Cover art by Kevin Atterberry
In 1986, with Bill Shoemaker as his jockey, the steed Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby in a race that's still considered one of the greatest ever. For Shoemaker, who died on Oct. 12, it was his fourth and final Derby victory. For Ferdinand, it was one of 29 races that earned his owners more than $3.7 million, making him at the time the fifth most profitable racehorse in history.
When Ferdinand entered retirement in 1989 it was a sure thing he'd make it as a productive stud; his owners charged $30,000 for every colt he fathered. But his progenies were disappointments. In 1994, Japanese breeders bought him and shipped him overseas to try their luck. He worked as a stud there for eight more years until headlines across this country last year confirmed his fate.
"They ate him," says Dr. Lydia Gray, president of Chicago suburban-based Hooved Animal Humane Society.
Gray is one of many in humane-society circles backing a bill making its way through the Illinois Senate that would ban horse slaughtering for human consumption. What happened to Ferdinand (most reports indicate that he ended up as dog, not human, food) created an uproar among animal-rights groups and horse lovers, Gray says. It sparked renewed interest in U.S.-based slaughterhouses that ship horsemeat to Europe and Japan where it's considered a delicacy. While it's not illegal to consume horsemeat in the U.S., there's simply no market for it.
The Senate bill indirectly targets Cavel International, a Belgian-owned firm that's about to open a horse slaughterhouse in DeKalb, in northern Illinois. Cavel operated a slaughterhouse there between 1987 and 2002, when a fire burned down the plant. Although the cause of the DeKalb fire remains undetermined, another Cavel plant in Oregon was torched a few years before and radical animal rights activists took credit. The company is almost finished rebuilding the Illinois plant and plans to start slaughtering 100 horses a day within the next few months. It would be one of only three U.S. slaughterhouses producing horsemeat for human consumption.
The French love horsemeat. So do the Belgians and Japanese. The Italians eat more horsemeat than anyone. Rich in protein, lean and somewhat sweet, horsemeat has a taste that's been described as a cross between beef and venison. Horsemeat consumption increased in some parts of Europe after the Mad Cow disease outbreak but has recently leveled off. Abroad, a pound can sell for as much as $15. Europeans import nearly as much horsemeat from the U.S. as Americans consume in lamb and mutton, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Up until the late 1990s, the U.S. had about a dozen slaughterhouses that handled horses. But recent federal laws placed new restrictions on how horses headed for slaughter are transported. And several states banned horse slaughtering for human consumption altogether. As a result, the number of U.S. horses slaughtered for horsemeat has decreased, from about 257,000 in 1992 to about 42,000 in 2002, according to the USDA. Currently, only two horse slaughtering facilities are operating, both of them in Texas. Texas has an anti-horse-slaughtering law that was passed more than 50 years ago but went overlooked until recently when animal humane groups brought it to the attention of lawmakers there. The two facilities are still running, but Texas government is reviewing the law. Canada and Mexico have several of their own horsemeat factories and tens of thousands of horses from the U.S. are exported to those countries every year for slaughter.
In Illinois, the Illinois Horse Meat Act currently allows for the slaughtering of horses for human consumption. As long as a plant is federally supervised and the labels on the packages are clearly marked, Illinoisans can sell and buy as much horsemeat as they want.
"We haven't found anything in the books that makes this illegal," says state Rep. Bob Molaro, a Democrat from Chicago and the bill's chief sponsor. Molaro's legislation forbids the "importing, exporting, possessing, selling, giving away, holding, or accepting" of horsemeat or horses intended for human consumption. This week he introduced a version of his bill as an amendment to a state Senate agricultural shell bill. The move is intended to quicken the bill's flow through the legislature during this month's veto session. Molaro, who has sponsored anti-animal-abuse laws in the past, says if the bill is passed, Cavel might have to shut down before it kills a single horse.
"If we get it to committee, we'll get people from all over the country who will come to testify," Molaro says. "I've got videotapes showing the inhumane way the horses are slaughtered. I don't know if I'll be able to show them, but I've got lots of support."
Cavel representatives say they're not concerned about the bill's prospects. "I don't think it's going to go anywhere," says James Tucker, Cavel's plant manager in DeKalb. "It's the product of a few people speaking very loudly. Some people think it's awful that we look at horses as livestock. But if food were more scarce in this country, selling horsemeat would be less of an issue. The vast majority of people are either ambivalent or are in favor of it."
If the bill became law, Tucker says it will be a waste. "That's disposing of 500 pounds of meat per horse," he says.
Opponents of horse slaughtering for human consumption offer two basic arguments. First, they say eating a horse is like eating a dog or any other family pet. The horse is also an American symbol, representing hard work, courage, and independence -- eating one amounts to sacrilege, they say.
