Understanding the horse slaughter controversy
Selling horses for meat has been a controversial issue and a growing movement against this practice has spawned legislation to prohibit horse slaughter in the United States. Many of the people arguing against slaughter are motivated by “love of the horse,” or rationalizing that since Americans don’t eat horsemeat we should not have our faithful companions end up on European tables.
The issue is complex, however. Dr. Sarah Ralston of Rutgers University in New Jersey has recently joined the Unwanted Horse Coalition, headed by Dr. Tom Lenz. Pending legislation would prohibit transporting horses to slaughter (such as to Canada and Mexico) if horses can no longer be slaughtered in the U.S.
“If this is passed, the situation will be even more devastating to the horse industry than it already is,” says Ralston.
“Right now, the number of unwanted horses (no longer keepable by their owners) is increasing. If the only outlet that many people have for selling them is banned, even more horses will be left to starve and suffer needlessly,” she points out. In the present economic downturn, many horse owners can no longer care for their horses, and don’t have the financial ability or space to properly dispose of a carcass if the horse is humanely destroyed. Local laws in many regions prohibit burying or burning the carcass.
The Unwanted Horse Coalition (www.unwantedhorsecoalition.org) reminds horse owners of the fact that there have always been unwanted horses but recent events brought this into public attention. The BSE problem in Europe and the Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic in Great Britain in 2001 and 2000 increased the demand for horsemeat in Europe, since cattle herds were decimated. This increased demand for horsemeat drew media attention, and spurred animal rights and animal welfare organizations to initiate federal legislation to ban horse slaughter.
According to Ralston, most of the push has come from soft-hearted people who have no experience or background with horses and don’t understand the implications this ban would have. “Unfortunately, this is a majority of the American public,” she says.
The AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) coined the phrase “unwanted horses” and defined them as horses that are no longer wanted by their current owner because they are old, sick, injured, unmanageable or fail to meet their owners’ expectations.
“Another category should be added – horses whose owners are no longer financially capable of taking care of them properly,” says Ralston.
In earlier years, horse owners had the option of sending it for processing. The word “slaughter” has bad connotations, and the groups opposed to the use of horses for meat have capitalized on this repulsive image.
“A lot of people are adamant in their feelings that killing a horse via captive bolt (as used in a processing plant) is inhumane. But it’s not,” says Ralston. ” When done by trained personnel, it is instantaneous. I have seen so-called humane euthanasia, by contrast, where horses are given lethal injections and go down very hard. In some cases they linger and struggle for a while, especially if they were debilitated to begin with and had poor blood circulation.”
In 2002 only 63,000-plus horses were processed. In 2007, before the processing plants in the U.S. were closed, only 58,000 horses were processed in the U.S. By contrast, in 2008, 125,000 were estimated to be processed in Mexico and Canada because of the economic downturn, and nowhere here for the horses to go.
Looking at annual U.S. horse mortality: horses processed for meat comprised only 1.2 percent of horses that died. The cost of disposal for the average horse carcass is $186 per head.
“Here in New Jersey and on the East Coast the average cost for disposal is $300 to $400,” says Ralston. “If a person can’t afford to take care of their horse, they’ll also have a hard time paying $400 to get rid of it.”
Current disposal options for carcasses include burial, but in many jurisdictions it is illegal to bury a horse on your private property.
“In some states, such as Pennsylvania, you cannot bury a horse within 100 yards of any type of water source, and the carcass must be covered with three to four feet of dirt,” says Ralston. In many areas there may not be that much topsoil and it’s difficult to dig deeper into solid rocks.
Another option is a landfill, but many landfills won’t take large animal carcasses, and many will not accept chemically euthanized horses. Rendering is another acceptable option, as is cremation, but very few places have a crematorium large enough to accommodate a horse. Some people are exploring composting of carcasses. According to Ralston, very few horse owners have a large enough compost system to incorporate a horse’s body, however.
“Most carcasses currently go to a rendering plant,” says Ralston. “They cook the carcass to destroy pathogens (and the resulting material can be utilized in various livestock feed and other products). But this option is available in only about half of the states. Cremation and incineration are regulated by the EPA, and the cost may be $600 to $2,000. Composting takes eight weeks to nine months, depending on the technique used,” she says. The final option is processing for meat.
The AAEP, AQHA, and the AVMA all oppose the anti-slaughter legislation and the anti-transport to slaughter bills.
“All three of these associations have the welfare of the horse foremost,” says Ralston. “They want to see humane transport and humane euthanasia, but the current legislation does nothing to promote that.
“There are concerns about the fact there is no infrastructure to address the welfare of unwanted horses not removed from the horse population – in other words, the horses that are still out there and suffering,” she adds. “The legislation also does not address the disposal issue, nor provide an enforcement plan or agency, nor funding for unwanted horses. It would take $124 million in the first year, just to care for all the unwanted horses that have no place to go. The government isn’t even able to care for all the mustangs right now.”
The position of the AAEP is neutral. Their position is not pro-slaughter, but states that until the unwanted horse issue can be resolved, euthanasia at a federally regulated processing plant is an acceptable alternative to abuse, neglect or abandonment.
“That says it all, and is more caring and responsible than the people who are saying we can’t kill them – that we should leave them alive to suffer,” says Ralston.
“The real problem now, because there is no outlet for these horses, is that the entire industry has been adversely affected,” she says. “There are many usable but unwanted horses that owners are begging people to take! The current rescue and retirement facilities are unable to accommodate the large number of unwanted horses, and the entire equine industry must take responsibility and act. Responsible ownership is key.”
She recommends that horse owners need to cut back on breeding horses.
“Some people buy a mare and then decide to breed her, just because they want to see babies, or people breed inferior quality horses just because they have a mare or stallion,” says Ralston. “That’s the biggest factor in creating unwanted horses.
“Hopefully the efforts of the Unwanted Horse Coalition will help. Their goal is to raise awareness of this issue and its consequences to the horse industry,” she says. “They hope to help educate horse owners on responsible ownership, proper care and results of haphazard breeding. They want to educate potential owners about the costs of ownership, and proper husbandry.
“We are never going to completely eliminate the unwanted horse problem,” Ralston continues. “We cannot prevent aging, injuries, or poor athletes (horses that don’t run fast enough or jump high enough) or unattractive horses. We can minimize the problem, however, by buying rather than breeding, adopting rather than buying, or finding alternative careers for certain horses.”
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News