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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.