Pam Holyfield feeds Bogie out of her hand at her family's ranch outside Marble Falls. Bogie was donated to the ranch after his owners gave him up. He will eventually be placed in a new home. Photo by Mark Greenberg

Texas' horse slaughter plants have operated illegally for more than 25 years — and business has been good.

This is the first installment of a two-part series about horse slaughter in Texas. To read Part 2 go to "Horses as Courses" here on the Current's web site.

Levi lived to perform.

At 9 years old, the gray gelding had spent his life as a show horse, prancing and posing for judges. A round, powerful American Quarterhorse, he sported huge thighs and loins, and a straight back that could easily bear his rider. But as Levi grew larger and more muscular, a sharp pain in his foot began shooting up his leg like a bolt of electricity. The pain grew so intense he couldn't gallop or canter. No longer sure-footed or graceful, Levi was considered useless, so his owners planned to sell him at an auction. From there, he would surely go to slaughter and eventually would land on someone's dinner plate.

Killing horses for human consumption has been illegal in Texas since 1949, when the legislature passed a law prohibiting the sale of horsemeat or slaughtering horses for that purpose. It also made it illegal for butchers to mix horsemeat with beef, pork, lamb, or goatmeat.

Yet for more than 25 years, several plants across the state have slaughtered these companion animals for people to eat. Plant workers lead the horses through a chute, zap them in the forehead with an electric pin, chain them by one leg, and hoist them to the ceiling, slitting their throats, and letting the blood pour into buckets or onto the killing floor. Then the plant processes and ships the frozen meat to Europe, where it is as common in local markets — for about $15 a pound — as barbacoa is in San Antonio.

How did the slaughterhouses operate illegally for the past quarter-century without getting caught? Maybe no one in the state government knew that the agricultural code forbids horse slaughter. Or perhaps the industry's profits — which benefited not only the plants and buyers, but also several state agencies and Texas universities — were enough that it paid to look the other way.

Due to a recent outcry from slaughter opponents, the controversial issue of killing horses for foreign dinner tables stumbled through the state legislature, and is winding through the federal courts and Congress. It continues to divide the community of horse owners, as the idea of killing and eating their pets has forced people on both sides of the issue to reconcile commercial values of utility and profit with basic humanitarian values of care and compassion.

Skirting the law

Horse slaughter once thrived in the United States, but business dropped significantly in the past decade as companies abroad increased their production of horse meat, and U.S. plants

"The horse was dead lame. He could hardly walk at all. Nobody thought we could make him whole again."
closed in Illinois, Oregon, and California (where in 1998, voters passed Proposition 6, outlawing slaughter). According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1989, 348,400 horses were slaughtered in the U.S; by 2001, that number had decreased to 62,000.

Only two horse plants remain in the U.S, and they're both in Texas: Beltex in Fort Worth and Dallas Crown in Kaufman.

Despite the 1949 Texas law, it wasn't until 2001 that someone vocally complained about Texas horse slaughter. Pat Dickey, a Minnesota native who moved with her family to Texas 10 years ago, buys, sells, and rescues horses. When Dickey and her daughters attended Texas auctions, they always noticed "men in the center ring standing next to the auctioneer." The men, it turned out, had been hired by Beltex or Dallas Crown to purchase horses for slaughter. Dickey calls them "killer buyers."

Dickey asked attorney Skip Trimble, a member of the Texas Humane Legislation Network, why there was not a law prohibiting horse slaughter. When Trimble researched the agriculture code, he found one already on the books — under Chapter 149. "I couldn't quite believe what I was reading," Trimble said. "It's so clear, I thought there must be something to override it, but there wasn't."

But Trimble couldn't find a local or state official who knew about Chapter 149. The Tarrant and Kaufman county district attorneys said they hadn't heard of the law; neither had the Texas Department of Agriculture which doesn't have jurisdiction over meat-packing plants. Trimble asked State Representative Tony Goolsby to request an opinion from then-Attorney General John Cornyn, who determined that Dallas Crown and Beltex were indeed breaking the law.

