With horse slaughter plant about to open, lawmakers push for ban

May 18, 2004 The cement-floor holding rooms and massive freezers are nearly ready for the horses, two years after fire destroyed the only horse slaughtering plant in Illinois and one of only three in the nation to process the meat for human meals.

Cavel International Inc. expects its rebuilt plant in DeKalb to be moving as many as 100 horses a day to slaughter and then on to European butcher shops by the end of May.

But whether the plant's new floors ever echo the clatter of hooves could depend on lawmakers' response to the emotionally charged question of whether horses should ever go from paddock to plate.

"If in their culture they eat the meat, let them get it from France," said state Sen. John Cullerton of Chicago.

The Democrat plans to begin pushing a bill as early as Wednesday that would outlaw slaughtering horses in Illinois for human consumption. He proposed the ban after learning Belgium-based Cavel planned to restart its DeKalb operations, the only U.S. plant outside Texas to slaughter horses for human food.

Before the fire, Cavel slaughtered 15,000 horses a year there, sending the meat to Europe and the rest of the horse to rendering plants to be processed for other uses, such as fertilizers and glue.

But U.S. opposition to slaughtering horses for food is strong. Cavel routinely received "nutty letters" from animal rights activists, though the fire didn't appear to be deliberately set, said Cavel General Manager James Tucker. Thoroughbred horse racing officials have spoken against the practice, actress Bo Derek has lobbied for a ban, and anger has grown since the news that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand may have died in a Japanese slaughterhouse two years ago.

Two bills are new pending in Congress that would ban horse slaughtering for human consumption. California banned it in 1998, and activists say a similar in Illinois ban might convince other states where the practice may be legal and just not done to stay out of a business that kills about 50,000 horses a year in this country for human consumption overseas.

"Certainly it's an important part of the process and (the bill) would certainly help nationally and send a very strong message and maybe keep them from popping up somewhere else in the country," said Chris Heyde, executive director of the National Horse Protection Coalition.

Much of the debate centers on how people see horses: as a companion animal, like a dog, or as livestock, like cattle.

"Can you imagine if we had a plant to kill dogs for human consumption?" Cullerton asked.

Opponents dismiss what Rep. Robert W. Pritchard, R-Hinckley, calls the "cosmopolitan attitude" of those who would ban horse slaughtering. They say it's no accident that Cullerton and Rep. Robert Molaro, another Chicago Democrat who has sponsored a bill to ban horse slaughtering, represent an area where about the only horses carry police officers or pull tourist carriages.

"I come from a farm that has horses," Pritchard said. "We value those animals like any other livestock."

Both sides claim to be looking out for the best interests of the animals.

If horse slaughtering is banned, owners could be forced to pay hundreds of dollars to euthanize and destroy horses rather than be allowed to collect a few hundred dollars from Cavel, said state Sen. J. Bradley Burzynski, a Republican from Clare whose largely rural district includes the plant. "There will be even more cases of abuse," he said.

"Look at what people do with small animals that have forever been considered companion animals, dumping them by roadsides," he said.

Sheryl King, who heads the equine studies department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, agreed with the argument that a ban on horse slaughtering would lead to more abuse. "You're going to see more horses abandoned (and) they'll just starve to death," she said.

But Tucker said the horses Cavel buys at auction for $300 to $400 each and then slaughters are precisely the horses most at risk of being abused or neglected.

"These horses are behavior problems or they're marginalized for another reason," Tucker said. The plant uses almost every part of the animal, he said, including donating the eyes to a local school for dissection.

If a state ban goes through, he said Cavel would ask a federal court for an injunction to give it time to argue that the state does not have the authority to regulate international commerce.

Others say the argument that the horses would be worse off elsewhere is nonsense.

The number of U.S. horses slaughtered for human food has dropped and there hasn't been a surge in reports of abuse and neglect, said Gail Vacca, a horse owner who lives near Cavel and is the coordinator with the Illinois chapter of the National Horse Protection Coalition.

"Where did all those horses go?" Vacca asked. "People are riding them, caring for them. They're in some other venue than people's dinner table."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)