In 2007, the last plant that slaughtered horses for human consumption within the United States closed down because language was included in the annual federal appropriations bill barring funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to inspect horse slaughter plants. Without inspections, the facilities couldn’t be licensed, so they had to close down. This language has been included in every appropriations bill since … until now.

What this means for horses is still unclear. Some experts say that new horse slaughter facilities could be up and running in just a matter of months; others claim that the public distaste for the slaughter of our horses to provide meat for foreign markets is so strong that only fools would rush in. Time will tell.

This is a classic case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Eliminating domestic horse slaughter was supposed to reduce the suffering of horses. The thought was that in America, horses are essentially companion animals rather than livestock raised for food, and they should be treated as such at the end of their lives. Converting from commercial slaughter to humane euthanasia, when necessary, was the goal.

Unfortunately, soon after the horse slaughter ban went into effect, the economy tanked. Keeping horses is not cheap, and economic pressures led to a dramatic increase in the number of people trying to get rid of their horses. Equine rescue facilities quickly became overwhelmed, and reports of horse abandonment began to climb. Horse slaughter didn’t stop either; it just got transferred across our borders. Horses destined for slaughter now have to endure even longer rides in inappropriate trailers only to end up at facilities that are not inspected by the USDA. Definitely not the result that was hoped for.

What should we do? Some applaud the return of domestic horse slaughter; others say that a ban on both the domestic slaughter and live export of horses for human consumption is the only answer. I don’t think either approach addresses the core ethical conundrum. Horses currently live in a grey zone. We don’t quite see them as the "tools" that they once were — essentially a car or tractor that was replaced when no longer serviceable — but they haven’t made it to full "companion animal" status yet either.

I can’t foresee a reasonable scenario where horses once again become primarily working animals or livestock in this country. As a group they are well on their way to "pethood." Seems to me that we might as well develop the mindset and infrastructure to humanely deal with the problem of unwanted horses — sooner rather than later. If that includes slaughter, then the regulations dealing with equine transport and handling within slaughter houses must be strengthened to the point where the horses that served us in life can go to their deaths without fear or pain.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Artpose Adam Borkowski / via Shutterstock