About 9 million horses currently live in America. As early as a month from now, dozens of thousands of them may start joining the ranks of cattle processed in U.S. slaughterhouses, and be sold as meat for human consumption.
Suffice to say that Congress lifted a 5-year-old ban on funding horse meat inspections. That measure was included in the spending bill that President Barack Obama signed into law last November 18 in order to keep the government afloat until mid-December.
Why (oh, but why), you’ll ask, has Congress decided that spending money on horse meat inspections, of all things, was necessary to rescue the government from bankruptcy? You may be surprised to learn that Big Ag has less to do with this, than the many individual horse owners and workers who make up the horse industry.
The reasoning is actually–surprisingly–less nonsensical than one might expect. As it turns out, horses are finding themselves the unwitting victims of the current economic slump. More and more owners cut them out of their household or business balance sheet–especially if they are “damaged goods” i.e. either old, sick or injured. And the same owners are just as reluctant to provide for their humane death as they are to care for them. As a result, the number of abandoned, neglected, and otherwise abused horses, has skyrocketed in the past couple of years. According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office published last June,
Colorado data, for example, showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60 percent from 975 in 2005 to 1,588 in 2009. Also, California, Texas, and Florida reported more horses abandoned on private or state land since 2007.
And if you think that the 2006 ban on government-sanctioned horse slaughter in the U.S. saves horses, think again. The same GAO report states that
since domestic horse slaughter ceased in 2007, the slaughter horse market has shifted to Canada and Mexico. From 2006 through 2010, U.S. horse exports for slaughter increased by 148 and 660 percent to Canada and Mexico, respectively. As a result, nearly the same number of U.S. horses was transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010–nearly 138,000–as was slaughtered before domestic slaughter ceased.
The spike in domestic investigations and the sharp increase in the transportation of horses across borders (whose overseeing is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture), have strained resources. Meanwhile, the value of the horses sold for slaughter has been dropping. “Unwanted” horses are basically left to die in appalling conditions, and the U.S. horse industry is losing revenue. Hence the decision by lawmakers to bring the horse meat market back to the U.S.–except for California and Illinois where a state ban is in effect.
This story is not an easy one to wrap my head around. On the one hand, it brings to mind some issues of the beef supply chain, where “grass” ranchers who raise their animals sustainably and treat them well, have no choice but send them for slaughter on a long, perilous and stressful journey because local urban dwellers reject the presence of slaughterhouses in their vicinity. Whether I like it or not, the reality is that people consume meat, culling herds is a necessary part of business , and I’d rather support a supply chain that guarantees the best possible conditions for the animals, both in life and in death. To do anything else smacks of hypocrisy. It’s true of cattle, and it’s true of horses.
Or is it? Horses enjoy a very distinct status in our collective psyche. Reducing them to farm animals does not do them justice. Unlike cows, they exist in the wild. Yet these beautiful creatures have been our companions for millennia, carrying us through untold numbers of adventures, and taking their rightful place in our culture. They carry such romantic, symbolic and emotional significance for so many of us (including and especially those of us who don’t work with them), that the very thought of treating them like commodities and turning them into food seems plain abhorrent and absurd. We don’t eat our dogs, so a world with no horse meat doesn’t seem far-fetched.
As a matter of fact, horses are not raised for meat–despite some people in Europe and Japan praising its low-fat, low-cholesterol, high-iron virtues. Shouldn’t that be the end of the argument? There’s no U.S. regulation over the food and antibiotics that horses are given over their lifetime, unlike cattle, sheep and poultry. In this context, turning these animals to meat for human consumption seems risky at best. The European Union controls and certifies the Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses that process horses for its market (France and Belgium, mostly), but who wants to rely on other countries’ regulatory whims to support one’s business, in the absence of a domestic market (save for zoo carnivores)?
Now, what’s with the argument of providing “unwanted” horses with a “humane” death, anyway? USDA reports, including graphic pictures and videos, have shown that U.S. slaughterhouses are no antechambers to paradise. Given the storm of protests that horse slaughter is about to unleash in America, and the relatively small size of the horse meat market, I doubt that more than a couple of places will dare venture in that business–how will that improve the conditions of slaughter-bound horses in a country the size of a continent? I can already picture the crowd of protesters that will be harassing the first U.S. slaughterhouse to process horses. I figure that U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., a champion of animal welfare, will be among them: he has vowed to do “everything in my power to prevent the resumption of horse slaughter.” So, going back to the “humane” death argument, what about calling the vet? Or finding a slot in a horse rescue center/animal sanctuary?
“Kill buyers,” who buy horses at auctions for slaughterhouses, including healthy animals, certainly are a nasty bunch. Does Congress really need to cater to them, and to the horse breeders who keep growing their herds despite the huge slump in the horse market? How about letting the free market take care of that one: Americans don’t want horse meat, so quit producing it; go bust or try your hand at a different, sustainable business.
All this being said, I found some data that gave me pause: about 138,000 horses were sent to slaughter in 2010, out of the 9 million that live in the U.S.. By contrast, 34.2 million heads of cattle were slaughtered that same year, including cull dairy cows. So yeah, these guys don’t play in the same league. Neither do they play by the same rules, and I can’t claim to fully understand, or even know, them.
In the end, I can only stick to my guns, and send my contribution to a horse rescue center as a Christmas gift for my horse-loving friend. From the Unwanted Horses Coalition: “Unfortunately, the number of unwanted horses exceeds the resources currently available to accommodate them. The estimated cost of providing basic care for a horse ranges from $1,800-$2,400 annually. Currently, there are not enough volunteers, funding or placement opportunities for all of the unwanted horses.”