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All the while, not one of the slaughterhouses has allowed activists or the press inside. "We're a little concerned about the purpose of someone coming there," says Dallas Crown attorney Mark Calabria. "If it's simply to run us down or paint us in a bad light, we don't really see the need to open the door."
Finch led his video crew around the plant, past a half-dozen snarling, chained rottweilers, to a tangle of pipes and vents. Misters sprayed deodorizer that did little to mask the stink of intestines. From inside a narrow cinder-block structure came an occasional chain rattle, whinny and thud. This was the plant's "kill room."
Many horses here suffer horribly painful deaths, Finch believes. A gun with a retractable spike, known as a captive bolt, is supposed to fell the animals in one quick jolt to the brain. But two different workers kill horses for the plant on different days, and Finch often hears one of them shoot the bolt repeatedly. "The Thursday guy is good," he said. "The Monday guy is terrible."
U.S. and European regulations ensure the horses are killed humanely, says Brent Gattis, a spokesman for the slaughterhouses. "Although I am told by the plants that they haven't had any problems with Ômissing,' or however you want to say that, the Europeans require them to have an extra captive bolt at the ready just in case there is a problem," he says.
Whatever happens inside the plant, there's little dispute that slaughtering an animal the size of a horse can be nasty. Angling out of the kill room and over a puddle of blood, a conveyor belt carried a freshly stripped-off horse pelt, turning it over the lip of a Dumpster in a bundle of ear, skin and tail. The scene was a stone's throw from the backyard of a house where children played.
Robert Eldridge, a homeowner who lives downwind of the plant, joined Finch at the fence line. Eldridge and many other residents of the predominately black Boggy Bottom neighborhood have lived next to the facility since it opened as a cattle slaughterhouse in 1954. Thirty-two years later it was retrofitted to accept horses. A log kept by Edward Caves, who has since passed away, reported horse parts along the road, green fly infestations in his home and frequently noted "Had odors for breakfast." In 2004, the plant was cited for 31 separate wastewater violations. "These people don't care about anything but making money," Eldridge said over the hum of the conveyor belt. "Anybody else is just a piece of trash."
But even if the plant cleaned up its act, Finch wouldn't be satisfied. His opposition to the slaughterhouse is grounded in a visceral sense that eating a horse violates the nearly spiritual relationship between man and beast. Horses and humans have forged a sacred trust based on mutual aid and an intuitive bond. "Horses know us better than we do sometimes," he said. "They know our feelings, our emotions.
"So my issue with this whole slaughter thing is it's just a deep betrayal by us."
Last month, at Finch's horse rescue headquarters south of Houston, an anonymous tip arrived: A horse in a nearby backyard looked dirty, lethargic and malnourished. A Texas judge issued an order to seize the animal and dispatched a squad car, Finch and Habitat's trailer-rigged Ford F-350. The entourage stopped at a cheerful barn painted with a Texas flag. At the back of the lot stood the horse, a 13-hand dun with protruding hip bones and a shaggy coat caked in mud. As Finch approached holding a halter, the gelding bolted for a gate, fell to the ground and shakily lifted itself. Finch wrapped its neck with a lead rope. "They really can't come any skinnier than this," said Jennifer Sylvester, who manages Finch's ranch. "Well, I guess they can, maybe when they're dead."
The horse, Shorty, was so skinny that if he'd been taken to a slaughterhouse it would probably refuse him, Finch said. Unloaded at a temporary foster home, Shorty ravenously mouthed up an expensive snack of high-fiber beet pulp and alfalfa cubes, the only food his ingrown teeth and fragile stomach could tolerate. Finch would soon be granted permanent custody of the horse under Texas animal cruelty law, but already the cost of caring for it was adding up. Rehabilitating Shorty over the next six months would cost more than $3,000. "And if we're lucky," Finch said, "we'll get $300 out of it in adoption fees."
Finch's rescue network includes 168 foster homes spread across three states; it cares for 300 horses at a time, and yet he's the first to admit that taking all of the region's unwanted horses is impossible. For every Shorty that Finch accepts, he has to turn away several perfectly healthy horses that are no longer wanted by their owners.
"We can take care of what we have," he said, "but we are pretty much maxed out at the ranch."
America's bumper crop of equine orphans -- a product of overbreeding and fickle hobbyists -- is the main reason the American Quarter Horse Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association and even some horse rescue groups don't oppose the slaughterhouses. "I think we have to use a little horse sense," says Donna Ewing. She's the 71-year-old founder of the nation's oldest horse rescue group, the Illinois-based Hooved Animal Humane Society. "Where are they going to get the money to give these animals the quality of life they deserve?"
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