Horse Slaughter/Animal Cruelty


By KAREN OGDEN - Great Falls Tribune OnLine March 19, 2006

TRIBUNE PHOTO:  Hundreds of horses bound for slaughter and export to Europe stand in pens at the Bar S feedlot in Shelby. A proposed amendment to the federal Horse Protection Act aims to ban the export of horses for slaughter and to shut down horse slaughter plants in the United States.

Dapples rests at the far end of Linda Knox's pasture, under a makeshift wooden grave marker decorated with horseshoes.

The tan and black mare was about 25 years old, thin and failing, when Knox paid a veterinarian $170 for a lethal injection.

Knox wouldn't have dreamed of sending her pet to the auction ring where Dapples, like hundreds of Montana horses each year, likely would be bought for slaughter, winding up on dinner plates in France, Belgium or Japan.

But neither is the Montana native backing a campaign to ban the slaughter of American horses to feed foreign appetites.

Last year, some 94,000 horses were slaughtered in the United States, their meat sent to Europe and Asia where it is considered a delicacy.

Legislation before Congress this spring would ban the practice, outlawing the shipping, selling and possession of horses with the intent of slaughter for human consumption. It would effectively shut down the three remaining horse slaughter facilities in the United States: two in Texas and one in Illinois.

It also aims to stop the export of thousands of horses to meat packing plants in Mexico and Canada including hundreds that are shipped north from a feedlot in Shelby.

The question of whether horse slaughter should continue is a deeply emotional one, raising questions of cultural values, urban vs. rural, East vs. West, economics, food ethics and property rights.

Animal welfare groups are cranking up an aggressive media and congressional lobbying campaign to get the legislation passed, continuing an effort started when New York Rep. John Sweeney first introduced the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act in 2003.

"It's a really gruesome, volatile process that really disrespects an animal that we consider to be a friend," said Sweeney spokeswoman Melissa Carlson.

"It's not the same as animals that are bred for food," she said. "... We don't eat horses here."

Still, many Montanans though they may disdain the idea of dining on Mr. Ed say banning horse slaughter would be costly and impractical.

"I can see it on both sides," said Knox. "I grew up on a ranch."

She occupies the middle ground on an issue that is highly polarized.

Lyle Readicker, who was riding with a friend at a stable outside Great Falls on a recent afternoon, was blunt.

"People in Europe like horse meat, why not let 'em eat 'em?" he said.

Meanwhile, a headline on the American Horse Defense Fund Web site reads:

"The grand total of horses murdered over the past 24 years to date is 3,929,426!"

To market, to market

The slaughter market offers Montana ranchers a measure of convenience and a way to recoup value from animals that are old, crippled, bad tempered or otherwise unsuited to ranch work.

"It is a touchy subject," said Buster Brown, who runs cattle and breeds top-dollar quarter horses near Whitlash, north of Chester. "But in any industry there is a surplus of unusable goods. What do you do with them?"

Many Montana horses are sold to the Bar S feedlot in Shelby, which trucks them to a slaughterhouse in Fort McLeod, Alberta. The Bar S moves up to 300 horses a week across the border.

The feedlot drew the attention of state livestock officials after a June 2002 rainstorm, when inspectors found at least 35 horses rotting in a quagmire of wet manure.

In 2003 the facility's owner, Bouvry Exports of Calgary, Alberta, pleaded guilty to five counts of animal cruelty stemming from negligent conditions.

The company paid a $12,000 fine to the state Department of Environmental Quality and is under orders to install a waste water control system by July.

Ranchers also deliver their "cull," or unwanted horses, to livestock sales. Horse traders from across the country come to bid at Montana's largest monthly horse sale at the Billings Livestock Auction. In 2005 the auction sold 8,726 horses.

There is no way to track how many of them went to packing plants, explained sale manager Jann Parker.

The same horse trader who buys a pricey stud might buy a passel of slaughter horses. Although the slaughter market is a significant part of the auction's sales, it's not the biggest part, Parker said.