Cornyn's opinion didn't shut down either plant. In the fall of 2002, lawyers for the plants sued Tarrant and Kaufman counties in federal court for restricting interstate and international trade. The lawyers persuaded Federal Judge Terry Means to grant a temporary injunction against the counties, preventing the district attorneys from prosecuting the plants, and allowing Beltex and Dallas Crown to continue slaughtering horses in defiance of the law. Means granted the injunction, ruling that to even temporarily close the plants would cause "irreparable damage" to their business, especially in light of a bill sponsored by State Representative Betty Brown (R-Terrell) that would have legalized horse slaughter for human consumption, and was stewing in the House. If the legislation passed, the plants could operate legally, the shutdown, in retrpect, would have been unnecessary —except that Beltex and Dallas Crown had been breaking the law for 25 years.

Despite Brown's maneuvering to rush the bill to Governor Rick Perry's desk, the bill died in the Senate in May. The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial this fall, when Means could determine the fate of Dallas Crown, Beltex, and thousands of horses.

The business of killing

"The horse was dead lame," said Dickey of Levi. "He could hardly walk at all." Nevertheless, she convinced the owners to donate the horse to her rescue farm instead of sending him to the auction — and inevitably, the slaughterhouse, where his large body and thick loin would have yielded high-quality meat. "Nobody thought we could make him whole again."

The crippled, sick, and unwanted: San Antonio livestock dealer Jodie Ringelstein has been buying and selling these horses for slaughter since the 1960s. A tall, sturdy man, Ringelstein speaks fondly of his own horses, which he rides to rope cattle: "I'm not against saving horses. I've had my riding horse a long time and I won't ship him." Yet, he also considers slaughter necessary, with an ample supply of ailing or abandoned horses and a foreign desmand for them. "What are we going to do with all the horses?" he asked rhetorically. "You can't rescue them all."

The slaughter business, as Ringelstein explained it, is a tightly controlled and competitive enterprise. Each plant hires commission buyers, who purchase horses on behalf of the plants and receive a percentage of sales. The plants also use other buyers who purchase horses and then sell them to the plants for a profit.

Tonka, a rescued quarterhorse once destined for the killing floor, now enjoys a new lease on life with 5-year-old Michael Dulin at his family's ranch near Marble Falls. Tonka recently won first place at a local horse show in the Lead Line category. Photo by Mark Greenberg
Beltex and Dallas Crown divide Texas and other regions into territories, and assign buyers to them. This allows the plants to control the horse supply and to ensure that buyers for the same plant don't bid against one other. (However, buyers for Beltex and Dallas Crown often compete for horses.)

Buyers travel the auction circuit and scan newspaper ads to find horses for slaughter — most of which come from outside Texas. According to court records filed in connection with the federal lawsuit, 70 percent of slaughtered horses are brought from other parts of the U.S. and Canada. A review of the plants' slaughter records reveals that buyers haul horses from as far afield as Council Bluff, Iowa; Carrollton, Georgia; Quinn, North Dakota; Elizabethtown, Kentucky; and Saskatchewan, Canada.

The plants make money by maintaining a steady supply of horses. In a typical week at Beltex, hundreds of horses are forced through the kill chute. According to the plant's slaughter records, from May 10-17 Beltex purchased 784 horses — mostly mares and geldings. May 12 was a particularly busy day, as several of the plant's primary buyers delivered 379 horses, including 42 from Joe Webster, 90 from Jeff Smith, and 56 from Musick Livestock, all names that appear with familial regularity in the slaughter logs.

Regular buyers can earn high wages if they deliver enough horses. In April 2002, Beltex wrote checks totaling more than $1 million to its buyers: $161,000 to Music Livestock, $85,651 to Ron Sebastian, $103,944 to Joe Simon — plant regulars.

But don't bet the farm on earning big money from slaughtering your Appaloosa. Buyers who work for the plants command

"They can't do it just for dog food. Horses were bringing 5 cents a pound in the '60s. Horses started getting higher prices because human consumption was worth more."
a better price per pound than a horse owner who unloads one or two unwanted animals; similar to the drug trade, preferred, established buyers prevent small-time renegades from trampling on established turf.

Regular buyers are paid from $300-$700 per horse, based on the quality and quantity of the meat the horse will provide. Horses are graded from excellent to No. 3. "You don't want a Number 3," said Ringlestein. "He'll die before you get him to the plant."

