A proposal to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption barely passed its first test at the state Capitol on Thursday, squeaking out of a Senate committee after it was stripped into a livestock transportation bill.
The controversial debate ahead of the 4-3 vote by the Senate Agriculture Committee included tearful testimony from horse rescuers, including women and girls who said they saved horses from going to slaughter.
The original version of the bill would have made it a crime to slaughter horses and burros for human consumption, but it was dropped in favor of a proposal that would establish tighter regulations when transporting 20 or more horses for slaughter. The aim is to protect horses from inhumane treatment as they travel hundreds of miles to cross into Canada and Mexico, where equine slaughter is allowed.
A long line of ranchers, farmers and livestock associations opposed both versions of the legislation. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association testified against the measure.
The agricultural industry argued the bill was pointless because there are already federal laws governing the humane transport of livestock. Also, they said, slaughter is sometimes the most humane option for a horse, rather than neglect or an inhumane killing.
“We are scratching our heads as to the need behind this legislation,” said Dan Waldvogle, director of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, which represents 17,000 farmers and ranchers in Colorado.
“Our member-led policy supports the sale and consumption of horse meat that meets the same health and safety standards already in place for other livestock meats,” he said. “Numerous cultures embrace horse consumption, and we support their access to culturally relevant products and increasing their food sovereignty.”
The measure’s first hearing was delayed, likely because it lacked the support of the agriculture committee chair, Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat. Roberts said he worked with bill sponsors and talked to the agricultural industry to help draft the amendment. Roberts voted to pass the bill out of committee but said it still needed work.
“My concern is that we are passing a law that won’t be enforced and won’t make a difference because we are trying to police behavior that happens outside the confines of our state,” he said.
Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, one of the three Republicans who voted against it, suggested its sponsors kill it and write a better one next year. He said the amendment was confusing and wasn’t sure what it would accomplish.
But the prime sponsor, Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Boulder County Democrat, urged the committee to send the measure to the Senate.
“We can stop these kill buyers,” she said. “We really can put a stop to this cruelty and this suffering and you can take the first big galloping step today.”
Among the concerns from the ag industry was that the proposal will create unwarranted investigation and prosecution of livestock owners if their horses were to eventually end up in a slaughterhouse.
The United States, including Colorado, is sending an estimated 20,000 horses per year to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, according to recent reports from animal welfare groups and the American Journal of Veterinary Research. The meat is exported to other nations that consume horse meat.
Animal welfare advocates support the Colorado bill, but are lobbying for federal legislation that would end the practice nationwide. Animal Wellness Action, one of the country’s leading animal welfare groups, is pushing Congress to ban the sale of horses for slaughter as part of the Farm Bill, catchall agricultural legislation that expires every five years.
The last three horse slaughter facilities in the country, two in Texas and one in Illinois, shut down in 2007 as a result of state laws and a congressional amendment that removed funding for inspection of live horses at their plants.
A recent investigation from three animal welfare groups traced horses from auctions in Montana, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Tennessee to holding pens to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. The investigation alleged that many Colorado horses are sold for auction in Billings, Montana, then later transported to Canada. The animal welfare team also visited a holding facility in Eaton, in Weld County, which they allege is selling horses for slaughter.
U.S. horses going into the slaughter pipeline have dropped to 18,000 to 20,000 compared with 350,000 in the 1990s, according to the report.
In Colorado, where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has rounded up thousands of wild horses in the past few years, mustang advocates are concerned that wild horses are ending up in the slaughter pipeline even though that is prohibited under federal law.
In Wyoming, state lawmakers have introduced a resolution asking Congress to change federal law to allow the slaughter of wild horses.