It’s not what’s for dinner anymore

What do oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, actress Bo Derek, singer Willie Nelson and 263 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have in common?

They joined forces in support of a bill that effectively would eliminate the American horse-slaughter industry, including a little-known segment of Northern Colorado’s agricultural economy.

The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, H.R. 503, banning the slaughter of horses for human consumption passed Sept. 7 with a bipartisan vote of 263 to 146. The measure now awaits Senate action, not likely until the 2007 Congressional session.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an estimated 92,000 horses are slaughtered each year, or 1 percent of the total 9.2 million population. Most recent USDA figures for Colorado, from 2000, count the horse population at 145,000. Estimating at the national rate, 1, 450 horses are sold annually for meat in the state.

A report released in June by the Animal Welfare Council revealed the ban would devalue the total American horse industry by $29 million, or $304 per horse.

Horse slaughter brings in an estimated $65 million annually to the three foreign-owned slaughterhouses in Texas and Illinois that presently ship horsemeat to Europe and Asia. (Some also goes to U.S. zoos.)

Of this $65 million, 25 percent goes to payroll and profits, 36 percent pays for freight and cold storage, 7 percent to taxes and fees, 5 percent to utilities and 27 percent to fly the horsemeat overseas.

Total exports from all three plants is valued at $26 million.

Bill opponents include the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the biggest horse doctors’ group.

Those against the ban argued the law would damage the entire equine industry, infringe on the personal property rights of horse owners and fail to address the present oversupply of horses in the U.S.

Proponents of the bill include the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Humane Society of the United States. Supporters argued that American horses are companion animals rather than livestock, and the method used in auctions, feedlots, transportation and slaughter are cruel and inhumane to the animals.

Horses killed for human consumption primarily include unwanted horses, as well as the lame, blind or aged. The majority are sold at auction.

Two companies in Northern Colorado conduct horse auctions: Centennial Livestock Auctions in Fort Collins and Colorado Horse Co. in Timnath. Only Centennial sells to “killer buyers;” the company did not return repeated phone calls for this story.

Alternatives for unwanted horses

The overpopulation of unwanted horses is at the root of the issue, according to Jim Heird, director of the Colorado State University Equine Sciences Program.

“There are no regulations as to who can raise horses,” he explained. “People believe they want a horse, they buy one and can’t ride it or use it and what do they do with it? It’s not a trained animal so they get what they can get for it.”  

If the ban is enacted, rescue facilities that presently accommodate about 6,000 horses nationwide would be flooded with unwanted horses. It would cost more than $50 million a year for the government to take care of them, according to the Congressional Budget Office, but the bill contains no mechanism to provide for the annual $2,340 per horse cost.

Floss Blackburn, executive director of the Denkai Animal Sanctuary outside Carr, believes rescue facilities could depend on private donations from the 70 percent of Americans who oppose horse slaughter.

“A lot of horse rescues will be inundated and we’ll see neglect cases go up, but it’s eventually going to reach a level where the numbers will be manageable again,” Blackburn said.

Sandy Dahl, owner of Eaton Prairie Ranch boarding stables, opposes the ban. She is concerned eliminating the kill industry would place a financial burden on horse owners who would have to pay upwards of $300 to put a horse down.

The alternatives for disposal of the carcass are limited. Depending on fuel costs, incineration costs can range from $600 to $2,000, and rendering the remains for glue is increasingly unavailable because of environmental concerns about the chemicals used in the process and a diminished market for the final product.

Alternately, owners can sell a horse to killer buyers at the average rate of 30 to 45 cents per pound, netting a $300 to $500 profit.

Education needed

Kris Barber, owner of Wild West Horse Co. LLC, a multipurpose horse facility in Eaton, emphatically supports the ban. She said education might reduce some emotional aspects of the issue.

“What we need to do is get it demystified,” Barber said. “Perhaps both camps could make better decisions, decide whether (the industry) is worth saving or not. Right now, people are just basing their decision on whether it’s cruel to the animals. They don’t look at the whole picture.”

Dahl also supports public education.

“I’ve met a lot of horses who should be slaughtered,´ said Dahl. “There has to be a way to humanely dispose of them. Let everybody against slaughter put a horse in their backyard and they’ll see. Let them come out, buy a horse from a shelter and see how expensive it is and how hard it is.”

Both camps agree the USDA needs to enforce inspection regulations, particularly in respect to humane transportation. Last year Congress, in an effort to curb horse slaughter, discontinued funding for salaries and inspectors for slaughterhouses. In response, the administration began charging facilities for inspections, and the practiced continued.

The end of horse slaughter operations in the U.S. would move the industry to Mexico or Canada, according to an Animal Welfare Council research report released in June. H.R. 503 also prohibits export of live horses for the purposes of slaughter.

“Humane processing conditions can be imposed by the U.S. government only in the United States,” according to the report. “Therefore, the welfare of horses would be better served if processing occurred in the U.S. versus most other countries.”