When a buyer accumulates enough horses to make the 300- or 1,000-mile trip worthwhile, he calls the plant. "If they have too many horses they'll ask me to hold on to them until they're ready," Ringelstein explained. "If the plant kills on a Thursday, they may ask me to bring the load in on Wednesday."

In the meantime, Ringelstein keeps the horses on his ranch, where he feeds and waters them. Other buyers, he said, also take horses home until they're ready to ship.

While slaughter proponents claim that the thousands of horses sent to the plants are old, sick, or crippled, opponents — many of whom regularly attend auctions and watch the horses head to the kill pen — insist the animals are healthy or able to be rehabilitated. "Horses that are lame are not at these plants," said Mary Nash, a former horse owner and Kaufman resident who helped spearhead the fight against the plants. Her family farm abuts Dallas Crown, and when the wind blows from the west, the air smells as if 100 dead deer were fermenting in the sun. Flies swarm around the building and horse parts have been seen lying on the ground. `See box, next page.` "These are good horses who were at the wrong place at the wrong time."

"You can't run the plants on poor, old horses who drop in occasionally," said Dickey, who has attended dozens of auctions where buyers have outbid families looking for a pet or a ranch horse. Occasionally, she outbids a buyer, which is how she acquired Tonka, a small, but healthy quarterhorse she bought for $500 at the Round Mountain auction. "The horses that buyers bid on are sound, nice horses."

If Ringelstein buys a worthy horse, he takes it home to resell to a regular buyer for up to twice the price he could get at the slaughterhouse. "You can't make enough money on slaughter horses only," he said. "So you've got to take all the good horses out. The ones that go to slaughter are spoiled broncs, crippled, or have navicular (disease) or ring bone."

One man's spoiled horse is another's special one. Had Dickey not intervened, Levi's treatable navicular disease would have condemned him to death. Navicular occurs when a horse's body weighs too much for a small foot; the foot bone becomes pitted, and the bones rub together, hobbling the horse. Dickey cared for Levi at her Tonkawood Farm, where he joined Dickey's herd of refugees, pets, and working horses. A local track veterinarian anesthetized him and cut the pain nerve, which enabled Levi to walk normally again, and embark on a second career at Retama Park. His steady, calm demeanor allows him to work as a pony horse, leading skittish, young thoroughbreds to the starting gate. "He's a star down there," Dickey said. "Navicular is fixable. Why are we such a throwaway society?"

A worker in an Oregon plant stuns a horse during slaughter. The photo was taken during an undercover investigation of the slaughter industry. The plant has since burned down. Police suspected arson, but no one was arrested or claimed credit for the fire. Photo by Gail Eisnitz, Humane Farming Association.
It is legal to kill horses for dog and exotic animal food and other products. Beltex and Dallas Crown slaughter some horses for those uses, but there is a distinction between these plants and renderers: At rendering plants, the horses are already dead — by euthanasia, natural causes, or occasionally slaughter — when they arrive at the plant. Renderers are legal in Texas, and are regulated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

If the 1949 law were enforced in Texas, Ringelstein said Beltex and Dallas Crown would go out of business, since horse slaughter is their bread and butter. "They can't do it just for dog food. Horses were bringing 5 cents a pound back in the '60s. What happened was that horses started getting higher prices because human consumption was worth more."

Ringelstein and other slaughter proponents argue that horses will still be killed — in Canada or Mexico, where horses are often abused and the plants are filthy. (However, California horse groups cite figures that show the state has lost only 1,000 horses to Mexico in five years.) "And we're going to get 20 cents a pound instead of 40 cents," said Ringelstein." And there's the job loss at the plants. This takes away from our economy."

Dickey pointed out that "a live horse is worth more than a dead one." After figuring in the cost of feed, fencing, tack, land, and other equipment, she estimates a live horse contributes $4,200 each year to the Texas economy. A dead horse contributes little, she noted, except in shipping costs to European freezers.While Beltex and Dallas Crown pay property, payroll, transportation, and other taxes, their profits eventually line the pockets of their French and Belgian owners. Their buyers, some of whom are from Texas, earn money, but at least half live out-of-state.

