There are many controversial issues in American agriculture today, such as GMOs, The Waters of the United States and use of pesticides. But few topics really fire people up as much as the issue of horse slaughter. We get upset thinking about these beautiful, majestic animals being treated like common livestock and shipped for slaughter once no one wants them. Is horse slaughter really all bad? It could help solve the unwanted horse problem in the United States while also boosting the economy.
Now before you decide that this article isn’t worth reading because you think I’m a horse hater, hear me out. During the summer months, I work at a Bible camp that also operates as a ranch. We have 48 horses that I have the privilege and blessing of working with. I love horses. And it’s because I love them that I think regulated, humane horse slaughter should be brought back to the United States.
Less than 10 years ago horse slaughter plants were fully operational in the U.S. Two plants in Texas and one in Illinois were the last to shut down in mid to late 2006 due to legal action and community pressure. But that didn’t stop American horses from being bought and sold for slaughter. Now, instead of being transported, slaughtered and processed on our soil, where regulations can be made and enforced, our animals are being shipped long distances to Canada and Mexico to meet the same fate.
The reason we had slaughter plants at one time and continue to ship horses to foreign plants is because we have a surplus of unwanted horses in America. According to a 2009 survey by the Unwanted Horse Coalition, as referenced on the American Veterinary Medical Association’s website, an unwanted horse is a horse that is no longer wanted by its owner, usually because of three main reasons: a change in the owner’s financial status, a change in the horse’s ability to perform the tasks asked of it (because of old age or injury) or because the horse is unmanageable or dangerous. In 2007, the same coalition estimated that there were 170,000 unwanted horses in the U.S., including feral animals in Bureau of Land Management facilities. Even if that number has remained constant in the last eight years (which is unlikely due to overbreeding), it would still be difficult (read: impossible) to find good homes for all of these animals over the course of their lifespans.
Horses aren’t like dogs and cats, which are facing a similar overpopulation problem in the U.S. currently. Smaller animals can be kept in larger quantities at a lesser cost than horses, simply because they need less room. Rescue facilities for unwanted horses exist, much like shelters for dogs and cats, but they are overflowing. According to the UHC’s 2009 survey, these rescue facilities have to turn away approximately 38 percent of the animals that are brought to them.
Horses, though widely considered to be a companion animal by the general public, are livestock according to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. They are just like cattle and swine — bred to serve a purpose. For most people, that purpose includes a type of companionship, and therein lies the problem. Horses are bred, broken and trained to work with, as well as for, people, and that means that people are conditioned to see them as pets. Just as we acknowledge that a service dog has a job that comes before being a friend to its owner, we know that horses were primarily used for work before anything else historically, and continue to be today.
There are three main methods of euthanasia, the act of humanely putting an animal to death, for horses that are generally agreed upon: chemical euthanasia, gunshot or penetrating captive bolt. Chemical euthanasia is the most preferred but also the most expensive option. It involves injection of a solution into the horse’s vein. This solution not only makes the horse’s meat unsuitable for human consumption, it also makes it poisonous to animals that might scavenge on a carcass, like birds. That leaves two options for euthanasia in the case of slaughter: gunshot and penetrating captive bolt, both of which induce death by the destruction of brain matter. Both options work quicker than chemical euthanasia and leave the meat of the animal unharmed. Gunshot is impractical, however, because it poses a threat to other animals or people who may be around when the shot is fired, especially in confined spaces. Penetrating captive bolt would be the best option for a slaughter facility because it does not release a projectile like gunshot does, and is therefore safer. There is a difference between penetrating captive bolt and nonpenetrating captive bolt. Nonpenetrating is not considered humane for horses because it causes a concussion that may stun but not necessarily kill the animal.
Also, there are many difficulties in disposing a horse carcass after the animal dies. In many places, it is illegal to leave a horse carcass lying around without treatment (i.e. burial, cremation, etc.), especially after chemical euthanasia. But there are also strict restrictions on burial of the same carcass, again, mostly if the animal was chemically euthanized. Some people may choose to cremate the animal instead, but a cremated horse takes up 10 human-sized boxes to store. Both of these methods can be extremely expensive—anywhere from $250 to $2,000. Keep in mind, that means spending hundreds to thousands of dollars on a dead animal. Disposal in a landfill is also an option, but the landfill might restrict the number of carcasses that can be discarded there, and might reject chemically euthanized carcasses altogether.
Besides, wouldn’t you feel better knowing that something useful could be done with the carcass? Someone or something could benefit from your animal. That’s why some owners render their horses’ bodies after death. The carcass is used to produce leather, animal food, soap, livestock feed and more. This option is more cost-effective for the owner as well.
This is when slaughter comes into play. For example, if you have a 28-year-old horse that you know won’t last much more than a few years and you are financially unable to take care of it anymore, would you pay the average $385 to have it euthanized and then buried, like putting down a dog? Or would you sell the animal to get a profit? If you need money, sale sounds like a viable option. But there are very few people who are going to buy a 28-year-old horse for pleasure, show or work, no matter what its pedigree. But a kill buyer would buy one for slaughter.
You may think, “I can’t knowingly subject my animal to a 20+ hour drive with no food or water, for it to be unloaded and run into a chute where it can see its fate coming.” And that’s why I agree with Temple Grandin, world-renowned animal welfare expert, on this issue. Grandin, quoted on the AVMA website, says that she believes horse slaughter can be humane as long as it is regulated. A non-slip floor in the stun box helps keep the horse calm. Also, the sides to the stun box are high and solid enough to obstruct the animal’s view of the kill floor. She also thinks that two people should be used in the process of running the animal into the chute—one to run it in and close the door and one to shoot it before it can become upset. Another recommendation is for third party auditors to have a video feed over the internet of the slaughter facility. This way they could check on the operation and assess the treatment of the animals at any time. If horse slaughter facilities that follow these guidelines were built in the U.S., animals would not have to be driven nearly as far. In this instance, I would see horse slaughter as a viable option.
Even if slaughter was made humane, would it be safe to use the meat? One of the biggest problems with horse slaughter for human consumption is that many of the medicines used for horses are not intended to be used in animals raised for human consumption. There are no current standards in place to keep track of whether a horse sold to a kill buyer has had any of these medications over its lifetime. So another regulation is necessary to make slaughter feasible — documented medical history of the animal before slaughter.
I don’t think that making slaughter an accepted practice in America will be easy. In fact, it will be extremely difficult. But, by planning out these kinds of requirements before jumping into the international industry, it just might be possible, and maybe even beneficial.