change over the next two decades as Zippy and two other horses at risk for slaughter, Carl and Mommy, became a part of my life.

slaughter 1
“Mommy,” with the brand of a Native American tribe on her rump. Her wild past, skittish behavior, and the financial woes of her owner made Mommy the perfect candidate for slaughter.
(Photos by Laurie Ford)

On that brisk fall day the auction, referred to by humane slaughter expert Temple Grandin as "a used car lot," was full of horses of every breed, size and age that owners were trying to unload before winter arrived. Good riding horses were still in demand and horses like Zippy were not. In the far corner of the sale barn were corrals full of other undesirable horses: geriatrics that had outlived their usefulness, injured horses that didn't warrant repair and the emaciated who stood motionless in a corner, their heads sunk low to the ground as if the weight was too much to bear. These were the souls given a sympathetic glance, accompanied by a mumbled "poor thing" as onlookers quickly moved on to escape the pathetic sight. These horses' chances of being bought by anyone other than the "kill buyers" — people who frequented auctions all over the country to fulfill contractual obligations with the slaughter plants — were slim to none.

During the short span of time it took for Zippy to be run through the sales ring, the kill buyer falling silent after our final bid, and the auctioneer hollering "SOLD," the lives of hundreds of other unwanted horses were also changing. But they were being given the sentence of death rather than life. A constant stream of horses from auctions, racetracks and wild horse herds was flowing into US facilities and across the borders into Mexico and Canada to supply the foreign demand for horsemeat.

These horses were no longer being slaughtered to feed our pets, but to satiate the appetite of European and Asian populations. While a far cry from the 425,000 slaughtered in 1990, close to 150,000 horses still spent the final days of their lives in the crowded holding pens of a slaughter plant that year I bought Zippy. While the US and Canadian facilities were governed by humane slaughter regulations, Mexican plants operated with minimal oversight and even less regard for the welfare of the horse. The truly unwanted horses were shuttled to Mexico by "junk buyers" whose only concern was to keep the animal alive long enough to reach the border.


Despite the cessation of federally funded horsemeat inspections in 2006, and the subsequent closure of the country's last three equine slaughterhouses, US horses continue to be transported across the borders for slaughter. Numerous bills have been introduced to Congress in an attempt to ban the sale, transportation and slaughter of horses for human consumption; all have been unsuccessful. The most recent, The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011, was trapped in the House Committee on Agriculture on the day that the door to horse slaughter in the US was quietly reopened last year.

On Nov. 18, 2011, President Obama signed into law a bill that reinstated the federal funding of plant inspections and restored the American horse slaughter industry. Soon afterwards, in January 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that individual states could enact their own laws to ban slaughter, but not to govern the handling and processing of the horses, thus putting the responsibility back into the hands of the federal government.

No funds have been appropriated for the oversight of these inspections, raising serious concerns as to how they will be paid for and how proficient they will be. According to Rep. Jim Moran (D-Virginia), taxpayers will be burdened with a $5 million price tag to fund these programs, which often generate little revenue for the local economy in return. States can avoid federal intervention by restricting the sale of horsemeat from their own facilities to within state boundaries. Wyoming, where slaughter is legal, is considering doing exactly that by building a processing plant and dispersing the horsemeat to state prisons and persons in need.

This spring, plans to slaughter horses in Roswell, NM, by Valley Meat Co. were uncovered in an investigation by Front Range Equine Rescue, a Colorado-based organization. The company has applied with the US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service for inspection of the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Activists point out that the USDA temporarily suspended inspections of cattle slaughter at Valley Meat Co. in November 2011 and February 2012 due to failure to comply with humane slaughter regulations. Both New Mexico governor Susana Martinez and Attorney General Gary King have stated their opposition to opening a horse-slaughtering facility in the state.

Reopening the door to slaughter will revive the salvage market for unwanted horses in the US and bring back the lucrative business of selling and buying horses for human consumption. It will restore the demand for lower-priced horses and accommodate the needs of indiscriminate and irresponsible horse breeders. While this may eliminate pain and suffering for some animals, a large percentage, close to 90%, are basically healthy and still have years of service and loyal companionship to offer.

While the majority of horses currently being slaughtered supply a foreign demand, this market will face uncertainty in the near future when the European Commission imposes more stringent regulations on horsemeat. At present, sworn statements are the primary source of verification that slaughter horses are drug-free — dubious proof considering that most horses in the US have consumed many of the prohibited drugs, including wormers and antibiotics, at some point in their lifetimes. Phenylbutazone ("bute"), an equine aspirin, is routinely given to racehorses and other performance horses, as part of their daily regime to combat pain and sore muscles.

Effective in 2013, these sworn statements will no longer be accepted; instead, all horses destined for human consumption in Europe must be micro-chipped by the age of six months. Any horse not bearing this electronic log of its medical history will be automatically excluded from the food chain. Since horses in the US are not presently raised as livestock for human consumption, these regulations will be almost impossible to comply with and will eliminate the majority of horses that have supplied the European market in the past. Time will tell if Asia decides to follow this lead, but there is little doubt that the decreased demand will result in thousands of unwanted horses with nowhere to go.

While the horse-slaughter industry will continue to fluctuate, some factors in the horse world will never change. Horses will continue to become debilitated with old age and crippling injuries. Economic woes will persist and result in horses being abandoned, neglected and plagued with pain and suffering. (While at one time these were the horses that made up the "unwanted" populous that fed the slaughter pipeline, a new subset that has evolved over time — young and healthy horses — is also at risk.) And, regardless whether slaughter takes place in the US or in bordering countries, horse auctions will continue to be the primary clearinghouse for many of these horses and the principle source supplying slaughter plants with horsemeat.

A recent example of the severity of the situation occurred at the Southwest Auction and Feedlot in Los Lunas, NM, where 700 horses were discovered in a remote area of the property, many with severe injuries and close to death. The horses, obviously destined for slaughter, were the property of the auction owner, a known kill buyer who has been cited for violating equine slaughter regulations in the past. He has been charged with 12 misdemeanor counts including animal cruelty, failure to treat an animal that can't walk, and not having a bill of sale for the horses in question.




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