HORSES AS COURSES 

 
click to enlarge feat-horses4_330jpg
Pat Dickey of Marble Falls has rescued more than 100 abandoned or neglected horses. Photo by Mark Greenberg

What constitutes humane treatment when an animal goes to slaughter?

This is the second installment of a two-part series about horse slaughter in Texas. To read Part 1, go to "All The Pretty Horses" here at the Current's web site.

The chestnut mare with a flash of white on her face was one of 41 horses that Ron Sebastian unloaded at the Beltex slaughtering plant that spring day. Somewhere along the 1,500-mile trip from Saskatchewan, Canada, to Fort Worth, Texas, Sebastian had purchased her — a quarterhorse about 16 hands high — and trucked her hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles. While Sebastian likely stopped to rest, and grabbed a bite to eat and something to drink, she remained in the trailer with the rest of the horses, without food or water.

Beltex and Dallas Crown, which is located in Kaufman, Texas, are the only plants in the United States that slaughter horses for human consumption; the companies ship the meat to Europe, where it commands about $15 a pound. Since 1949, it has been illegal in Texas to kill horses for the dinner table — but for more than 25 years, these Belgian- and French-owned companies have been making millions doing just that.

The suffering the horses endure — inside the slaughterhouse and en route to their deaths — spurred horse rescue and animal protection groups earlier this year to fight a Texas bill that would have legalized horse slaughter for people food. The political maneuvering that passed this bill in the House made it clear that much was at stake — specifically, the thousands of dollars pouring into the coffers of several Texas universities and state agencies.

This fall could mark a turning point for horse slaughter. Beltex and Dallas Crown are suing Tarrant and Kaufman counties, alleging that state law interferes with international and interstate trade. Meanwhile, House Resolution 857, sponsored by Congressman John Sweeney (R-New York) could make that suit moot by outlawing horse slaughter for human consumption in every state.

Killing them not-so softly

An undercover video shot at Beltex by the Humane Society of the United States in the mid-'90s tells the story: A horse jerks agitatedly in a narrow kill chute, also known as the "knock box," while a worker tries to apply an captive-bolt gun to its forehead. Frantic and afraid,

How Bexar County reps voted on House Bill 1324, which would have legalized horse slaughter for human consumption

YES
Elizabeth Ames Jones (R)
Trey Martinez Fischer (D)
Ken Mercer (R)
Robert Puente (D)

NO
Joaquin Castro (D)
Ruth McClendon (D)
José Menendez (D)
Carlos Uresti (D)
Mike Villarreal (D)

the horse flails its long neck. The worker misses the horse's forehead and has to stun it several times in the head before the gun's four-inch retractable rod shatters the skull in the right spot — slightly above and between the eyes.

Two years ago, Chris Heyde, policy analyst for the Society of Animal Protective Legislation, visited an Illinois plant as part of a pre-vet program. "The horses were bleeding in the trailers. The floor in the corral area was covered with feces and dirt. It was slippery and the horses were falling. Guys were beating them. The horses couldn't go anywhere and were trying to climb over top of each other," Heyde noted, adding that no U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector was present, as required by law.

Neither Dallas Crown nor Beltex permits the public or the press to view horse slaughter; Dallas Crown declined to allow the Current inside. The USDA said it employs inspectors in both plants.

San Antonio livestock dealer Jodie Ringelstein said that, "for slaughter, it's as humane as you can get." Horses are more difficult than cattle to stun because they have long necks and are headshy, meaning they often swing their heads to avoid the bolt. "You're not going to say a guy's not going to mess up and shoot him two or three times," Ringelstein added. "And a horse's smell is a lot keener than cattle. They can smell blood."

Leaders of the American Quarterhorse Association and other horse groups echo the American Veterinarian Medical Association's endorsement of slaughter methods. However, the AVMA warns that horse need "adequate restraint ... to ensure the proper placement of the penetrating captive bolt."

The trauma begins before the slaughterhouse, as horses are often hauled for days over thousands of miles in single- or double-decker trailers without food or water. A federal law, passed in 2001, that will prohibit shipping horses in two-story trailers doesn't go into effect until 2007.

Pat Dickey, who has rescued more than 100 horses from slaughter, said she has attended auctions and seen "horses prodded into trucks and left standing for hours without food or water." Dickey bought one mare that had been coerced through a chute with an electric prod; when she arrived at Dickey's farm, she shook all night until she died.

Some groups, including the American Association of Equine Practitioners, argue that horses bound for slaughter are better off than if they were shipped to Mexico or abandoned in a field to die from starvation, heat, or cold. Dr. Ted Friend of the Texas A&M Science Department posted his approval of slaughter to an e-mail group devoted to horse issues: "No rational person can promote the idea that banning the slaughter of horses in the U.S. will improve the welfare of horses ... The slaughter plants have told me that they move to Mexico anyway to escape harassment and regulation and high labor costs."

Coincidentally, Friend is also applying for a USDA grant to study how horses respond to extreme conditions in trailers.

But Dickey and other slaughter opponents counter that there are dozens of horse welfare groups and individuals who regularly adopt and rescue horses. (See www.sacurrent.com for a list.) They point out that California has seen few horses go to Mexico since the state outlawed slaughter. Opponents argue that Texas should enforce its animal cruelty laws, and discourage unfit or irresponsible people from buying and breeding horses. Slaughter, Dickey said, is a betrayal. "These are clear acts of inhumanity. They are pets, recreational animals. They are trained to follow and trust their handlers."