Slaughter proponents, which include the Texas Thoroughbred Association, American Painthorse Association, and the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, say that without the plants, horses will lay to waste in the fields, as owners balk at the $150 to $200 it costs to put an animal down — especially when horse owners can earn money for sending it to the slaughterhouse. These plants offer a humane service, proponents claim, which discourages owners from abandoning their horses and leaving them to suffer.

However, Dickey points out that slaughter provides owners with an easy dumping ground, instead of forcing them to care for their animals — or demanding that Texas enforce its animal cruelty laws.

Compared to the thousands of dollars required to care for a horse, the cost to put one down is pennies. "Anyone who can afford to have horses, can afford to have them humanely euthanized, or shot and buried," Dickey said. "Why can't they have an honorable death? They have done everything to serve you."

Horse slaughter has taken on such an emotional tenor because it speaks not only to how we as a society value our animals, but also how we value ourselves. Can we appreciate the perfect and the imperfect? How do we measure a horse's usefulness — or our own worth — if he, she, or we — can no longer perform our original tasks? And if a horse, or a person, is truly suffering, how do we humanely ease him or her out of this life? •

Next week: How the state government benefits from slaughter, a look inside a slaughterhouse, an examination of what constitutes "humane treatment," and a discussion of a federal bill that could outlaw horse slaughter in the U.S.



The French-owned Dallas Crown is located in Kaufman, Texas, about 35 miles southeast of Dallas. It employs 40 people, and the plant is not unionized. In 2001, Dallas Crown earned $9 million in gross sales and killed and processed 13,000 horses.

According to records from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), Dallas Crown was last inspected in 1991. That year, it was cited for five serious violations including electrical wiring problems, "control of hazardous energy," insufficient personal protective equipment, and holes in floors and walls. The plant corrected the violations and paid $4,025 in fines.

Dallas Crown has also violated Kaufman's Industrial Waste Ordinance at least eight times since August 2000 for spills and excessive levels of contaminants - including horse manure - in its wastewater according to files obtained under the Open Records Act.

Most recently, on May 27, Dallas Crown received a reprimand from the city's Public Works Department for blowing a 45-day deadline to fix the plant's pretreatment unit. "Your system has not improved and subsequently it has gotten a lot worse," reads a letter from the city to Dallas Crown.

Faulty pretreatment has had "adverse effects" on the Kaufman's wastewater treatment plant, which has had to process "high ammonia levels, manure, and hay" from Dallas Crown. In addition, horse parts had been strewn near the building. "I have witnessed bones and blood laying in front of the facility," wrote Mike Merritt, Kaufman's wastewater plant superintendent.

In the letter, city officials threatened to shut off the plant's water and sewer service and revoke its wastewater permit if the violations are not corrected.

In May 2002, the City inspected the plant and noted that "manure had run into the drainage ditch" near Highway 175. The City noted another public health hazard "was the vector attraction due to bones and horseflesh falling off your bone trailer," and that "dogs were carrying the bones into the community."

Beltex, a Belgian company, is located in Fort Worth, and has slaughtered horses for human consumption for 27 years. It employs 90 people, and like Dallas Crown, its workforce is non-union. In 2001, the company had gross sales of $30 million. It slaughtered and processed more than 27,000 horses.

OSHA records show that from the plant's initial inspection in 1977 to its last inspection in 1997, Beltex racked up 29 violations - 28 of them serious. An ammonia leak occurred in 1996, but no one died or was permanently injured.

Thirteen of Beltex's 29 violations were eventually deleted, said OSHA's Area Director Dean Wingo, because there was either insufficient evidence to penalize the plant, or the company successfully contested the case. The company has been fined $22,500, but the records are unclear if the amount has been paid because some of the plant's cases remain open.

Beltex has also violated Ft. Worth's wastewater regulations several times. Last November, Beltex reported to the Ft. Worth treatment plant that a clogged sewer line caused a spill into a nearby creekbed. In 2001, the plant was notified that wastewater was flowing onto adjacent properties and into the creek. In 2000, Beltex accidentally pumped horse blood into the creek. •