Companions, 'not dinner'
The slaughter of horses from the United States may end if outraged and influential opponents get their way.
By Brian Landman
Published July 1, 2007
Not that long ago, Jo Deibel, wanting to rekindle her childhood passion for horses as a thirty-something adult, bought a farm in Pennsylvania and went out to adopt a retired thoroughbred.
She found a lovely, chestnut 7-year-old: a mare, Maddie, granddaughter of the legendary Secretariat.
She happily spent the $800.
"I'm so glad you saved Maddie," Beverly Strauss, the executive director of the MidAtlantic Horse Rescue in Maryland, told her that day nearly five years ago as Deibel prepared to leave.
"Saved her?" asked a confused Deibel.
"Well, they're slaughtering them."
Much to her horror, Deibel learned that each year tens of thousands of healthy horses, including thoroughbreds that didn't fare well on the track like Maddie, 0-for-3 with career earnings of $120 racing as Secret Haughway, are bought for a few hundred dollars and slaughtered for meat for human consumption in countries such as France, Belgium, Italy and Japan.
"There's so many horses that people would assume that could never happen to, but it's not the case," said Nancy Perry, vice president of government affairs for the Humane Society of the United States, which has been lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would protect horses from that fate.
Consider: Ferdinand won the 1986 Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic in 1987 and earned almost $4-million. A few years ago, after an undistinguished career as a stud, new owners in Japan reportedly sold him there for steaks or pet food.
"A month of bad luck or the wrong person getting a hold of the horse is all it takes," Perry said. "It shows how insidious this whole process is. Any horse is vulnerable."
More than 100,000 equines, including quarter horses, thoroughbreds, show horses and wild horses, were killed for human consumption at just one of the three foreign-owned domestic plants last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thirty-thousand more were sent to Mexico, Canada and Japan for the same end.
The horses are transported for 24 hours or more on trucks with low ceilings -- the cabs used are intended to carry cattle. Horse meat isn't eaten here so the slaughter is something of an "accidental industry," Perry said, and those involved must try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Horses are more apt to buck than cattle and need roomier quarters; without that space they can arrive at the destination severely cut and bruised.
Not that the horse's condition is a big concern at that point.
Like cattle, the horse is struck by a captive bolt, a device that fires a retractable metal bolt into its head to render it unconscious. One shot might be viewed as humane, perhaps more so than a bullet, but a horse's fractious nature, not to mention its long neck, means it can take multiple shots.
"Other slaughter has its problems, but I think this is a separate realm," Perry said. "It's a horrendous process."
Texas had two plants. Both have been shut down. Illinois had one. The legislature there recently passed a law banning slaughter for human consumption that shut down the plant, Cavel International Inc., in DeKalb that had operated since 1987.
The plant challenged the new law and reopened a week later, but a judge on Thursday didn't extend the temporary restraining order and the plant closed again. Attorney J. Philip Calabrese said Cavel will appeal to a federal court in Chicago.
"Federal law treats cattle and horses and other large animals the same way," he said, adding that the DeKalb plant follows accepted humane slaughter guidelines. "People may not like that. People at the Humane Society or other animal rights groups may be morally offended by that, but that's not the basis on which to put a company out of business. You and I may be morally offended by any number of things that go on in society, but that doesn't mean we have the ability to dictate those moral beliefs to others through legislation."
No matter what happens in that case, nothing prevents people in other states from shipping American horses to Mexico and Canada to be slaughtered for human consumption.
At least not yet.
"We must take every step necessary to abolishing this cruel and inhumane process," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., wrote in an e-mail to the Times. "I have been a rider since my youth and my daughter, Mary Shannon, has taken up riding as well. This is an issue that we both are passionate about because we see horses as companion animals, not dinner."
Last year, Congress considered amending the Horse Protection Act to prohibit shipping, receiving, purchasing, selling or donating horses to be slaughtered for human consumption. A bill passed the House of Representatives in September but the Senate didn't take action on the companion bill. Landrieu has sponsored the bill for another shot his year. The companion bill in the House is co-sponsored by, among others, C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores.
Will the proposal become law? Landrieu said some of her fellow legislators see it as a free-market issue and contend Congress shouldn't pass a law that prevents horses from being killed for food elsewhere.
Others, including the Horsemen's Council of Illinois, argue that a law similar to the one passed in Illinois would mean more horses would be abandoned or neglected by owners who wouldn't or couldn't pay $200 or $300 to have them euthanized.
But the proposed bills have some powerful supporters: corporate leaders such as Tampa's George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees and a thoroughbred owner; Hollywood stars such as Clint Eastwood; and entertainers such as Whoopi Goldberg and Paul McCartney are behind it.
And there are luminaries from the thoroughbred racing industry, including the owners of Kentucky Derby winners: Penny Chenery (Riva Ridge and Secretariat), Sally Hill (Seattle Slew) and Roy and Gretchen Jackson (Barbaro). They recently sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to act, using their station to help raise public awareness.
"It's been a real positive that there's been a lot of (health) issues that have been discussed because of Barbaro's situation," said Roy Jackson, referring to his colt's ill-fated struggle to survive after shattering a leg in last year's Preakness Stakes. "This is one of them. I don't think this has a place in our country."
Jackson would like to see a fee assessed at the time an owner registers a foal that is earmarked for a retirement fund. He said he just paid about $40 in such a fee in England.
Chenery, for one, has long supported the idea of retraining race horses for a second act if they can't run anymore or prove to be duds as studs. She was one of the founders of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in Lexington, Ky.
"I rode thoroughbreds all my life for trail riding and showing and my dad, of course, raised thoroughbreds," she said. "Any horse that couldn't make it on the track, he tried to turn into a riding horse or a hunter or a lessons horse. There was a wonderful thoroughbred that dad bred that was a washout on the track, but he was a wonderful school horse and he taught an endless number of children how to ride."
The Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association also has a program that attempts to provide every Florida horse that comes off the track in the state, including from Tampa Bay Downs, with a place to go to enjoy the golden years. About 60 horses are on the Ocala farm and funding and plans are in place for an expansion to care for even more, executive vice president Richard Hancock said.
Others would like to see the cost of euthanasia lowered. Then, there are also rescues like the one Deibel, 37, opened shortly after she saved Maddie. She quit her job of running a bar and restaurant and turned her farm into Angel Acres Horse Haven Rescue, a nonprofit, tax-exempt operation to save the thoroughbreds that might fall through the cracks.
Her work is a labor of love and hate.
"I don't want to have to go (to the 'killer pens') and choose who lives and dies," she said. "It's just awful. It just makes me so angry that this is still going on."
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347.