Mr. Ed is a cash cow

Horse slaughter earns money for the plants and buyers — and Texas. A 1997 state law designed to curb horse theft allowed the Texas Agricultural Cooperative Extension at Texas A&M University to receive $2 per slaughtered horse; these funds go toward horse theft education programs. The Texas & Southwestern Cattleraisers Association receives $3 per head — of which 55 cents goes to a brand inspector stationed at the plant. (The brand inspector checks horses to see if they are stolen; however, few horses are branded anymore, making that job nearly obsolete.)

In 2001, the Ag Extension collected about $64,000 from horse slaughter. Information for the following years is murky: Mysteriously, accounting documents provided under the Open Records Act for 2002 and 2003 were duplicates of 2001. The TSCA didn't return calls from the Current requesting its accounting, but according to court documents, 40,000 horses were slaughtered in Texas in 2001, meaning the TSCA earned $120,000 from horse slaughter that year.

Another state agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also sells horses to Beltex; it didn't return calls for comment. The TDCJ uses mounted horses to monitor prisoners outdoors.

Beltex also receives horses from Tarleton State University in Stephensville. The university offers agriculture, pre-vet courses, and therapeutic horseback riding and equine breeding programs. The university accepts donated horses, then resells some and uses others. When the horses are no longer useful, they're shipped to Beltex.

"We don't sell them at auctions," said Dr. David Snyder, director of the animal health department. "It's too much stress

 
click to enlarge news-horserally_330jpg
Several horse slaughter opponents demonstrated at the statehouse earlier this year. They protested House Bill 1324, which would have legalized slaughtering horses for human consumption. Photo by Jana Birchum.
on the animal. We are upfront with donors that we can take the animal to slaughter and put the money into our programs."

Snyder said it is too expensive to put horses down, adding that the university receives only about $1,000 a year for its slaughtered horses. Beltex records show that for the first nine months of 2002 the university was paid $2,607 for horses, but after a $2,200 advance was subtracted, the check came to $367. "It provides a humane way of disposing of the animals," Snyder added. "The shock is humane if applied properly. But `it isn't` if the person is untrained. I've seen that happen."

The Texas Animal Health Commission ensures the plants have a steady supply of horses. Any horse that goes to any public event, including an auction, must have documentation showing it has tested negative for Equine Infectious Anemia, a debilitating disease transmitted through blood by biting flies.

At an auction, if a seller cannot produce the results of an annual Coggin's test for EIA, the horse automatically goes to slaughter unless the owner chooses to take it home — which rarely happens. Dickey attended an auction where a man, reportedly mad at his wife, unloaded 18 of her horses; none had proof of Coggin's tests. Dickey tried to purchase them, but the auction house couldn't legally sell them, since the horses couldn't prove they didn't have the disease. "It was terrible," she said. "If the slaughterhouses didn't exist, those horses would be refused, not killed." All 18 of the horses were immediately red-tagged — destined for slaughter.

Legislation, lawsuit could determine slaughter's future

Despite a huge outcry from the anti-slaughter contingent during the last session, State Representative Betty Brown (R-Terrell) sponsored House Bill 1324, which would have legalized what Beltex and Dallas Crown have been illegally doing for a quarter-century. HB 1324 passed 81-55. (Go to www.sacurrent.com to see how Bexar County representatives voted.) At the March 25 agriculture committee hearings, those who testified in favor of the bill included Brown campaign contributors: the Texas Farm Bureau ($1,275), the American Quarterhorse Association ($1,250), and Texas & Southwestern Cattleraisers Association ($1,000).

The bill made its way to the Senate, where it died for lack of a sponsor. Back in the Hosue, Brown attached it as an amendment onto an unrelated senate bill. State Senator Bob Deull (R-Greenville) eventually killed the amendment.

Brown's support for the measure bordered on irrational: In an e-mail to horse slaughter opponent Mary Nash, Brown justified slaughter by quoting from the Book of Leviticus that "man shall have dominion over animals." On the House floor, she accused slaughter opponents of being wacked-out animal rights activists. "Do we want animal rights people to set agriculture policy for our state?" she asked. (Ironically, many slaughter opponents aren't vegetarians, and regularly devour hamburgers, fried chicken, and pork chops.)

While the legislative battle brewed, the plants filed their lawsuit arguing that state law cannot regulate interstate and foreign trade. Empacadora de Carnes de Fresnillo, a meat-processing plant in Zacatecas, Mexico, joined Beltex and Dallas Crown in the suit, claiming if the law isn't reversed, the Mexican company can't transport its frozen horsemeat through Houston seaports or the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Empacadora's involvement in the lawsuit is strategic: With a Mexican company onboard, attorneys can invoke the North American Federal Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to try to overturn the law based on unfair trade restrictions.

The suit could go to court as soon as this fall, as could a Congressional measure that would counteract it. House Resolution 857 would outlaw slaughter for human consumption in the U.S. and would contain provisions to immunize it from international trade agreements. With 55 co-sponsors it has now, the HR 857 could have enough momentum to get a hearing later this year.

Texas' controversy over horse slaughter has raised important issues about what constitutes humane treatment of animals, and what is culturally taboo to eat. Many opponents argue that Americans shouldn't dine on horses for cultural reasons: if it's OK to eat the chestnut mare, dogs and cats are next. Yet, that cultural argument fails if one considers that any slaughter is inhumane — that the agony endured by cows crowded in feedlots, by chickens that have been debeaked, by veal that are confined in cramped cages, by geese forcefed for their livers, and by lobsters boiled alive — is as acute and unthinkable as the pain felt by any gelding.

It comes down to "the kill line," as Mary Nash calls it: the place where people must make peace with themselves about what pain they choose to inflict to satisfy their appetites. "You have to decide what side of the kill line you're on." •


Calendar

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.