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Horse Slaughter: Why Both Sides Are Wrong About Horse Slaughtering

By Jeffrey Rolo

Few topics are as polarizing in the equine world as that of horse slaughter, and for good reason. No horse owner can easily stomach the thought of their equine companions being shipped off towards a horrifying end. As a result of the emotional gut punch such a topic can provide, many opponents and proponents of horse slaughtering have resorted to using lies, distortions, and emotional appeals to sway people to their respective cause… and this is a shame. I can respect differences of opinion, but I have a difficult time respecting untruths or emotional manipulation.

I realize that an article that takes to task elements on both sides of the horse slaughter debate risks appeasing no one, but let's smack the hornet's nest and attempt to bring some horse slaughter facts to the debate, and let the chips fall where they lie.

The Claim: Horse Slaughter Is A Humane Process

Proponents of the slaughter of horses often state that the process, while perhaps hard to stomach for some people, is actually fairly humane. A captive bolt-gun is placed to a horse's head and fired, whereby the bolt strikes the head/brain of the horse and renders it unconscious. Since it is not conscious, the horse doesn't feel the slaughter process. This is the same process used to slaughter cattle.

This claim is baseless. No matter what any proponent would have you believe, the slaughter process is certainly not a walk in the park for any horse. Sometimes the bolt-gun doesn't render the horse unconscious on the first shot, thereby requiring multiple shots in an attempt to knock the horse out. Sometimes accidents can happen and a horse is tied up and bled out without being fully unconscious.

Beyond the issue with bolt-guns is the fact that horses are going to be horrified with the process no matter how effectively the gun works. The smell of slaughter hangs thick in the air, the atmosphere is typically cold and stark, and the "handlers" aren't empathetic since they're basically herding "cattle" to the slaughter. This is a very scary atmosphere for any animal, much less one as sensitive as the horse.

But before opponents start nodding too emphatically, I would point out that it's important to be careful what you wish for. Since the last American horse slaughtering plants closed down in 2007, horses are now shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter. As bad as the American plants can be, the USDA supervision did ensure certain basic "humane" processes were at least attempted to be maintained. The slaughterhouses in our neighboring countries are often run much more barbarically.

So by effectively pushing the practice outside the U.S., we have forced many horses to needlessly travel thousands of miles on cramped, unaccommodating trailers to foreign countries where they are sometimes treated far worse than they would have been in an American slaughterhouse.

The concept of slaughter will never be humane or appealing – how could it be? Proponents need to stop clinging to that myth. On the other hand, opponents need to realize that slaughter will continue regardless of whether it's done in this country or a neighboring one, and other countries don't possess the same standards as ours.

Having worked in the meat industry (not a live slaughterhouse), I can vouch firsthand that although USDA supervision isn't perfect, it's pretty darn good.

The Claim: Sick, Old Or Injured Horses Are Sent To Slaughter

Proponents often state that undesirables are sent to slaughter, not healthy horses. This is untrue.

In a report drafted in 2001 titled "Characterizations of Horses at Auctions and in Slaughter Plants," the Department of Animal Sciences at the Colorado State University stated that 70% of horses sent to slaughter are either in good, fat or obese shape. Although I cannot personally attest to whether that figure is perfectly accurate or not, I do know that it's closer to the truth than any claim that slaughterhouses are reserved for the old, frail or sickly.

Most rural regions of the United States have stables or facilities that offer weekly/monthly horse auctions, where horses can be purchased at very low prices. It's no secret to those within the horse industry that such auctions are resources for middlemen that buy horses for rock-bottom prices and send them to slaughter. I've purchased horses at such auctions, and I can attest to the fact that although some might be frail, the good majority are of average build and are perfectly healthy.

Additionally, a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) director (Tom Pogacnik) went on record as stating that upwards of 90% of the wild horses rounded up by the federal program end up going to slaughter. Again, is this number accurate? I can't personally say, but I have little doubt that he is correct that many do.

Horse slaughtering does not target undesirables – it pays by the pound, and when you're a part of that industry product is product to you. You're not going to have second thoughts about selling product to a slaughterhouse simply because it is young or healthy.

The Claim: Banning Horse Slaughter Hurts The Poor

Proponents state that horse slaughtering plants offer an outlet for people too poor to afford a horse to dispose of one without killing their budget or resorting to abandonment. This is true… sort of.

Although most horse owners that are facing the loss of an equine companion due to financial hardship or injury will not elect to send their old friend to a slaughtering plant, such plants do offer a method of disposal for the poor should they become desperate.

