Horse Flesh

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

Even Finch admits that a ban on horse slaughter probably won't save the life of every unwanted horse. Instead, it's likely to force owners to pay veterinarians to euthanize them and rendering companies to dispose of them. Finch believes euthanasia is more humane than slaughter. But it's also more expensive. Vets charge between $75 and $150 to put down a horse, and disposing of the carcass, when it can't be buried, costs $250 or more. Sending a horse to slaughter isn't only free; it nets a horse owner roughly $500 for a midsize animal.

Take away the slaughter option, Ewing says, and horse abuse cases such as Shorty's will spike. Rather than pay to dispose of unwanted horses, some owners will turn them loose in the wild or leave them to die slow, agonizing deaths at pasture.

But despite the logical appeal of the "unwanted horse theory," as it is sometimes known, it's thus far unsubstantiated. California, the only major state with a slaughter ban, doesn't collect statistics on horse abuse. The closest thing to a study on the theory was done by Holland, the Virginia robotics expert, who analyzed what happened after a fire idled the horse slaughterhouse in DeKalb for nearly three years. Accounting for slaughterhouses in Texas picking up some of the plant's business, he estimated 50,000 horses were nonetheless saved from slaughter even as horse abuse cases in Illinois declined. Anecdotal reports from California back up Holland's assertion that the unwanted horse theory is a myth. Carolyn Stull, a UC-Davis animal welfare expert, found no increase in horse abuse cases since the ban.

Robert Eldridge, who lives downwind of Dallas Crown, fought to shut the plant down. Behind him, airline shipping containers wait to carry meat to Europe.
Josh Harkinson
Robert Eldridge, who lives downwind of Dallas Crown, fought to shut the plant down. Behind him, airline shipping containers wait to carry meat to Europe.
Shorty, a 15-year-old dun, waits to be transported to a foster home as his owners read a horse-abuse citation.
Josh Harkinson
Shorty, a 15-year-old dun, waits to be transported to a foster home as his owners read a horse-abuse citation.

Still, the evidence is far from conclusive. Even Holland concedes horse abuse will jump wildly from year to year based on other factors such as rainfall and temperature. And Stull wonders if California is just outsourcing its problems. The state's slaughter ban includes no aid for horse care and few provisions for monitoring what happens to the animals after they cross state lines. A recent seizure of more than 600 emaciated mustangs from a ranch overwhelmed the state's rescue groups, which had to export many of them to already strapped adoption agencies across the United States.

Ewing fears a national horse slaughter ban will send meat horses on arduous treks to auctions in Canada and Mexico. Stiff export fees and inspection requirements -- totaling at least $70 per head -- will probably significantly limit the practice, but even outspoken slaughter foes say it might sometimes happen.

Ewing counsels caution. "Until we have a better solution," she says, "I think we'd better pull back, because we are going to cause more cruelty by stopping the slaughterhouses."

Cathleen Haggerty sat in the chipped wooden bleachers of the Great Western Trading Company horse auction in Magnolia and twisted her hands in agonized speculation over which horses might soon be dinner. A diminutive and wide-eyed horse -- Haggerty called it a mustang -- bolted into the auction pen and nearly bowled over a teenager. Haggerty glanced at a man in the audience whom she'd named Santa Claus, a horse buyer in a sweat-stained cowboy hat and a bushy white beard, associated in her mind with the St. Nick of coal and switches.

"No one else is going to buy him," she fretted.

Between machine-gun babble, the auctioneer spat quotes like a penny-stock ticker: $75, $100, $125. He paused and offered the horse the best compliment he could muster: "Project for somebody." Haggerty squirmed in her seat. "All in, all done, hundred quarter, hundred half, dickadickadickadeedaa." He slammed a gavel. "Sell 'em hundred and a quarter and put him on 3523."

"He just -- shit! -- a killer just got him," Haggerty gasped.

Santa Claus bought the horse for well below 35 cents per pound -- the "meat price" offered by the slaughterhouses.

At least 30 mustangs have ended up as slabs of flesh since a new federal law last year began requiring the Bureau of Land Management to collect wild horses older than 11 years and sell them. Responding to public outrage, the BLM created a contract that is supposed to prohibit buyers from sending the horses to slaughter, at least directly. But mustangs can be difficult to train, says Jill Starr, president of Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue. "There aren't places for these horses to go."

Experience adopting other high-risk horses is similarly mixed.

Haggerty, a registered nurse, has spent much of her own time and money rescuing horses that are by-products of the pharmaceuticals industry. The drug Premarin, used to treat the symptoms of menopause, is produced from the urine of impregnated mares. In 2002, when the drug was found by the National Institutes of Health to cause increased risk of heart disease, breast cancer and other ailments, many stables sold off their stocks of Premarin mares. Overwhelmed rescue groups couldn't keep them from slaughter. Yet Haggerty thinks the market for the horses has since evolved. "Once the word got out that they can jump and they're nice riding horses," she says, "then people decided to bite the bullet and rescue them."

Racehorse rescue efforts also have seen modest improvements. Spurred by outrage that Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, was most likely slaughtered in Japan in 2002, the New York Racing Association last year created the Ferdinand Fee, an optional donation program to help keep old racehorses alive. Nonetheless, rescue groups estimate that up to 6,000 racehorses in the United States are slaughtered each year; they're too hot-tempered or decrepit to become pleasure horses. "Racing takes its toll on them," says Diana Pikulski, executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. She's trying to make the Ferdinand Fee mandatory.

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