February 15, 2004  The American Veterinary Medical Association

Horse slaughter bill making waves

Legislation that would prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption is making waves and has generated numerous calls to the AVMA Governmental Relations Division Office in Washington, D.C., as well as AVMA headquarters. New York Rep. John Sweeney introduced the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, H.R. 857, on Feb. 13, 2003. The legislation has been in the House Subcommittee on Trade since March 3, 2003.

Both the AVMA and American Association of Equine Practitioners have voiced their opposition to the bill (see JAVMA, Aug. 15, 2003, page 419, and Jan. 15, 2004, page 185). "The proposed legislation, as written, could actually result in less humane treatment of these horses," said Dr. Jack O. Walther, AVMA president.

An analysis by the AVMA reveals that the legislation fails to address four areas, and the Association will not consider lending support to the bill until these areas are addressed.

First, the bill does not adequately address the welfare of horses for which humane slaughter will be removed as an option, nor does it establish standards that horse rescue facilities must meet to ensure the humane care of those horses.

Second, the bill does not adequately address funding for humane care. The number of unwanted horses sent for humane slaughter may overwhelm the ability of the current network of horse protection facilities to care for them. Although H.R. 857 proposes that grants could be provided from the Department of Agriculture to assist in caring for those horses, the reality is that no funds are available in the USDA budget to allocate to this need. The bill estimates that approximately 55,000 horses were slaughtered in U.S. facilities last year. According to the AAEP, subsistence care for those extra horses would cost an estimated $100 million per year during the first year of the bill's enactment. Adding more horses every year to the pool of those needing care means that these costs will only increase.

Third, the bill's placement of limits on euthanasia methods is troubling. According to the bill, in emergency or nonemergency cases, euthanasia of these horses must conform to methods rated acceptable in the 2000 Report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia. Unfortunately, H.R. 857 permits gunshot only in cases of emergency, even though the euthanasia panel rates it conditionally acceptable, and prohibits the use of a penetrating captive bolt, which is rated acceptable. These restrictions do not conform to the expert advice of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia, and remove the opportunity for professional judgment, which is vital to ensuring a humane death for these horses.

Finally, the AVMA is concerned about environmental problems that might arise from carcass disposal. Primary options to dispose of horse carcasses, other than processing at slaughter facilities, include burial, rendering, cremation, placement in a landfill, and composting. Disposal regulations and methods vary from state to state and county to county, and all options are not available in all areas. The need to dispose of a large number of additional horse carcasses per year has the potential to create environmental problems, including soil contamination from pharmaceuticals that might be used for euthanasia.

"Humane slaughter may not be the most desirable option for addressing the problem of unwanted horses," Dr. Walther said. "However, it may be preferable to allowing these horses to face a life of inadequate care or possible abandonment."