Horse slaughter: Nightmare, practical answer or both?

Like it or not, horse slaughter in the United States is back. While it was in hiatus for several years, we learned much about the law of unintended consequences and the harsh realities of horse overpopulation.

Transportation and “processing” of horses is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Congress defunded the USDA inspection of horse slaughter plants in 2006, which essentially shut down domestic slaughter plants without an outright ban. USDA funding was reinstated in 2011, and, as of this month, a plant in New Mexico is ready for operation and several others are lined up to start work.

It is illegal to use horse meat for pet food in the United States and culturally taboo to eat it. Ninety percent of the horse meat coming from slaughter plants has traditionally been exported and the other 10 percent used to feed carnivores in zoos and sanctuaries.

Horse slaughter is pretty disgusting. We love our horses, and a little time on Google reveals a plethora of hair-raising images and descriptions of horrors in the slaughter process. During travel to slaughter plants, terrible injuries and illness are common while food, water and medical treatment are scarce. The opportunity for profit is not overlooked, including through horse theft for sale to “kill buyers.” On arrival at slaughter plants, it turns out horses are particularly difficult to kill quickly, efficiently and reliably, resulting in further nightmarish scenes that can include butchering them alive.

Despite the grisly realities some horses have faced, the hiatus on domestic horse slaughter produced equally grisly, unintended consequences. When U.S. plants closed, slaughter continued unabated, it was simply outsourced to Mexico and Canada. Data is hard to come by, but it suggests that equal numbers of horses were slaughtered during these years, and they endured worse suffering during longer trips to often-unregulated foreign plants.

Another dismal consequence is the fate of horses “saved” from slaughter. For the most part, they were on that path because no one wanted or was able to keep them. How about going to a horse rescue? Thousands of horse rescues valiantly try to intervene to reduce suffering, but they are uniformly over-subscribed and under-resourced. The best they can often do is provide a minimal, kennel-like experience for a small portion of our “surplus” horses. Excellent intentions aside, life in most horse rescues is the equivalent of a cat living out its life in a shelter’s cage. Struggling currently, the rescues are not equipped or prepared to absorb additional hundreds of thousands of horses. Other alternatives? Unwanted horses are sometimes dumped on public lands to starve or neglected to death at home.

We have a horse-overpopulation problem that mirrors our pet-overpopulation problem. In an ideal world, all horse owners would have the resources to care for their horses for life; breeders would produce only the number of horses that could be properly homed; sport and entertainment would not leave young horses crippled for the rest of their long lives; problem horses would receive expert help; and there would be no incentive to feed others’ taste for horse meat. But this is not our world.

So, to slaughter or not to slaughter? Most animal advocates take ardent positions against horse slaughter and fight it in the courts and the legislatures, but they seem to be short on alternatives. Surprisingly, People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals is not one of these. PETA has stood virtually alone in the animal-advocacy community objecting to a federal ban on U.S. slaughter because “the amount of suffering that (the temporary hiatus) created exceeded the amount of suffering it was designed to stop,” said Ingrid Newkirk, founder of PETA. That kind of flexible and practical thinking in one of the most radical animal-advocacy groups deserves a hat-tip.

There are clearly abuses within the horse-slaughter process. But until there are tenable alternatives to our horse-overpopulation problems, simply prohibiting slaughter in the U.S. will not reduce overall suffering, and appears to make it worse.

Perhaps animal advocates should focus on strengthening regulatory power and enforcement over horse transport and slaughter.

At the same time, vigorous energy could aim to stem the rampant breeding of horses, to provide support to horse owners with economic troubles and to improve conditions for horses in sports. United efforts could make the slaughter scenario a lot less horrific while we bring about the day when every horse has a place to live out its life with a degree of quality.

Kate Burke is an attorney with Colorado Animal Law, LLC, in Durango, focusing on animal-related legal issues. She can be contacted at 385-7409 or

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