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Horse slaughter prohibition bill aims for heart

Eric Zorn
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Rhodes Furniture

May 25, 2004

Q--Is the prohibition against the slaughter of horses for human consumption that's now working its way through the Illinois legislature designed to save the lives of horses?

A--No. Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago), who wrote the current version of the legislation, says he expects that many of the unwanted horses that would have been killed and their meat sold overseas will instead end up at the rendering plant.

Q--What does rendering involve?

A--According to the National Renderers Association, it begins when the owner of a dead animal pays a renderer to take away the carcass. At the plant--skipping over the icky details--the remains are turned into fats, oils and protein meal that ends up in a variety of non-edible consumer products such as soap and candles, as well as supplements for poultry and hog feed.

Q--And pet food?

A--No longer. The Pet Food Institute in Washington, D.C., says, "It has been many years" since Rover and Whiskers chowed down on Old Dobbin.

Q--So it will remain OK to pay someone to turn a dead horse into chicken feed, but it will be illegal to sell an unwanted horse to someone who will turn it into food for Europeans to eat. Where's the logic in that?

A--This is not about logic. The legislation is largely fueled by our cultural fondness for horses. Americans object to eating horses for the same reason we object to eating dogs and cats, even though we kill millions of them every year due to overpopulation.

Q--Are people who love horses squarely behind this bill?

A--No. The Horsemen's Council of Illinois, the American Horse Council, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Quarter Horse Association are among the organizations that claim an interest in animal welfare yet oppose this and a similar bill in the U.S. Congress.

Q--Don't they agree that it's revolting for humans to eat horse meat?

A--Many of them do. But they argue that slaughter is a sensible, economically productive and humane way of disposing of horses no one wants.

Q--Don't slaughterhouses kill horses in a barbaric fashion?

A--The bolt-to-the-brain method, also used with cattle, has been deemed "acceptable and humane" by the American Association of Equine (Veterinary) Practitioners, which opposes the ban.

The National Horse Protection Coalition in Washington, which supports the ban, argues this point. Its Web site maintains that "low-skilled slaughterhouse employees" often botch the job and cause the horses extreme suffering, and that horses are subject to great stresses prior to slaughter.

Q--Who says "no one wants" these horses?

A--The marketplace. According to an excellent two-part series in the Orlando Sentinel this week, horses bound for the two operating U.S. horse slaughterhouses (the one in DeKalb that's prompting the current fuss, Cavel International, has yet to re-open after a fire) sell for less than $500, which is a fraction of the annual cost of keeping a horse.

The Horse Protection Coalition argues that if we put a stop to this practice, "many of the horses previously slaughtered would instead be kept by their owners or placed at sanctuaries."

Q--How many horses are we talking about here?

A--About 80,000 horses were slaughtered in the U.S. and Canada for human consumption in 2003--roughly 1 percent of the horse population.

Q--How many jobs will be lost in Illinois if the bill in Springfield passes?

A--Cavel plans to employ 40 people if and when it reopens. Cullerton, who moved the bill out of the Senate last week and expressed confidence it will reverse an earlier 5-vote defeat in the House later this week, says these won't be new jobs because Cavel will cause the local rendering industry to lay off employees.

But dead horses make up a very small percentage of any rendering facility's input, according to the National Renderers Association, and Cavel will bring business in from dozens of states.

Q--Where can I read more from both sides to help me make up my mind?

A--At chicagotribune.com/notebook.

Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune