Humane Society of United States pushes for further limits on horse exports
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The debate over killing horses for meat persists in the U.S. even two years after domestic slaughter was shut down, as foreign packers appear to have taken up the slack.
Statistics bear out the continued slaughter of U.S. horses -- for example, exports for slaughter to Mexico have risen dramatically since 2007 -- but the cause is subject to disagreement.
Groups like the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association see it as a matter of supply.
Tom Lenz, a veterinarian and past president of AAEP, believes overproduction has been the main force behind horse slaughter. From his perspective, humane slaughter is preferable to neglect and abuse.
"I don't think it's the best option," Lenz said. "I see it as the last option."
Opponents of horse slaughter, like the Humane Society of the United States, disagree with that view, alleging that horse slaughter is primarily spurred by overseas meat buyers.
"It's definitely demand-driven," said Scott Beckstead, the HSUS state director for Oregon, who is involved in horse issues.
Unwanted horses put up for auction can often find good homes, but the demand for horse meat has undermined the efforts of rescue organizations, Beckstead said.
"They're being outbid by the kill buyers," he said.
Controversies over horse slaughter effectively ended domestic processing in 2007, when bans on the practice in Texas and Illinois shuttered the nation's last three horse slaughter plants.
Exports of horses to Mexico intended for slaughter increased more than fourfold that year, from 11,000 horses in 2006 to 45,600 horses in 2007, according to the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. In 2008, that number grew nearly 25 percent to 56,700 horses, according to the AMS.
The AMS doesn't track exports to Canada, which also allows horse slaughter.
However, the statistics from the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service seem to reflect a similar phenomenon.
The number of horses, mules and related animals exported to Canada that were not intended for breeding shot up from 25,600 in 2006 to 46,000 in 2007, and then to 76,000 in 2008.
HSUS and other animal rights groups believe the federal government should stop exports of horses for slaughter.
"Slaughtering horses is never humane," Beckstead said.
Currently, there are bills before the House and Senate which would prohibit transport of horses across state or federal borders if they're intended for slaughter.
Last year, similar bills were approved by congressional committees but were never voted on, said Nancy Perry, vice president of government affairs for HSUS.
The 2008 presidential election commanded most of the attention last year, she said. "Everybody was very distracted and ready to get out of town."
This year, the national discussion over health care has once again crowded out other subjects in Washington, D.C., which is why the bills have not even been voted out of committee, Perry said.
"It's been hard for a lot of bills like this to get floor time," she said. "It's just not realistic in this town for issues to move along that quickly."
Tom Lenz attributed the bills' stagnation to skepticism about their effectiveness.
"I don't think folks are convinced that will solve the problem," he said.
The proper euthanasia and disposal of a horse can cost hundreds of dollars, Lenz said. Without the option of slaughter, many owners will simply turn their horses loose or neglect them, he said.
"That's not a solution," Lenz said.
As chairman of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, however, Lenz believes efforts to reduce overproduction are beginning to succeed.
Major equine groups have reported a decline in breeding, he said.
A survey commissioned by the Unwanted Horse Coalition indicates 95 percent of horse owners, veterinarians, trainers and other interested parties are aware of horse overproduction, Lenz said.
That's up from about 22 percent in 2006, he said.
"Three or four years ago, when you were talking about an unwanted horse, nobody knew what you were talking about," Lenz said.
Between raising awareness and curtailing breeding, the oversupply issue will begin to ease, he said. "We'll solve it, but we're not going to solve it next year."
In California and Oregon, groups have formed to help owners of non-adoptable horses.
In Gresham, Ore., Kim Mosiman and veterinarian Scott Hansen have formed Sound Equine Options. The group held its first clinic on Nov. 17 and euthanizes non-adoptable horses for free.
It's patterned after similar California groups, said Mosiman, the group's treasurer.
Mosiman, who also works at Hansen's equine practice, said the clinic is not a horse rescue effort, though they do try to find homes for healthy horses.