What to do about growing numbers of neglected and abandoned horses in the US is an ethical conundrum that Congress and President Obama quietly addressed this month via a spending bill: bring back the slaughterhouses.
A Department of Agriculture bill, signed into law Nov. 18, reinstates federal funding for USDA inspection of horse meat intended for human consumption, which Congress had withheld since 2006. That de facto ban on horse slaughter has now come to an end, to the outrage of the animal rights community, amid reports that US horse owners were simply shipping their animals to Mexico and Canada for slaughter and processing.
According to a pro-slaughter group called United Horsemen, meat processors are now considering opening facilities in at least a half-dozen states, including Georgia, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oregon, Wyoming, Montana, and possibly Idaho.
The issue has galvanized the animal rights community, which contends that horses are too intelligent to be food animals, and that legal processing of horse meat will endanger wild horse populations and motivate Americans to raise horses specifically for human consumption.
The other view, accepted by Congress after a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), is that more abandoned and neglected horses in the US – which has 9 million equines – are being sold and processed for meat anyway in countries that may not have the same standard of humane euthanasia that US law requires. Government statistics show that 138,000 American horses were sold and processed for meat in other countries in 2010 – a 660 percent increase from 2007, according to the GAO report.
"We can't monitor horse slaughter in a plant in Mexico or Canada … [a]nd so we don't know if it's being done humanely or not because the USDA obviously doesn't have any jurisdiction there,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R) of Georgia, who was instrumental in the reinstatement, told the Oklahoman newspaper's Sonya Colberg and Chris Casteel. “Along the way, these horses are having a rough transit. USDA does not have the jurisdiction over how the animals are treated along the way."
The poor economy has been tough on horse owners and the animals themselves, leading to what Representative Kingston calls an "unanticipated problem with horse neglect and abandonment.” In Colorado alone, horse abandonment "increased 60 percent from 975 in 2005 to 1,588 in 2009," the GAO report stated.
What's more, The New York Times reports that the law forced many breeders and owners to go out of business because their inability to sell horses for meat "removed the floor" for prices while forcing owners to shoulder costs for euthanizing and disposing of unwanted horses. Before the ban, the horse slaughter business generated some $65 million in revenues a year.
“When they closed the plants, that put more of a hardship on our horses than the people who wanted to stop the slaughter can imagine,” said John Schoneberg, a Nebraska horse breeder, according to the Times report.
Nevertheless, animal rights activists are furious over the decision to bring back horse processing plants in the US. They say that ending the de facto ban will challenge the ethics of horse ownership and undermine the sanctity of the unique bond between humans and horses.
“They're signing the death sentence for thousands of our American horses. The wild mustangs in Oklahoma and every horse in Oklahoma is at risk,” Oklahoma City horse advocate Stephanie Graham told the Oklahoman. “Horses are going to die and it's going to be brutal.”