Horse slaughter from the farmer’s point of view

Dec 7, 2011

Outlawing the slaughter of horses may not sound like a bad thing. But for farmers and the animals, the consequences of such a ban in the U..S. have been far-reaching and complicated.

Until 2006, horses no longer fit for the farm, about 150,000 annually, were sent to slaughter and their meat shipped overseas to countries that find the meat palatable. But when Congress froze inspection funding - effectively banning horse slaughter five years ago - more horses were left alive and, often, left to suffer through neglect.

Now, President Obama has effectively removed the ban by restoring slaughterhouse inspection funding.

Here’s a roundup of some good coverage:

These stories have generally failed to address the farmer’s point of view. 

Horses typically eat money on a farm because their main purpose is companionship, and farmers seldom use the animals to haul equipment. Until the slaughter ban, their end of life meant a small profit for farmers and ranchers. They could sell the horse meat and get a return on thousands of dollars in maintenance spent on a lifetime of expensive care. But with the ban, some owners orphaned their horses, or kept them around without proper care.

Southeast Kansan Brandi Buzzard wrote last week:

Where there was once a market for horses who were past their useful lives there was now an abyss of no hope. It wasn't smart to take your trailer to the sale barn and leave it unlocked because you'd likely find yourself with a few more hungry horse mouths to feed. Others were unlucky enough to walk outside in the morning and find a few horses left in their pastures. And most horrible of all, there were  instances where the hide that contained the brand had been cut off, and the horse had been set free - all to prevent the horse from being returned to the owner.

I learned the ban has often caused trouble in rural areas where unwanted horses have often been left to fend for themselves on unfamiliar pasture.

Fifth-generation farmer Mike Haley told me that abandoned horses are routinely dropped off on his open land in Ohio.

“I had some show up last year. It’s a big problem in state parks,” Haley said. “They ended up ‘breaking in’ and the neighbor claimed them. One other time some showed up and we sold them to a guy that hauls them to Canada to get slaughtered.”

Yes, Canada.

Since 2006, the Government Accountability Office reports, horse exports to Canada and Mexico increased to 148 percent and 660 percent, respectively. The report details the unintended consequences of the ban, and notes horse slaughterhouses in neighboring countries lack the humane slaughter protections in American facilities.

Animal groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, say regulation and inspection control in these countries are often inhumane. Last week the group spoke out in halfway-support of lifting the ban:

No one wants to see any horse killed for meat or to turn a fast buck, and PETA has always had concerns about the suspension of U.S. slaughter, since it meant more suffering for these sensitive animals, not less.  

The group says it would rather see a full out domestic and international ban on horse slaughter, but will settle for the practice in controlled U.S. facilities. 

Finally, the ban also has resulted flooded auction barns in agriculture-rich states like Missouri. More horses that can only trade hands through a live sale meant lower prices. That meant fewer farmers looking to pick up old horses to cash in at the slaughterhouse. KBIA Public Radio’s Lydia Mulvany last year visited Midwestern Stockyards in Mexico, Mo. where there were just too many horses and not enough interested buyers:

It’s not like farmers’ concerns have been ignored. Almost as soon as the ban was put into place in 2006, powerful people were gathering evidence against the decision. Montana Sen. Max Baucus has stood behind studies that detailed the impacts of the horse slaughter freeze - an issue that’s of particular interest to his ranching state. And in 2009, Baucus included funding in a 2010 appropriations bill that went toward the GAO study mentioned earlier. 

So what’s next?  The return of the horse slaughterhouse in the U.S. may have to wait, according to Montana’s Billings Gazette. Tom Lutey reports that facilities won’t “reappear in the United States before the spring grass.” In the meantime, animal welfare group The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA, is leading efforts to push a bill through Congress that would revoke the lifting of the ban. You can find that legislation here.