Horse Flesh

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

Humane Society spokeswoman Nancy Perry says horse owners who are concerned about the environmental impact or cost of chemical euthanasia should, instead of sending a horse to a slaughterhouse, shoot it in the head. "A very fast, very well placed gunshot is the only other acceptable option for them," she says.

But a blast to the brain with a .45 is essentially the same as the captive-bolt technology used by the slaughterhouses. Both kill a horse instantly. The American Veterinary Medical Association's 2002 panel on euthanasia approved the captive-bolt method as humane, "if done properly," says panel chair Bonnie Beaver. And, she adds, the chances of a trained slaughterhouse worker screwing up under the watch of a government inspector and the threat of a fine are probably minuscule compared to the average Bubba misfiring his Magnum in a stable.

Still, the Humane Society has given a pass to amateur marksmen while calling slaughterhouse kill skills "careless and improper." The closest thing the group produces to corroborating evidence is a widely circulated 1993 video taken inside a slaughterhouse that shows the thrashing body of a bolted horse. It is almost certainly undergoing a painless nerve reaction, Beaver says, similar to the flapping of a decapitated chicken.

Rescue workers worry that some horses sold at the Great Western Trading Company auction in Magnolia end up at slaughterhouses.
Josh Harkinson
Rescue workers worry that some horses sold at the Great Western Trading Company auction in Magnolia end up at slaughterhouses.
A horse pelt rolls out of Dallas Crown into a Dumpster near houses where children play.
Josh Harkinson
A horse pelt rolls out of Dallas Crown into a Dumpster near houses where children play.

In the end, the best argument against the slaughterhouses is probably their refusal to open their doors to public scrutiny. Hardly any unbiased observers have seen them operate. The Humane Society discounts veterinarians as beholden to livestock and rancher interests. Veterinarians say the Humane Society is making a big deal out of nothing to raise donations from a gullible public. Ewing of Illinois, one of few horse rescue people to see the inside of a plant, is despised by much of the rescue community as a Benedict Arnold. "I saw absolutely nothing inhumane about the handling or the killing," she says.

In fact, Ewing's biggest concern about horse slaughter isn't the slaughter itself, but how the horses get to the slaughterhouses. USDA rules permit horses to be shipped for 28 hours straight without nourishment. Yet for healthy, privately owned horses -- usually towed in much more comfortable trailers -- vets recommend off-loading for food and water every four hours. Making that kind of requirement for meat horses would probably be so costly that it would end long-distance hauling.

Finch hopes such a rule would also end horse slaughter altogether, but Ewing says she has a better idea. Instead of shutting down horse slaughterhouses, we should build more of them. Cut down the travel time for horses by building a state-of-the-art, humane slaughterhouse in every large state. The meat sales would pay them off. The service would save horse owners money and probably reduce abuse cases. Whether it's worms in the ground or Frenchmen, it doesn't concern Ewing who eats the horses. "What happens to their body is okay," she says. "It's the soul I worry about. It's the horse that's alive that can feel and think. It's how they are treated then that is important."

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