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Horse slaughter issue divides and confuses: PART I

An overpopulation of horses and a sluggish horse industry are adding to the issue of whether slaughtering horses is a reasonable alternative to an animal crisis. But several slaughter companies who want to process horse meat to foreign buyers for a profit further complicate the issue.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An overpopulation of horses and a sluggish horse industry are adding to the issue of whether slaughtering horses is a reasonable alternative to an animal crisis. But several slaughter companies who want to process horse meat to foreign buyers for a profit further complicate the issue. Not only is there strong emotion on both sides of the argument, but the issue also challenges the question of whether government should be held responsible for such a problem and whether our desire for the ethical treatment of such noble animals should outweigh our responsibility to make difficult decisions to ensure and enhance their continued survival.


They all agree—lawmakers, federal judges, livestock officials, animal welfare groups, veterinarians, business leaders, ranchers, tribal leaders and more. Something needs to be done, they say, with the hundreds of thousands of domestic and wild horses that are struggling with survival issues every year. Those issues include enough forage and water sources, owner abandonment and lack of grazing on public lands.

Just about everyone also agrees the government, and taxpayers indirectly, should not be held responsible for dealing with the complex issues of the horse industry.

Where the problem, and disagreement, comes in, however, is how to best address the horse industry issue in such a way that is both humane and dignified to the horses and owners without becoming a major financial burden on the government or taxpayers. Should equine be slaughtered at facilities within the United States or not, and if so, how should those facilities be regulated? Furthermore, should the slaughterhouse be allowed to export horse meat to foreign buyers and is it safe for human consumption?

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The issue gets more complicated. If domestic slaughter houses are ruled illegal, should unwanted, abandoned and high risk horses be shipped out of the country to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada, and if so, who pays for regulation of those transportation services to guarantee the welfare of the animals in transit?

Many close to the issue are saying these are just a few of the questions that require answers before any acceptable resolution to the horse crisis can be found.

Issue background

The problem is straight forward and simple. When Congress removed funding for horse meat inspections from USDA's annual budget back in 2006, it effectively killed the horse slaughter industry. Just over 100,000 horses were being slaughtered at a number of slaughter facilities across the U.S. every year. When domestic slaughter services stopped, horse populations began to grow.

While many applauded the virtual ban on horse slaughter operations, many say it left the horse industry with few choices in dealing with the growing problem of animal abandonment and neglect. As a result of several years of serious drought that followed, forage crops became and remain in short supply, and hay that is available demands a hefty price, forcing many horse owners to sell their horses at auctions in spite of efforts to prevent it.

The crisis has forced sale prices down for horses in general and has opened the doors to companies who purchase unwanted horses wholesale and subsequently ship them to Mexico where they can be legally slaughtered. Many criticize the practice as shady and say making a profit from slaughtered horses is as bad as buying and selling illegal elephant tusks for a profit.

Since the closure of domestic slaughter facilities, an estimated 150,000-plus horses are being transported across the Mexican border each year to what many consider a far worse fate at facilities that are not properly regulated.

While the virtual ban on domestic horse slaughterhouses caused the issue to calm down in recent years, the question resurfaced earlier this year when President Obama failed to maintain a budget ban on USDA horse meat inspections. As a result, a number of potential horse slaughterhouses have taken an interest in obtaining a federal permit that would clear the way for resumption of horse meat inspections at processing plants, clearing the way for export to foreign buyers. In early July, under pressure of a lawsuit that accused USDA of stalling on a permit request, the agency issued permits to a pair of companies, one in New Mexico and the other in Iowa, that had plans of resuming horse slaughter on domestic soil.

While a large number of groups and individuals oppose domestic horse slaughter, a large number also support it, either because they consider equine no different than livestock when it comes to the slaughter issue, or because they “reluctantly” favor horse slaughter because it offers the most humane solution to a very serious problem.

Shortly after the two permits were granted, however, federal court action was initiated by animal welfare groups and others (the plaintiffs) to stop USDA from performing meat inspections and to prevent the companies from starting up operations because environmental requirements were not included in USDA's permit process, a violation opponents say is against federal environmental laws.

On Aug. 2 a temporary restraining order was granted by the court to suspend or withhold federal meat inspection services until a decision in a lawsuit over the issue can reached by the court. The restraining order was issued just three days before Valley Meat Company of Roswell, New Mexico, and Responsible Transportation of Sigourney, Iowa, were scheduled to commence slaughter operations.

In addition, as a result of start up operations being delayed because of legal action, a federal magistrate set a $450,000-plus bond to be posted by plaintiffs to cover losses incurred by the meat companies during the first month of court proceedings.

The court further decided that a hearing must be held every 30 days to determine the amount of the next bond to cover losses by the companies, and such hearings would be held each 30 days thereafter for the same purpose until the court issues a final ruling on the lawsuit. If plaintiffs win the case, a permanent injunction against USDA horse meat inspections would kill plans to open the slaughterhouses. If the court rules against the plaintiffs, it would clear the way for horse slaughterhouses to commence operations.

The bonds would only be paid to the companies if the plaintiffs lost their case.

In addition, plaintiffs have now filed a motion with Federal Court Judge Christina Armijo to waive the monthly bond altogether as a “public interest exception,” a move that would relieve animal rights groups and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit from coming up with additional bonds every month to pay for potential company losses.

Since then a rapid succession of motions has been filed with the court by attorneys on both sides of the issue.

Catch 22. Who can win?

President Obama has weighed in on the topic as have a number of lawmakers, and there appears to be a consensus among them. Most want to solve the horse slaughter debacle by making it unlawful to slaughter horses on U.S. soil, and at the same time, as a few suggest, unlawful to transport horses outside the United States for the purpose of slaughter.

Also being kicked around the Hill are more subtle solutions, like the refusal to fund USDA from performing meat inspections at horse slaughter facilities once and for all, effectively killing the issue.

There is wide support for these ideas from the Administration, the House and Senate Appropriation Committees, and a number of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. But opponents to a ban on horse slaughter say these solutions offer no meaningful resolution to the serious and escalating problem. They ask if both horse slaughtering and transportation of horses across the border are prohibited, then what can be done for the growing number of suffering horses.


NEXT: Problems by the number


More articles about horse slaughter:

Magistrate orders bond in horse slaughter case

Federal court halts slaughterhouse openings

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Horse slaughterhouse issue heats up again

USDA grants inspections to horse slaughterhouse

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