And the auction ring is not necessarily a death sentence for low-dollar horses. A quality mare that's slightly crippled, but still can carry a foal, might be purchased as brood stock.

A gentle, well-trained ranch horse could become a family pet. "How do you know your horse isn't happy?" Parker said. "How do you know your horse isn't in a Cub Scout camp on the East Coast?"

Still, ranchers know there's no guarantees when they take a horse to market.

With its rodeos, recreational horse industry and vast cattle ranches, Montana is a key supplier of horse meat.

A small percentage of U.S. horse meat goes to zoos for animal feed, but the vast majority is exported for human consumption, with France, Belgium, Holland, Japan and Italy among the biggest customers.

Stands behind work

Of the three horse packing houses in the United States, the Beltex plant near Fort Worth, Texas, is the biggest, slaughtering 40,000 head a year.

Beltex buys roughly 40 slaughter horses a month at the Billings Livestock Auction, estimates Darrell Beverly, the company's head livestock buyer.

Currently a 1,000-pound "packer horse," or horse bound for slaughter, fetches roughly 46 cents a pound, or $460, Beverly said.

The packer horses set the bottom of the market. If the slaughter plants were suddenly closed, that bottom would fall out, Beverly said.

"If you've got all these extra horses running around it will make the horse market drop to just about nothing on the average riding horse," he said. "It'll be an absolute disaster for the horse market of the United States."

In 2005, the three slaughter plants produced nearly 39.4 million pounds of horsemeat valued at nearly $61 million, according to the Foreign Agricultural Service.

That compares with 24.55 billion pounds of beef produced in the United States in 2004, with calf and cattle production valued at $34.9 billion.

Beverly, 45, whose dad was a horse trader, started buying and selling horses at 14.

He acknowledges the past sins of slaughterhouses: "It was horrible at one time." For a trader or breeder to make money on riding horses, they've got to have a place to sell their culls, said Beverly, who independently buys and sells riding stock.

He says those trying to shut down the horse slaughter plants don't understand the realities of the industry.

"They've never owned horses, they never even intend to own horses, and they're trying to tell us how to run our business, run our life," he said.

Beverly says he wouldn't have gone to work for Beltex last year if he weren't satisfied that its practices are humane.

"You won't find anybody who loves a horse more than I do," Beverly said.

"If I thought somebody was abusing a horse it wouldn't be a good idea to be around me."

Beverly gave a tour of the plant a couple weeks ago to a young girl who brought in her barrel racing horse; her vet wanted to charge $500 to put the horse down.

"She saw how we do everything humanely," Beverly said.

'Frightening ordeal'

Liz Ross, with the Doris Day Animal League in Washington D.C., says there is no humane way to kill a horse in a mass production slaughter facility.

"(Horses) are used to human companionship and for them to suddenly be treated like livestock has got to be an incredibly frightening ordeal for them," Ross said.

Joyce McDonald, secretary-treasurer of the Triangle Quarter Horse Association in Great Falls, tends to agree.

"The way they slaughter them sounds rather ... it would just panic a horse, worse than other animals," says McDonald, who has been riding since she was a girl and is known in equestrian circles across the state.

"They're taken away from their home. They're put in this pen with all these strange horses and then they're loaded onto a semi ... They're on that truck without food and water."

USDA regulations don't allow horses to remain on trucks for more than 48 hours. That doesn't meet McDonald's standard of care.

"Horses need water and they need food," said McDonald, a member of the local Equine Protection League. "They can't go for 48 hours without food or water without suffering.

"I don't think it's fair to horses," she said. "I have too much respect."

Death in the pasture

When McDonald needed to get rid of a pokey race horse 10 years ago, she did what animal welfare groups recommend. She donated the horse, Jet, to a therapeutic horse riding program for disabled kids in Lethbridge, Alberta.

The camp still sends her occasional updates on Jet's activities. "They just adore him," McDonald said.

Critics of the slaughter ban note that some horses aren't suitable to work with kids, or to be ridden at all.

Even if they were, there aren't enough summer camps, therapeutic horse riding programs and animals shelters to go around.

In fact, the nation's largest equine veterinary group, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, opposes the slaughter legislation.

"The main issue for our organization is what ... is the level of care that can be provided to these horses if this legislation is passed, and it has not been thought through on the front end," said Sally Baker, AAEP's director of public relations.

Slaughter at a USDA-regulated facility is better than a life of suffering, inadequate care, or abandonment, the AAEP says.

"We do feel the process is humane when a horse has to be slaughtered," Baker said.

The American Veterinary Medical Association also opposes an immediate slaughter ban, citing similar concerns about abandonment, as well as the environmental ramifications of disposing of thousands of horse carcasses, some tainted with euthanasia drugs that could contaminate soil.

It costs at least $100 to have a horse euthanized in northcentral Montana, more if the veterinarian must travel a long distance.

Brown, the Whitlash horse breeder, says he'll shoot a horse if he has to, but many don't have the gumption or the know-how to do it.

He predicts a slow, cold death in the pasture for many horses. As a horse grows old its teeth wear down and, without supplements, it slowly starves, unable to draw nutrients from its forage.

"I know for a fact there's individuals out there that won't pay to put them down or put them down themselves," Brown said. "And (those horses) are going to die of old age and that's a pretty ugly death."

Free to a good home

If U.S. horse slaughter facilities closed today, roughly 70,000 horses per year would need alternate homes, or to be euthanized and disposed of, according to the AVMA.

The AVMA estimates it costs $1,825 a year to care for a horse. At that rate, the expense of caring for displaced horses would amount to $127 million in the first year after the plant was closed.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners estimates that it would take more than 2,000 new horse rescue shelters nationwide to handle the volume, assuming each housed 30 horses.

And rescue operations are not government regulated to ensure that horses are properly cared for, the AVMA wrote in a position paper on the issue.

A complaint of unwatered horses led authorities to Pamela Polejewski's no-kill animal refuge west of Great Falls last summer, where they found more than 200 animals, including 18 horses.

Polejewski pleaded guilty to one count of animal cruelty and nine counts each of failing to tag and vaccinate her dogs.

Cascade County, meanwhile, spent at least $40,000 caring for the animals.

Reality in the ring

Nikki Schofield, an assistantat the Country Haven Veterinary Clinic in Vaughn, says she would set up a reputable horse shelter if she had the land.

She once took in an aging horse that a neighbor planned to shoot.

Schofield put her geriatric pet on a special diet so it could enjoy a few more years of good health.

"It was expensive, but I figured for me it was worth it when you consider all the years of pleasure a horse gives people,"

Schofield said. Her kids rode him a little, but "he was more of a pasture ornament than anything," Schofield said.

Despite her soft spot for animals, she's a pragmatist on the issue of horse slaughter.

"I think as long as it's done in the right way it's just fine," Schofield said.

Knox takes a similar stance, although the sheer number of horses slaughtered each year bothers her.

Irresponsible breeding is part of the problem, she says. "A lot of people breed horses just to breed horses and the market right now doesn't support that," she said.

Too often, a horse owner crosses up a stud with a neighbor's mare just for fun, producing offspring that have little sale value, Knox said.

Unwanted foals are sold for slaughter alongside older horses. "I've got four horses that I love dearly," she said. "Not a one of them has exceptional traits that I feel would be worth breeding."

Knox is not fundamentally opposed to horse slaughter. She recalls going to the horse auction with her dad and granddad as a girl both to buy and sell horses and her shock when she discovered the reality beyond the auction ring.

Her granddad would buy a horse, butcher it and taint the meat with poison to kill the coyotes that preyed on his sheep near Columbus.

"The first time I found out they were doing that I was just devastated," Knox said. "But they were in it for the business."

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