Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Wild horses hang out in a sanctuary on the prairie in Lantry, South Dakota. Karen Sussman, who cares for more than 300 wild horses on her farm, runs the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs & Burros, ISPMB, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. She has four herds of mustangs she rescued from the slaughterhouse.

Saving horses from slaughter

A new law bans the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the US. Animal rights advocates are pushing a law that would prevent the export of horses for slaughter.

Next to the bald eagle, the most iconic animal in the United States is the horse.

Horses came to North America with Spanish explorers. They were essential to cowboys and settlers in westward expansion. They fought in every American war well into the 20th century. (Richard Adams’ popular novel “Traveller” relates the Civil War from the point of view of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s favorite horse and dozens of other war horses.)

DNA testing has shown that the dun-colored Kiger mustangs roaming southeastern Oregon today trace their lineage four centuries back to those Spanish horses.

Whether or not they’d ever ridden a horse, Democrats and Republicans alike identify with what Hollywood cowboy actor (and former US president) Ronald Reagan had to say about the species: “There's nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.” We also like to think that little race champion Seabiscuit represented peculiarly American traits of courage and strength.

Later this month, the 30th annual Cowboy Poetry Festival will take place in Elko, NV. Hundreds of ranch men and women will gather to celebrate the kind of life on horseback that is fading from the national scene.

In line with this brief history of American affection for horses, Congress this past week approved a bill that effectively bans the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the US. It does this via spending legislation that provides no funding for meat inspectors at packing plants. President Obama signed the bill into law on Friday.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) proclaimed it “Wonderful news!”

"This clear message from Washington echoes the opinions of an overwhelming number of Americans from coast to coast: horse slaughter is abhorrent and unacceptable," said Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA.

There’s never been a big market for horsemeat in the US, but no such high-mindedness (or squeamishness) exists in some other countries. The next step, say animal rights groups, is to ban the export of live horses to other countries where horsemeat is consumed or prepared for shipment to Europe and Japan.

“We Americans care for horses, we ride horses, and we even put them to work. But we don’t eat horses in the United States,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement following the House and Senate action this week. “And we shouldn’t be gathering them up and slaughtering them for people to eat in far-off places.”

A bipartisan proposal – the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act – would prohibit the shipment of horses to slaughterhouses in other countries. Lead sponsors are Senators Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, and Representatives Patrick Meehan (R) of Pennsylvania and Jan Schakowsky (D) of Illinois.

Meanwhile, the political and legal fight over horse slaughter continues.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma says he’ll introduce legislation reinstating the inspections at horsemeat packing plants.

“Without these facilities, aging horses are often neglected or forced to endure cruel conditions as they are transported to processing facilities across the border,” says Sen. Inhofe. That’s why horse advocates are backing the SAFE Act to prevent such cross-border commerce.

Meanwhile, a New Mexico judge recently granted a preliminary injunction against a Roswell company from moving forward with its plans to start slaughtering horses.

The ruling by state District Judge Matthew Wilson will keep alive a lawsuit by Attorney General Gary King, who's seeking to permanently block horse slaughter in New Mexico. The lawsuit could serve as a possible insurance plan in case the federal government provides inspection funding in the future.

Blair Dunn, a lawyer for Valley Meat, said the company will continue to wage a legal fight to convert its cattle processing plant to the slaughtering of horses. He contends that the federal move to withhold money for meat inspections could cause trade violations under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The last domestic horse slaughterhouses closed in 2007, a year after Congress initially withheld inspection funding. After federal money was restored in 2011, plants in New Mexico, Missouri and Iowa began trying to start horse slaughtering.

Attorney General King's lawsuit in New Mexico contends that the Roswell company's operations would violate New Mexico's environmental and food safety laws.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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