The Horse Slaughter Debate

June 22, 2012
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Horse slaughter in the U.S. has been an extremely hot button topic over the past five or six years, and with another bill in Congress that is attempting to outlaw horse slaughter, people on both sides of the fence get very emotional. Let’s take a deeper look at this debate.

Horse slaughter in the U.S. is currently legal. This is an on-going battle as various bills make their way around Congress but are never passed into law. In 2006, such a bill made its way through the House of Representatives and passed, but then died on the Senate floor. Multiple times since then such a bill has been tried but has always floundered somewhere in Congress.The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011 is the most current form of this bill that’s now making its travels around Capitol Hill.

However, even though horse slaughter is legal in this country, there are no slaughter plants open in the U.S. now that will do it. There used to be three such plants in the U.S. — two in Texas and one in Illinois. All three closed in 2007 due to various issues with their local and state laws. As such, there’s actually nowhere currently in the U.S. for horses to be slaughtered. This means they get shipped outside of the U.S. to Canada and Mexico.

The biggest reason why there are people against horse slaughter is because horses in this country are strictly companion animals — they are our beloved pets and comrades and no one wants to see or think about an old friend (or other animal that reminds them of an old friend) having his fate sealed on the killing floor of a slaughter plant. I completely understand this. Do I like the thought of my favorite equine patients being shipping off to slaughter? Of course not. Worse yet, could I ever envision my beloved old pony Wimpy being sent off in the same manner? Hell no! But there’s more to this issue than this purely gut-wrenching reaction. The bigger issue is unwanted horses.

Here are some points to consider:

1. All slaughter plants in the U.S. are open for inspection by the USDA. They are required to uphold a certain level of cleanliness for human food safety standards, and there are humane laws that have to be followed under the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, 1958. Slaughter plants found in violation get fined, or worse. Obviously, the USDA doesn’t monitor plants in Canada and Mexico. In my mind, I’d rather an animal be slaughtered somewhere locally where there are standards in place than be shipped over country lines where it may be a free-for-all. Granted, there are holes in this logic. No governmental agricultural agency has enough field agents to inspect all plants at all times. In fact, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the branch of the USDA that sends out veterinary inspectors to slaughter plants, is grossly understaffed (and underpaid), so it’s not a perfect system and it never will be. But at least it’s something.

2. Horses are expensive. They eat a lot, take up space, and, well, mostly they eat a lot. Add veterinary bills on top of feed bills for a horse and there’s even more money out of your pocket. With the economic depression this country has been going through, people have been forced to make tough decisions about their animals. Selling a horse for slaughter is, for most people, the worst-case scenario. If slaughter were outlawed, these unwanted horses have few other options:

  1. Donation to a rescue group. The Unwanted Horse Coalition’s 2009 survey reported 39 percent of rescues were at max capacity and another 30 percent were at near capacity. That was three years ago and I can’t believe that things have gotten better since then.
  2. Euthanasia by veterinarian. This costs money. Again, the Unwanted Horse Coalition’s 2009 survey reported the average cost of euthanasia and carcass disposal was $385 per horse. As a vet, that sounds about right to me.
  3. Neglect. Over the past few years there have been increasing reports by humane groups regarding neglect and equine abandonment cases. Is this due to bad economic times, the lack of U.S. slaughterhouses, and/or other factors? I’m not sure. But I do know that letting a horse starve to death in a barren field is a worse fate than one in a slaughter plant.

Please let me emphasize: I am not pro-slaughter. But banning slaughter does not make the unwanted horse issue in this country better; it just ignores the problem. We need long-term solutions that will help decrease the unwanted horse population. If there were no unwanted horses, there would be no need for slaughter in the first place. I firmly agree with the Unwanted Horse Coalition’s motto (which is also supported by the AVMA) on this issue: "Own responsibly."

So, that’s where I stand. What do you guys think?

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: Frank Kovalchek / via Flickr