Opponents of horse slaughter often state that euthanasia is cheap and easy, so a responsible horse owner should never need to consider sending a horse to a slaughterhouse. These people either reside within lenient districts and are thus unaware of the costs and challenges of horse carcass disposal many areas face, or they are intentionally looking the other way to enhance their arguments. Euthanasia can cost a couple hundred dollars depending on your vet and region, and the vet does not provide the disposal services. They simply kill the horse.

Disposal is not as easy as digging up a hole in your backyard and calling it a day. Improper burial procedures can contaminate drinking water, which is why in many areas it's actually illegal to bury a horse. It's also illegal to compost a horse in many areas. Rendering plants that accept dead horses are not widely available, and some will not accept horses that have been chemically euthanized due to the chemicals used. And not all landfills will accept horse carcasses, meaning a horse owner may need to hire someone to transport a carcass a significant distance to a landfill or crematory that will actually accept one.

And quite frankly, it offends me when some opponents of horse slaughtering flippantly propose euthanasia as the obvious alternative. If we're going to kill a horse for such a questionable reason, wouldn't it be better to recycle it? On one hand, horsemeat can feed others in countries that use it (including Canada), and the other parts of a horse can be used in various products. Or, on the other hand, to lend the appearance of taking the higher road, we can simply kill a horse and bury it so that no good will come of it.

I don't support killing any horse for flippant reasons, but once you've decided to kill for convenience, let's not pretend that euthanasia is automatically the higher road. I would personally euthanize my own horse if I had to choose between the two options, but I fully acknowledge it would be a wasteful choice that denies food or other use from the carcass. I wouldn't necessarily take a higher road by doing so… it may very well be the selfish road.

Carcass disposal for euthanized horses might be relatively simple in some areas, but in others it can cost a horse owner thousands of dollars before the process is finished. Opponents ought not to dismiss the cost and inconvenience that can go into euthanizing a horse for financial reasons. Meanwhile, proponents should be careful about painting horse slaughter plants as the perfect solution to this problem, because even when they existed in the United States they were used by a very slight segment of the population (about 1%), and most people such as myself that are close to their horse are simply not even going to consider such a possibility.

So yes… horse slaughterhouses might provide an option, but it's not an option that most horse owners will be receptive to. And for good reason.

The Claim: Without Horse Slaughter, Abandonment Increases And Horses Starve

Opponents often spit when they hear the above claim, but sorry guys… it's true. While horse slaughter certainly cannot solve overpopulation or abandonment, removing that option from the equation can only serve to exasperate the problem.

Horse abandonment has been taking place all across the nation, but it's become a particular problem in some areas of the Pacific Northwest since 2007. Opponents are quick to state that slaughterhouses aren't the answer: horse owner responsibility and law enforcement are. But such a stance dismisses reality; it's chasing a dream.

The reality is that dog and cat abandonment increase during tough economic times, and they are a heck of a lot cheaper to own than horses. Horse ownership is a serious financial investment, provided you're not just tossing them out into an unsheltered pasture and letting them fend for themselves. When economic conditions go south for a horse owner, and he or she is forced to choose between paying for food and a roof over their head, or their horse… yes, unfortunately the horse is going to lose out.

Why not give the horse to a horse rescue group instead? That's a fine idea, if one has an opening near you. The reality is that many horse rescue operations are at maximum capacity, and such pressures only increase during tough times when more people are unloading horses. Horse rescue operations deserve our thanks (and even financial support if possible), but there's only so much they can do.

If affordability is impossible, and horse rescue isn't an option… what then? Euthanasia? Perhaps. If you live in an area where you can take a rifle to the head and bury your own horse, it can be cost effective. But as we saw earlier in this article, euthanasia isn't always a cheap and readily-available option either.

Look… I don't support horse abandonment at all. Nor do I believe in killing a horse simply because you can no longer afford it. If you own a horse and can no longer afford to do so, you have a moral obligation to pursue any option that doesn't lead to abuse or abandonment, even if it includes auctioning off your horse and hoping that it is purchased by a horse lover rather than a middleman for a foreign slaughterhouse. But despite the pretty, idealistic pictures some opponents would attempt to paint, the cold reality is that when people are desperate and no other options seemingly exist to them, pets will be neglected or abandoned. Law enforcement will not solve this problem; it's a no-win reality of the world we live in.

Is horse slaughter a perfect answer for such cases? Heck no. But is allowing a horse to starve a slow and painful death over a period of weeks a better answer?

To wrap up our look at some of the dubious claims made by both sides of the horse slaughter argument, check out the concluding article regarding horse slaughtering.

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