Horse Flesh

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

Overall, expanded horse rescue efforts are one reason the number of horses slaughtered in the United States has fallen sharply since 1990, when more than 300,000 were killed.

Even so, slaughter menaces some horses that are well trained and even well loved by their owners. In 2004, Cimaron, a young Morab gelding owned by 13-year-old Sky Dutchner of upstate New York, was stolen. Months of searching by the watchdog group Stolen Horse International found the animal had been shipped north along the so-called torture trail to Quebec and slaughtered. Debbie Metcalf, the group's founder, estimates that 40,000 horses are stolen in the United States annually. "The thieves are looking for somebody to fence them to pretty fast," she says. Slaughterhouses can be ready buyers, but they're required by law to check horses against a list of steeds that have been reported stolen. Branding a horse and implanting it with a small tracking microchip drastically improves the chances of recovering it. "It will be awfully hard to remove a microchip," Metcalf says. "The average thief is not going to do that."

Many slaughter foes fear that kill buyers are outbidding other potential purchasers, making horses worth more in sausages than under saddles. But Haggerty, though anti-slaughter, has attended numerous auctions in Texas and has never seen a pleasure horse buyer outbid. In fact, the costs of caring for an equine -- at least $3,000 a year -- quickly outstrip the purchase price. "If you can't afford to pay $1,000 for a good riding horse, minimum," Ewing says, "then you cannot afford to keep that horse."

Shorty's water trough was caked with scum.
Josh Harkinson
Shorty's water trough was caked with scum.
The horse's damaged teeth prevented it from properly digesting food, Finch believes.
Josh Harkinson
The horse's damaged teeth prevented it from properly digesting food, Finch believes.

Still, the path an unwanted horse takes to slaughter is often poorly understood by its original owners. Texas law requires notices at auctions to inform sellers that their horses could be bought for meat. No such sign was visible at the Magnolia auction; owner Don Edwards says no kill buyers work there. He says Santa Claus is a cattle trader. Yet many livestock traders resell horses to kill buyers if no other takers bite. The ambiguity of such wheeling and dealing suits many horse owners, who might suspect yet don't want to know that selling their kid's old pony is leaving blood on their hands.

Finch encourages horse owners who can't find homes for their animals to simply put them down. "It is very difficult to turn somebody away," he says, "but I always try to tell people that euthanasia is the best option. Don't send them to slaughter."

From the horse's point of view, however, being sold at the block is certainly better than being "humanely" killed. Even the most tattered Black Beauty dumped at auction has a small chance of finding a loving owner. The slaughterhouses in some ways help keep hope alive for these down-and-out steeds. Knowing the animals can always be sold at a profit for meat enables horse traders to buy them and first shop around elsewhere for higher bidders. As an alternative, euthanasia leaves no room for luck, except in the afterlife.

Suzy's owners wanted to keep the mare's newborn foal, but they didn't want to keep Suzy. By the time she gave birth in August, all four of her hooves had decayed down to her leg bones, a painful condition known as foundering. The owners didn't want to send the 20-year-old palomino to slaughter, yet didn't want to pay to put her down. They gave her to Finch. "This was, I think, somewhat of a typical situation," he says.

Finch's vet worked on Suzy's feet for two weeks, but her case was hopeless. So Finch rolled out the red carpet. Apple slices, carrots, peppermint candies: "Why not?" he says. "Spoil 'em rotten." Meanwhile, a backhoe dug a ditch. And in the morning, Finch led the limping horse to the edge of her grave.

As usual, he encouraged most Habitat for Horses volunteers to stay away. He didn't want their sobbing to upset the horse. Wielded by his vet, a 14-gauge needle pierced Suzy's neck and pumped a syringe of Ace through her blood system. The sedative induced sleep. Suzy remained standing, swaying slightly, as Finch rubbed her neck and everyone cried. Then all of them stepped back. The next injection -- 60 cubic centimeters of sodium pentobarbital -- would stop Suzy's heart. Sometimes horses lunge dangerously as their organs shudder to a halt. Suzy simply keeled over, gasped a few times and stopped breathing.

The 73 horses put down on Finch's ranch all died in peaceful surroundings among people who cared for them. Unlike horses that are slaughtered, they were "very, very comfortable," he says. "There is no terror, no fear."

But not all veterinarians are so sure. After horses are injected with euthanasia drugs, "there is a period of time when they are going through the process of dying," says Bill Moyer, head of the large animal department of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. "What we don't know, because we can't communicate with them, is exactly what is going through their heads at that time."

Moyer and other vets are most concerned about the environmental impact of euthanasia. Unlike horsemeat from slaughterhouses, which also can be made into dog food, horse carcasses laced with sodium pentobarbital are poisonous. Burying them in some states is illegal. The Humane Society of the United States's ambivalence toward the practice is somewhat unique. "Most other countries think we are spoiled beyond belief," Moyer says.

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