"It's a perversion of the human-animal bond," says Ledy VanKavage, director of state government affairs and public policy in the Midwest for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). "Eating a horse is morally perverse. Most people are horrified to learn that Illinois has a horse slaughterhouse."
Horse slaughtering opponents also say that the process for slaughtering a horse is inhumane, from the way the horse is transported in cramped trailers over long distances to the method used to kill them. Captive bolt pistols administer high-pressured blows to the horse's skull, sometimes repeatedly, until the horse is brain dead. Then the horse is hung upside down and its throat slit.
These days VanKavage is spending her time at the State Capitol, working to gain sponsors for Molaro's bill. On the surface, she appears to face an uphill battle. Molaro had to find an advanced Senate shell bill for his legislation because, as a new bill, it'd never get out of a House committee in time for a vote during the very short veto session. VanKavage also was concerned that the House version would end up in the agricultural committee, where it would find a hard time escaping. The Illinois Department of Agriculture is reviewing the proposed bill and hasn't taken a position yet, says spokesman Jeff Squibb.
But VanKavage says there are forces on her side. "Illinois is a good state for animal laws," she says. "It's got some of the best in the country." A former attorney for the Social Security Administration, she helped pass a couple of them and knows how government works. She also helped mobilize deep-pocket horse owners in the outer Chicago-collar counties, where large stables and horse breeders make Illinois the state with the third-highest horse population in the nation.
An owner has few options for disposing of a dying or deceased horse. Financially, the best option is selling the animal to transporters that take the horses to slaughterhouses like Cavel. Transporters usually pay $200 to $300 per horse.
Another option is the rendering plant, where already-dead horses are sent and processed into any number of products. Glue, fertilizer, and animal food are among the most common commodities that include horse parts.
The first option rubs those like VanKavage the wrong way.
"People shouldn't profit by selling their pets to slaughter," says VanKavage. "Companion animals are not livestock. People don't raise horses to eat them." The horsemeat for human consumption industry is supported by "companion-animal owners who want to make quick dough," she says. Only the most staunch animal-rights groups oppose such facilities.
Before a horse is sent to a rendering plant, it is usually euthanized, most often with an injection. Then, the horse owner must pay the rendering company to come and pick up the carcass. By the time the horse is gone, the owner has shelled out about $200.
VanKavage and the Hooved Animal Society's Gray aren't opposed to rendering plants. The horse has already been humanely killed, they say. Plus, the horse owners have paid out of their own pocket to dispose the animal.
"You have to make the decision as a horse owner: If you no longer want the horse, do you want to give the horse his last gift? Or do you want to reap financial gain?"
VanKavage and Gray disagree whether it's universally wrong to sell and eat horsemeat. VanKavage says its absolutely wrong. Gray is a little more lenient. But no matter what the country, both say it's out of the question in America.
"If residents from another country eat horses, let them eat their own," Gray says. "If your culture doesn't eat horses yet exports them for others to eat, it, well . . . it puts a bad taste in your mouth."
Most horse owners seem to be ambivalent about the matter. Take Kenneth Walker, a retired large-animal veterinarian and owner of Walker Standardbreds in Sherman. He says he sympathizes with people who consider a horse more as a pet than a source of food.
"From that standpoint, you can see where they're coming from -- who wants to see their pet end up as human food?"
Walker owns about 400 acres where he keeps 300 to 500 horses year-round. Most of the horses are his, he says. "Too many of them."
But Walker also says there is a place for slaughterhouses, even if they come and go, he says, citing the fluctuations in the industry over the past several years.
"When you look at the overall picture -- what happens if they're not slaughtered for food and are left to starve to death -- there are worse ways to die," he says. "I'd rather see them go to slaughter for human consumption than to see them suffer otherwise.
"The way I look at it, if they're slaughtered humanely and inspected by the federal government, it's not a bad way for a horse to go. A capture gun is as humane as any there is. A horse doesn't feel a thing with a rifle shot to the right part of the head." With an injection, he says, the horse always at least feels the prick of the needle. "They don't even feel the bullet."
But Walker doesn't send his horses to the slaughterhouse. When he sells them, as he did a few weeks ago when he auctioned off 40, he's marketing to breeders -- not slaughterhouse transporters.
"My horses are breeding stock," he says. In other words, his horses are worth more than meat.
Then what about the rendering plants? Walker stays away from them too, he confesses. It seems when it comes to his own horses, he's as humane as it gets.
"I breed them for as long as I can," he says. "When they're over, we retire them and keep them in a retirement group on the farm. When they're getting too old, I euthanize them. Then I bury them on the property."