Jeri Dobrowski shares her first-hand account of inaugural Summit of the Horse
Participants attending the Summit of the Horse at the South Point Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Jan. 3-6, 2011, were met by security guards at the doors of the Grand Ballroom. While the larger-than-life statue of a horseback Benny Binion stood watch on the casino level, guards with metal-detecting wands screened conference goers one floor up. Organizers requested the detail due to threats issued against them and some of the 40 presenters and performing artists.
Those in attendance came on behalf of the horse, addressing down markets, incidents of neglect and abandonment, growing populations of wild horses and burros on federal lands – in some cases spilling onto ranges outside their designated areas, and the goal of animal activists to eliminate all forms of animal ownership. One hundred and sixty-five individuals registered. An additional 879 viewers followed the proceedings on the Internet.
The Summit was promoted as a forum for those making their living with horses and those who care about healthy lands. Speakers came from across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Their experiences ran the gamut: breeders, trainers, tribal leaders, veterinarians, behaviorists, ranchers, federal and elected officials, ecologists, biologists, round up personnel, lawyers and those studying animal rights groups.
Not offered a position on the dais were those opposed to horse processing.
However, they were present among the participants, and a small contingent held a mini summit in the casino on the first full-day of the conference.
Co-organizers of the event, Dave Duquette, Sue Wallis and Tracee Bentley, hoped to find solutions for what ails the American horse. They, and others, believe the option of processing should once again be available in America. Nine million horses are processed worldwide for human consumption, but the U.S. has been blocked from operating plants since 2007.
Legislative efforts by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other animal advocates halted processing when a federal district court ordered the Department of Agriculture to stop inspecting horse processing facilities. HSUS President Wayne Pacelle wrote following the decision: “The domestic slaughter industry is now wiped out.” He added, “Our task now is to pass legislation in Congress to ban the export of live horses for slaughter.”
At present, it is legal to transport horses to Canada and Mexico for processing. USDA figures indicate 88,276 head crossed the borders for the purpose in 2009. However, the expense of trucking and the time animals spend in transit are seen as liabilities to the market and to the animals themselves.
Keynote speaker, U.S. Congressman Charlie Stenholm, TX, (retired), urged those in production agriculture to talk about the care they provide their livestock. He urged a return to the term “animal husbandry,” meaning the farmer or rancher knows what’s best for their animals, not politically- and financially-motivated groups.
Tribal representatives told of their struggles with exploding horse populations. Aside from their own animals, they are dealing with those abandoned on reservations by non-tribal owners who are unable to sell or give them away. The Yakama Nation estimates their reservation alone has 15,000 head. They are devastating not only the grass but native plants used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes and endangering salmon fisheries.
Arlen Washines of the Yakama Nation, and former chairman of the Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition, said they are looking at a total collapse of the environment if something isn’t done.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Bob Abbey outlined his agency’s stance regarding wild horses and burros, which has taken heat from both sides of the debate. Discussing the difficulties in managing and maintaining herds at appropriate levels, he stood firm in his assertion that wild horses will not be slaughtered for food as a means of thinning herds.
Abbey was among those harassed for agreeing to speak. Generally, horse advocates characterize roundups aimed at controlling the population as inhumane. Further, they accuse the BLM of favoring cattle and planning for the total extinction of wild horses.
Ranchers and others familiar with the ecological ramifications cited environmental damage and spending associated with maintaining 38,000 wild equids on rangelands plus another 38,000 in holding facilities. The $66 million spent by the BLM on wild horses and burros earned a place on Nebraska Senator Tom Coburn’s oversight report, “Wastebook 2010: A Guide to Some of the Most Wasteful Government Spending of 2010.”
Dr. Temple Grandin, Doctor of Animal Science and professor at Colorado State University, was another who faced criticism for speaking. Although bashed in forums and on social networking sites, Grandin said she came to help figure out how to solve the problem. Not all of Grandin’s detractors have problems with horses being euthanized, they have problems with eating horses. She advised that any animal handling facility be audited and said good management is as important as good design.
She responded to those who sent her nasty e-mails, asking for proposals on what to do. Many did, and she read some of them. “I also asked HSUS for a proposal,” she noted. “I got e-mails begging me not to come to the meeting, but no proposals.”
Aside from insight into how animals think and respond to stimuli, Grandin explained body movements which continue after death. What is often recounted as animals being hoisted while still alive, is in fact spinal reflexes which continue until no oxygen is left in the bloodstream.
Grandin was critical of the treatment that American horses receive in municipal abattoirs in Mexico. On the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Tom Lenz – attending as a guest – addressed the quality care horses processed at European Union plants receive. There are EU plants in both Mexico and Canada. In Canada, regulations mandate that horses be killed within 30 seconds of entering a kill box.
Organizers plan to assemble the information presented at the Summit for distribution. In addition to those proceedings, a General Accountability Office study is due out in several weeks; ordered by the Senate Ag Appropriations Committee in July 2009. They directed the GAO to conduct an investigation on the status of horse welfare in the U.S. as it relates to the cessation of horse slaughter operations.
Waiting at the airport for a plane to Wyoming, co-organizer Wallis reflected on the gathering: “There were a bunch of smart people in that room. We’d all been thinking about it for a long time – each of us in our own world – all struggling with the same issue. I was proud of the quality of the speakers.
“We didn’t engineer what we wanted them to say. We said, ‘Come and talk about it.'”