Horse Flesh

Texas struggles with what to do with its overabundance of Equus caballus, while Europeans wait with open mouths

In the East Texas hamlet of Kaufman last month, a fetid wind ruffled the stripes of the largest American flag in town. It had been a gift to the locals from executives of the pungent Dallas Crown slaughterhouse. A few blocks away, company president Michael de Beukelaar stood in City Hall for the Pledge of Allegiance, conspicuously holding his tongue. The Belgian and his foreign bosses were about to learn whether a city commission would force a shutdown of the plant, which had supplied meat to tables in Europe and Japan for more than 20 years. De Beukelaar seemed most concerned with one intractable problem: Americans don't eat horse.

Clad in a European-cut blazer with felt elbow patches, de Beukelaar squared off against a Texan in a Johnny Cash getup of faded black. Houstonian Jerry Finch had for years been a leader in local and national fights to shut down the country's three horse slaughterhouses -- Dallas Crown, Fort Worth-based Beltex Corporation and Cavel International of DeKalb, Illinois -- which together killed 88,000 horses last year. Finch traded sharp whispers with a posse of activists. "Nobody wants to recognize horse slaughter for what it is," he'd said earlier that day. "It's just murder."

The commission reached a decision late in the night, unanimously ruling to close the plant by September. An attorney for Dallas Crown pledged to take the battle to court. Finch stepped outside, lit a cigarette and cried. "We did it," he said as a comrade embraced him. The activists ordered vegetarian pizzas and partied into the morning.

Dallas Crown attorney Mark Calabria (left) and company president Michael de Beukelaar wait as the City of Kaufman deliberates the future of the plant.
Brian Stauffer
Dallas Crown attorney Mark Calabria (left) and company president Michael de Beukelaar wait as the City of Kaufman deliberates the future of the plant.
Dallas Crown attorney Mark Calabria (left) and company president Michael de Beukelaar wait as the City of Kaufman deliberates the future of the plant.
Josh Harkinson
Dallas Crown attorney Mark Calabria (left) and company president Michael de Beukelaar wait as the City of Kaufman deliberates the future of the plant.

But many other equine enthusiasts around the country weren't celebrating. Shuttering the slaughterhouses of Texas won't help horses, they say, and it might just force them someplace worse.

On a prominent hillock above Kaufman's main highway, the corrugated metal facade of the Dallas Crown slaughterhouse announced itself without a sign. Its herald was borne on the wind: a simultaneously musky and astringent odor of horse fur, chlorine, feces and blood.

Finch, whose white mustache lightens a red leathery face, lumbered past the plant and down a side street in a jacked-up Dodge Ram that could be straight off any Texas back 40. He grew up in Amarillo, where he worked summers at a riding stable, rounding up steeds. "It was just the best damn job in the world," he said. College led Finch out of the pasture and into a sales job in the Houston suburbs, but not to happiness. In 1995 he retired early, bought a ranch and rekindled his passion for riding animals. He now operates Habitat for Horses, the largest equine rescue group in the South.

Finch guarded his pickup as two fellow activists, lugging cameras and tripods, bushwhacked through hackberry trees, past junked cars and into a clearing along the edge of Dallas Crown's perimeter. John Holland, a robotics engineer from Virginia, raised his camcorder just over the top of a metal barricade and stared up at the small video screen. It showed a healthy-looking herd draping heads over a fence. After a few minutes, a worker yelled "Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!" and spooked them into a chute. He whipped a stubborn straggler in the rump. "That's one smart horse," Holland said as he zoomed in with the camera. "I hope he kicks the crap out of that guy."

The activists were filming Dallas Crown in the hope that the footage would fan public outrage over horse slaughter. If it did, it wouldn't be the first time that the idea of eating Silver or Mr. Ed had irked the Texan temperament. A nearly forgotten state statute dating to 1949 prohibits the slaughter of horses for human consumption. In fact, the law gained new prominence in 2002 when then-attorney general John Cornyn ruled it legal. But last year U.S. District Judge Terry Means found that federal law superseded the old slaughter ban. An appeal is pending.

According to court records, the plants last year sold a total of 1,750 tons of meat to U.S. zoos and exported another 17,000 tons for human consumption.

A campaign to outlaw horse slaughter last year at the federal level was bolstered by polls showing 70 to 90 percent of Americans opposed killing horses for meat. Some congressional offices received more calls in favor of a proposed U.S. slaughter ban than they did regarding the recent Supreme Court nominations or Hurricane Katrina. One Senate office, fielding a call every six minutes, begged Nancy Perry, a lobbyist with the Humane Society of the United States, to ward off the siege. "They couldn't function," she says.

A similar upwelling of public support pushed through a 1998 ballot measure banning horse slaughter in California. Dick Schumacher, president of the California Veterinary Medical Association at the time, attributes the move to a shift in the public perception of horses. "They are now seen less as livestock," he says, "and more as pets."

Last year's national anti-slaughter campaign helped pass a federal spending bill in November that should have already closed the plants, slaughter foes say. HR 2744 removed funding for U.S. Agriculture Department inspectors who must by law supervise the slaughterhouses. Yet the USDA recently bypassed the roadblock by allowing the plants to continue operating under the watch of inspectors paid with private funds. A U.S. District Court last month upheld the decision. The Humane Society is weighing an appeal.

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